Here is a recap of Dr. Karyl McBride's interview with author, Katie Hafner on Facebook, Monday, October 28th.
Dr. Karyl McBride: What made you decide to write this beautiful memoir? Was it a hard decision? I assume your mother is still alive?
Katie Hafner: First, thanks for describing it as “beautiful.” That’s a very generous adjective! Here’s how the book came to be: In the summer of 2009, in the wake of a crisis in her life, my mother moved from San Diego to San Francisco to live with my 16-year-old daughter and me. My mother was 77. I was determined to do what I could to help my mother. I also held fast to a fairytale view of our relationship that made us certain everything would work out fine. We referred to our adventure as “our year in Provence.” What I found instead was that I was sandwiched squarely between my obligation to my aging parent and my responsibility for my teenager. I entered into the experiment in multigenerational living with my mother with no intention of writing a book. But as it turned out, I wasn’t over my feelings about my childhood, which had been, to put it mildly, less than ideal. Soon after my mother moved in, I began acting out, in small, often cruel ways. I rejected the things she brought with her into our co-habitation, right down to her kitchen knives, which I considered inferior to mine. If she needed me to do something for her, I did it, but grudgingly. I lay in bed at night confused, angry, sorry, and tormented. And that is how the book happened: one night, while in this state of mental anguish, I thought to myself, ‘either this experiment is going to kill me, or I will write about it.’ I got out of bed and wrote. I usually struggle to write 500 words, but within a few hours, I had written a few thousand. That’s not to say that what I had written was any good (it was more stream of consciousness than anything), but I had written it straight from my heart. Over the next weeks I refined it and that turned into the book proposal, which turned into Mother Daughter Me. And yes, my mother is still alive.
Dr. Karyl McBride: You speak of “the umbilical hold” your mother had on you and called it the “emotional energy of unfinished business.” I so agree that unfinished business needs to be cleared and trauma cleaned up so daughters can move forward. I relentlessly push recovery work. Did you work a recovery program with a therapist or was it hard to find someone who “got” the issues at hand?
Katie Hafner: This might sound very strange to you, but although I went to therapists over the years, I never really “recovered” until I wrote the book. It was writing the book that became my therapy, because it forced me to plumb depths of my own psyche I had never successfully plumbed.
Dr. Karyl McBride: The lack of empathy in the narcissistic mother and the lack of memory in the alcoholic mother are two dynamics that throw most daughters into a state of frenzy when trying to sort out the past…I saw this in your book too. Can you share what that was like for you?
Katie Hafner: Well, I’d have to say that my mother doesn’t fit the classic narcissistic profile in that she was very empathetic with me over the years when I confided in her about things, especially when it came to relationships. What she did do, however, was fail to see me in certain ways, to recognize my true needs, desires and limitations -- if you know what I mean.
I didn’t know until 2009 that she had no clear memory of the events leading up to the binge that resulted in the removal of my sister and me from her care, or the aftermath. That came as a surprise to me. But of course now I understand that many of the details are a blur to her, for understandable reasons.
Dr. Karyl McBride: You spoke in your book about suddenly realizing that you were feeling responsible for taking care of your mother in a developmental time of childhood where you didn’t know how to do that. I believe from my work that this is what often causes co-dependency in daughters because we are used to orbiting around our mothers to try to get our needs met. Can you speak to this issue? That feeling of “I have to fix it!” And how that felt?
Katie Hafner: I felt both guilty and helpless. And my sister, I believe, felt guilty, helpless and responsible. That’s because she was older. So she had a triple dose. Also, as the older sibling, she ended up feeling like she needed to be caregiver to both me and to our mother, the solo parent. As an adult, I became very needy with my mother. I called her constantly, whenever I had a problem. In that regard, I hadn’t managed to separate from her in any kind of meaningful and healthy way. That didn’t happen until my 50s.
Dr. Karyl McBride: You speak of being sandwiched between the needs of your young daughter and your aging mother; your story is truly amazing and heroic? Do you have advice for other women in this same situation?
Katie Hafner: Yes. This might sound harsh, but I believe that the needs of our children must come first. When we bring children into this world, it is our duty, first and foremost, to take care of them. I also believe that we should, of course, do what we can for our aging parents, but should not sacrifice our children’s needs. My situation got tough very quickly because my mother and my daughter didn’t get along.
Dr. Karyl McBride: I chuckled when you wrote about your mother saying, “I think I prefer the unexamined life,” can you speak to how frustrating that was for you? And how you overcame and decided to accept it?
