Dear Sister of the Heart,
For as long as I can remember, my mother had a thing about my out-of-control hair. When I was a teenager, I didn’t like it either. Cher, Joni Mitchell and Twiggy set the style for me with their straight hair. Aretha Franklin was also in style, but my hair could not produce her beautiful afro. My hair couldn’t do either in style hairstyle right.
By my late 20s, I had made peace with my thick, frizzy, curly hair; about the time I made peace with my naturally curvaceous body. I have actually felt grateful since then for my full and fully-expressed mane. Who knew that overtime, I would actually feel beautiful with my head of hair, except… in the presence of my mother. My whole life, pretty much every time I have visited her, she has asked me within the first hour of our being together- “Would you like to borrow my hairbrush?” I kid you not. My reaction has immediately reduced me to a defensive and insecure teenage girl. Even though I have plead with her over the years to stop this disparaging ritual, she has not been able to control her compulsion.
Have you ever had some version of this going on with your mother?
Deborah Tannen, a linguist, wrote a bestselling book called Are You Wearing That? (Or should I say, Are You Wearing THAT?) For years, she has studied the way that people misunderstand each other. Her first book was called That’s Not What I Meant: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Your Relations With Others. She speaks of message and more importantly meta-message (the message behind the message) the ignorance of which, she argues, leads to misunderstanding. You can see how my mother’s recurring passive-aggressive question cuts deep because I am hearing: You look terrible! Fix your hair! You are an embarrassment to me!
Deborah Tannen would say that my mother’s recurring question is a meta-message. She would challenge me and say that it is a more nuanced communication and that my mother’s intentions are good.
In Are You Wearing That? she writes a whole chapter called My Mother, My Hair! It is a chapter on the topics of caring and criticizing between adult mothers and daughters. Through her research, Tannen has found that the big three topics that are often the contention between adult mothers and daughters are: hair, clothes and weight. (I realize that these three topics are loaded for mothers and teen daughters as well, but I will stick with the adult relationship in this blog. If you are interested in more, read our book Mothering & Daughtering where we write about mother-daughter communication in the teen years. Eliza and I have a lot to say about communication and these loaded topics related to appearance.)
But I digress. Tannen would challenge my interpretation of my mother’s meta-message. In her book, she suggests that this focus on these three topics related to appearance points to gender role differences- in this case that are put on a woman’s appearance- that contribute so much to mother-daughter tensions. Tannen would argue that my mother is showing her love when she wants me to brush my hair. She cares about how I will be perceived in public, since our culture expects a woman to appear in particular ways. Tannen would say that my mother’s criticism of my hair is her attempt to influence me and ensure that my appearance is acceptable. She helps me interpret my mother’s question to me very differently: behind her criticism is her love.
Now I think it is a little more complicated than that for me and my mother. I am pretty certain that besides loving me and caring that I am accepted in the world- which I truly know that she does- that she is also judging me. She is uncomfortable with my counterculture lifestyle which my hair reflects to some degree. Her lifestyle is more conventional, and so is her hairstyle. And by the way, I have the same hair as her: thick, wavy and frizzy. She just keeps hers short and tamed.
For those of you who have read my Mothering side of our book, you know I have written a chapter about the evolution of my relationship with my mother. We’ve had lots of hurt and misunderstandings and our generational divide- and therefore cultural divide- has been a challenge for us to overcome.
And overcome we have, because of this work of mothering and daughtering and my commitment to improving our communication and the healing our motherline. My father and mother recently rented a house by the ocean in New England where I live. Yup, they are still going strong at the ages of 93 and 88! I saw a lot of them and there were a lot of opportunities for my mother to ask me if I wanted to borrow her brush, especially because of the salty sea air which makes my hair evermore out-of-control. And ask she did.
And react, I didn’t. I actually haven’t reacted to this question for a few years now. No small miracle. Now part of the reason for my emotional maturity is that I can now read the meta message and I know she loves me and cares that I am put together for the world in a way that matters to her generation of women.
But a more important reason why I don’t react is that I have done enough inner work to set an emotional boundary with my mother. I no longer need my mother’s approval about my appearance because I so deeply approve of myself. Because of this healthy boundary, I feel compassionate and sometimes even amused by her question. I usually answer it kindly and with a sense of humor, “But mom, I love my hair like this. It is wild, untamed and chic! You and I have different styles. I love the waves and how thick it is. Thank you for giving me this beautiful hair!” Or if I am not feeling quite so generous, I say, “No thanks” to her offer of a hairbrush.
We can get closer to our mothers, and they to us, by listening to the ways that we talk to each other and by learning to talk to each other in new ways. I am able to finally do this with my mom, after all these years. I am grateful we found this together while she is still alive. Tannen’s research has helped me to understand the complexity of her question with an open heart.
The other piece, as many of you know from this Mothering & Daughtering path, is that I have done the hard work of psychologically individuating. This has meant that I have worked to withdraw the projections I have placed on my mother, and in so doing, felt the grief of what she was never able to give to me. I have withdrawn the blame and I am free. My kindness with her now, when she asks me for the umpteenth time if I want to borrow her brush, is born out of the kindness that I have cultivated in my own heart, for myself.
Once you’ve gotten a chance to listen to the Love Letter, leave a comment below —