Q&A with Pat Taub: Coming to terms with a difficult mom

Q&A with Pat Taub: Coming to terms with a difficult mom

When the journalist and family therapist Pat Taub lost her mother, she dealt with her struggle by writing a book about their relationship, “The Mother of My Invention.”

“After she died, people would come up to me and say what they often say when somebody’s died, ‘I’m sorry about your mother, she was lovely.’ But this voice inside me would go off and it would say, ‘You have no idea how difficult she was.’”

With a career in family therapy, Taub said she “knew it wasn’t healthy to harbor this kind of anger and resentment,” so she decided to write an essay about it, as “writing often opens new doors and gives us added insight.”

Instead of an essay, her book poured out, and helped her come to terms with her mother’s life.

“The book was very cathartic for me, it was really life-changing on a lot of levels. There’s one theory that says the mother-daughter relationship is the most intense family relationship, and I think it is. Sons are taught to separate while daughters and mothers often stay connected, so making peace with my mother just reverberated everywhere. There was this sort of general sense of well being that I didn’t anticipate.”

Taub, who lives in Portland, uses what she’s learned in workshops called “Discovering Our Mothers Stories,” in which she urges women to view their mothers in the contexts of the times they grew up in and through their experiences.

“One exercise is when I ask women to write in their mother’s voice as if they were her, and that’s very powerful. It’s interesting how quickly they get into character. It really shifts things quite a lot for them.”

Taub’s success in dealing with such difficult subject matter may be attributed to her education in family therapy, her experience from writing an advice column for eight years for the Syracuse, N.Y., Herald Journal; and her award-winning radio show, “Women’s Voices,” for the Syracuse NPR affiliate. She recently took some time to answer questions about her book, her mother and ways to improve mother-daughter relationships.

Q How did the loss of your mother affect the way you saw her and prompt you to write “The Mother of My Invention”?

A There’s something really primal when you lose your mother. I think there’s just a hole in your heart, regardless of the relationship, because usually she will share in whatever you want to tell her. And my mother, as self-centered as she was, cared a lot about what happened. She’s still the first person I would call today if I had some really great news. You lose an emotional support that’s central. I felt like I needed to be at peace with her and I wasn’t, so that’s what prompted me to write about her. I have two brothers, and I watched [them] struggle with my mother, too. To the outside world, she was this lovely person, but there’s a private self and a public self, and her private self was very controlling and demanding. And they just, to this day, don’t want to talk about it. And when I saw the sort of rigidity with which they were dealing with her, that was another motivating factor for me. I thought, “I don’t want to be like that.”

Q How did the era you grew up in affect the way you viewed your mother?

A I think that’s an important question because I think for my generation – women in their 50s and 60s who came of age during the second wave of feminism – there’s more dissonance between us and our mothers. [My parents] always sensed that there was a lot of inequality and I think they weren’t completely happy. So I educated my mother a lot. When I was really talking to her about abortion rights and marching for those (which of course we’re still doing), I remember she called me one night and said, “I went to a cocktail party and told everyone that women have the right to have an abortion!” She was reporting to me as if she was the child, but it was very sweet. I think my mother resented a lot of things that I could do that she couldn’t. She was very jealous of the freedoms that I had that she didn’t, and I think that’s probably true for other women of her generation. They had a really ambivalent response to these daughters who could make it in the world. They were proud of them, but it was like, “Ugh.” I think a lot of feminists who have moved beyond their mothers – that are participating in the world and working toward feminist values – tend to put our mothers down, but our mothers all had strengths and gifts that they gave us, and I think it’s really important to honor that. I’m convinced my mother would have been born a feminist if she had been born 30 or 40 years later, because she was so excited about the women’s movement and did what she could within her little sort of country-club sphere, like speaking out at cocktail parties. That was really a big deal. And she overcame a lot.

Q What did you discover through writing the book about the nature of mother-daughter relationships?

A Well, my mother was very private. She didn’t give me a lot of praise. But at the end of her life, when my brothers and I were clearing out her apartment, one brother said to me he found a file cabinet she had and he said, “What are we going to do with all these papers?” I said, “Send them to me.” So a few months later I got this box and on top were birthday cards and Christmas cards she had saved but, as I rifled through it, on the bottom was this pristine manila envelope. She called me “Pati,” and it said “Pati’s Newspaper Articles.” I sent her stories I thought she would be interested in, and I had no idea that they meant that much to her. She didn’t say a lot. So I think all mothers are really proud of their daughters and love them, they just can’t always say it. And I realize that yeah, it was a really close, meaningful relationship.

Q Is there any advice you would give to mothers to improve relationships with their daughters, or advice you’d give to daughters to improve relationships with their mothers?

A I think the same advice holds for both relationships: You have to respect the individuality of the other person, honor their differences. Just because you feel so strongly about behaving in a certain way or holding certain values, it’s OK if your mother or daughter doesn’t think like that. Enduring relationships are those where we respect differences. If we’re quick to judge the other or dismiss them, then the whole relationship is threatened, and that’s a challenge in any relationship. I think it’s really important that people listen to one another. If a mother and daughter disagree, try to find out why [the other] thinks that way. Say, “I’m a little confused, can you help me understand where you’re coming from?” Rather than be so quick to say, “Oh, that’s a really bigoted, biased response,” or whatever. Try to understand what fuels them. Just listening and being respectful are really important, and compassion is sort of complicit in that, too.

Q How did writing about your mother affect your relationship with your sons?

A Coming to peace with my mother gave me sort of a generally wider acceptance in people. It’s interesting I have sons, but they call me a lot, and I think it’s because they grew up with me without their father in the house. I think they feel that they can be vulnerable with me in a way they can’t with the women in their lives, so they open up to me and I just listen, [unless] they ask me for advice. And that’s another thing, don’t give unsolicited advice unless you can help it – that’s a big mistake in any relationship.

[Writing about my mother has] made me appreciate the tenuous quality of relationships, particularly as I get older now, and not get caught up in maybe petty differences but to just honor what’s strong. I almost think women are conditioned to have a struggle with their mother. I remember when my granddaughter was born and my daughter-in-law said, “Oh, boy, now I’m in for it.” She was joking, but I think she was really worried. I don’t think it’s there with sons, probably because they’re valued more highly in this culture still.

Pat Taub

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