The Dream of a Perfect Family: One Woman Tries to Remake Her Troubled History

BlogHer Original Post

It's the most wonderful time of the year: that time when we get together with our loved ones… and sometimes grit our teeth and bear it. We all hope for happy family memories, but sometimes that's just not what life has in store for us.

This is true for longtime journalist and author Katie Hafner, whose fascinating new book Mother, Daughter, Me chronicles the good, the bad and the ugly of what happened when she invited her mother to come live with her. Trouble was, Katie and her mother had some seriously complicated history -- maybe better described as a lack of history. Due to her alcoholism and her inability to be a stable parent, Katie’s mother had been forced to give up her and her older sister when they were 10 and 12. Katie and her mother had found their way back to each other when Katie was an adult, settling into an amicable friendship. But essentially, once her mother moved in, the two women would find themselves having to face their undiscussed past—with Katie's teenage daughter in the mix. The book tells the story of what happened between mother, daughter and Katie in that year. It's a gripping read, as well as a great comfort for any of us who have had the less-than-perfect family… i.e., everyone.

BlogHer: First off, I want to congratulate you for being brave enough to write this book, because I think even the fact that you LIVED all this and are still standing is pretty remarkable. So to recap quickly, you decided to ask your mother to live with you and your teenaged daughter, despite the ways she had failed you when you were a child, because you thought of it as all behind you. And, it also needs to be noted, this was also just a few years after your husband and daughter's father had died, and after a short and doomed rebound marriage had ended. I have to admit, all I could think was, why? why? why? Why did you think this would work? 

Katie: Yes, you've got it all pretty much right on the mark. 

Your "why" question is a central one, isn't it? And it goes straight to the heart of the magical thinking that carried me well into middle age. 

Well, first of all, I was determined to do what I could to help my mother. But also -- and I think this is true of a lot of children of alcoholic parents -- I yearned for the parent I never had, and held fast to a fairy tale view of the nuclear family I thought we could have. For the record, my mother was just as smitten with the idea. We were so certain that everything would work out just fine that we referred to our adventure as “our year in Provence.” Instead, I found myself not just sandwiched squarely between my obligation to my aging parent and my responsibility for my teenager, but I found that I had a great deal of resentment and bitterness about my childhood that I had never let in, much less processed.

And oh, yes, it's funny you say that about my still standing because it never occurred to me to do anything but survive. In that way, I am very different from my sister, who really suffered at the hands of the adults in her life.

Mother Daughter Me

BlogHer: It is really quite striking how matter-of-fact you are about the details of your childhood. I loved reading the sections where you describe the unusual freedom you and your sister had, because of your somewhat parentless youth: your dinners of candy, the hours tooling around on your bikes entertaining yourselves. But the sections where you write about having to get her in bed because she was so drunk are heartbreaking. And yet, for you this was normal. How did you ever get to level ground with your mother as an adult before she moved in? It was surprising to me that much of what you and she went through in the book was seriously new ground for you both.

Katie: I think the matter-of-factness comes from being a journalist. I thought it was very important just to tell the story, not with clinical detachment necessarily, but definitely without melodrama. 

You are so right that what we went through when she came to live with Zoë and me was new ground for both of us. That's because although my mother and I stayed in close touch after [my sister] Sarah and I were taken away, we had never -- not once -- discussed the details of what happened. In fact, I think we had never even referred to it. Isn't that odd? It was an elephant in the room that we didn't even really know was there -- that's how much denial we were in. My fairytale view of our relationship was impressive, to say the least. So that's why the scenes in the book that take place in the Berkeley therapist's office are so wrenching -- so much was coming out for the first time. I cried like a small child would cry -- heaving, heavy sobs. I very seldom cry like that. 


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