Katie Hafner: I think that is her prerogative. She shouldn’t be forced to explore the darkest corners of her psyche. It’s her choice to make. What I wanted her to do (and she did do in the end, at least when it came to the effects of divorce on my sister and me) was bear witness to my own painful childhood. Also, what helped me a lot was my conscious decision to break the cycle of family trauma. I do believe that my mother meant well, and loved her two daughters very much, but she just wasn’t able to break free of the horrors that her own mother had visited upon her. And, as I write in the book, once alcohol entered the mix, she didn’t stand a chance. And neither did we. I have bent over backwards to break the cycle with my own daughter. I’d even go so far as to say I’ve overcompensated. But I can live with that.
Dr. Karyl McBride: It was striking to read how you felt you were not parented and not taught even the basic things in life except maybe how to tie your shoe. I have had daughters say that Google is their mother they go to for the basics now. Can you speak to how that affected you?
Katie Hafner: It made me want to teach Zoe everything I could. So I taught her how to tie her shoes, how to ride a bike (well, her dad taught her that before he died), how to use her imagination to listen to and tell stories, to put her knife and fork together after finishing her meal, etc.
But there are some real basics I failed to teach her, and that might be a byproduct of the times we live in. I wanted to teach her to sew on a button, but she didn’t want to learn. But I’ll be that’s something she can pick up on YouTube in a pinch!
Dr. Karyl McBride: Still attempting to get mother’s approval is an on-going issue for daughters and you speak to it in the book as well. It’s interesting that we try for that within our mother’s interests hoping maybe that will work but it doesn’t. Can you share what that was for you? With men? I think I tried to do it with music as my mother was a music teacher.
Katie Hafner: Yes, I spent years seeking my mother’s approval when it came to the men in my life. When she disapproved of a man I was with, I found it hard to stay with him. It was very hard for me to think independently.
Also, when I was a little girl, in fourth grade, I wanted to learn math and show math problems to my teacher (she wasn’t interested) because my mother was a mathematician. But my mother had a very scientific brain and I didn’t. I have a writer’s brain, which she doesn’t. But now that you mention it, I wish she had been a music teacher! That would have been far more productive for me to strive to excel in that.
Dr. Karyl McBride: For those who have read my book, I talk about how two daughters in the same family can take different paths, one being the Mary Marvel and the other the Self-Saboteur. I see how your sister took a different path from you. Do you want to share anything about that? I know how sad and difficult it is.
Katie Hafner: I won’t mince words here. Although we were very close as children, my sister and I had a very difficult relationship as adults. We would go for many months without speaking. My sister resented me for having been my mother’s “favorite,” and for having gone on to a successful career as a journalist. My sister did do a lot of self-sabotaging, though I was pretty gifted in that area as well. My sister’s self-sabotaging was just more explicit. Now that I’ve lost her, and have a better understanding of her, I am heartbroken over some of the ways I think I might have been a better sister to her.
Dr. Karyl McBride: When I got to the point in the book where your husband died, I cried for you and your daughter, me, and all daughters and sons out there for all the losses we experience. How did you garner the amazing strength to move forward? Was writing the book therapeutic for you?
Katie Hafner: I don't think I was all that strong. After he died, I was very frightened. I did all the things you’re not supposed to do – right away, anyway – after losing a spouse. It wasn’t until many years later that I felt strong enough to really move forward, and I think there are two big reasons for that: My daughter, who is a big source of strength for me, especially as I have seen her separate from me in a healthy way. 2. Writing the book, this was very therapeutic.
Dr. Karyl McBride: Katie, what great answers! I really did love your book, although cried through most of it. I also want to touch on our experience reading our books at Tantor Media. That was so interesting in the booth all week reading our own words. How was that for you as your story was so personal?
Katie Hafner: It was fascinating, but also brutal, and agonizing, especially when I had to take on the voice of my mother, screaming "bullshit!" at me. In fact, I wrote a piece for the Atlantic about what it was like to record the audio book.
Katie Hafner was on staff at The New York Times for ten years, where she remains a frequent contributor, writing on healthcare and technology. She has also worked at Newsweek and BusinessWeek, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the author of five previous works of nonfiction covering topics such as the origins of the Internet, computer hackers, German reunification, and the pianist Glenn Gould. Find Katie Hafner online: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Goodreads, Tantor Audio