My mother doesn’t play favorites — she loves all three of her children equally: me, my sister, and her big, white couch. Growing up, I used to look at that unsullied piece of furniture as the holy grail. It was untouchable, revered by my mother, who considered it her sacred space. We were only allowed to sit on it on special occasions – family gatherings, holidays, dinner parties. I never dreamed I’d be jealous of a sofa, and yet, there I was, seething with envy as I watched my mother fluffing its pillows and dusting off the pristine fabric. I resolved that I’d never be anything like that.
Last month, all these years later, I moved into a small studio apartment. I took time organizing my tiny kitchenette, hanging artwork I’ve collected, tucked away in my own safe haven. I created a space that felt like a reflection of myself, an embodiment of my true nature. So last weekend, when my mother came over for a glass of wine, dropped her purse by the door and plunked herself down in the middle of my couch, I heard myself say: “Actually, do you mind not sitting there? I don’t want the fabric to crease.” Her eyes met mine and I let out a laugh.
Are all women destined to become, at least in part, their mothers? The question is more complicated than it appears. Celeste, Julia, and Gisue — three daughters and mothers whom I’ve interviewed on the topic — certainly don’t seem to believe so, yet their perspectives are imbued with traces of their mothers nonetheless. For those of us raised by mothers or mother figures, it seems the influence of these women can go far past furniture and parenting styles, and can instead echo in our moral aptitudes, humanity and ability to survive.
Celeste is a nurse, daughter and mother living in Westchester, NY.
I grew up in a city in the Philippines, the third of three boys and three girls. My mom was very strict, sometimes unfair. I loved her and I knew she loved me. I don’t remember her giving me much. I was always getting hand-me-downs. She gifted all of her jewelry to my sisters, because she was worried I’d lose nice things. Looking back, she had a point. I thought maybe she loved my brothers more than she loved me, because she was always saying “no” to me. I always said that if I had a kid, I wasn’t going to raise her like that. But then again, I wasn’t a good girl. There’s nothing bad you could say about my mom — she was so nice, just wonderful.
I got a nursing degree from University of San Carlos. I had to take another entrance exam to come here as a nurse. I studied hard and passed, then was accepted at Bronx Lebanon. Later, I started my Master’s at Fordham University, but never finished. There was a lot of paperwork and I didn’t even know how to type — so I stopped. I’m happy being a nurse.
I got married to a doctor at my hospital. My husband wanted me to have a baby and move to the suburbs, but I was used to the city — I’m not a country girl. But when you love someone, you compromise. Whatever makes them happy makes you happy, too. When I moved, I was so scared by all the trees — I could feel the bad spirits. In the Philippines, being surrounded by trees meant something could be living there, lurking.
When I had my daughter, I was a full-time mom and nurse. My hours were flexible, thank God. Don’t get me wrong, I love my baby — but 24 hours around the clock with her would have been too much. I was lucky to have the love and support of my husband, somebody I could trust. I worked so hard to be a nurse, and I’m proud. It’s a big part of who I am.
My mother was a beautiful lady, inside and out. She was trusting, didn’t see the bad in anybody. For me, you have to prove yourself first. I was always worried that people took advantage of her, and that my daughter is that way, too. I’ve always been very protective, but my mother just gave herself to everybody. There was no bad spirit in her!
I never thought I’d end up like her though — she was a homebody. I loved her so much, but I’m not perfect, and she was. I always rebelled. I lied. I used to tell my mother I was going to the hospital, and instead, go discoing with my friends. I was naughty! But I couldn’t tell her, because she wouldn’t let me go. I don’t want my daughter to lie to me. I want her to be able to talk to me, to never go behind my back.
My daughter isn’t like me either! She’s a lot of fun — unpredictable. I’m tough. I don’t cry easily. But I give her unconditional love — I’d do anything if something happened to her. I give her so many lectures, because my mother never gave me any. I try to warn her about life before it hurts her. I hope some of what I’m saying is sticking. I don’t want her to be perfect, I want her to be strong.
I raised my daughter in a very protected environment — nice area, neighborhood, friends. But this is not real America. I grew up in a third-world country. I know how people suffer. I want her to be tough, like me. Don’t get me wrong: She’s way smarter than me. She’s intelligent, kind, and loving. I’m so happy that she’s turned out that way. She’ll never say anything bad about anybody! But I will. I’m honest. I want to show her that the truth isn’t always filtered!
Sometimes, I wonder: Am I a bad person? I’m so cautious of people. But I try to help everybody in the hospital. I cry with my patients, joke with them so they feel a little bit at ease when they’re sick. I hope I am good.
Take care of yourself first, so you can take care of others. There’s always time to help out a friend, to support a stranger. You’re not taking money with you when you leave this world. If I have to go, I’ve had a fulfilling life — my daughter is a very wonderful, beautiful person. And I love nursing — I’m so glad that I continued to be a nurse. I like to help people. I think that’s a little bit of my mother in me.
Julia is a scholar, researcher, daughter and mother living in Washington, D.C.
I’m a native New Yorker. My mother was my sixth-grade English teacher, as well as my homeroom teacher. That was a very awkward year.
When I started at Oberlin, the campuses were separated by gender, and if you were found to have pot, you could be thrown out. By the time I graduated, the dorms were co-ed and you could smoke in the chapel and nobody would bat an eye. There were no grades. They gave our printing presses to the Black Panthers. When I left, I was very confused about what I wanted to do.
I went on to study cytotechnology at the University of Chicago, training people to read pap smears. I got recruited by a woman setting up a lab in Paris, so I moved for a year, where I just happened to meet my American partner. Then I came back to the states and studied developmental psychology, where my professor recommended I reach out to a woman who was conducting a big study of women with breast cancer and their psychological adaptation. That woman became my mentor — the grandmother of psycho-oncology, the behavioral aspects of cancer.
By then my partner and I had a daughter and a son. We moved to Washington and I got a job at Georgetown, creating their psycho-oncology program. I was then recruited by the NIH and did that for 18 years. I retired in 2017, and now I work for a small non-profit part-time, and spend time with my daughter.
My mother was very smart, very… what’s the right word? She had a commanding presence. She was an organizer who loved all sorts of activities. She was vital, engaged. When she retired, she took a correspondence course in hieroglyphics! Why? Because she always dreamed of taking my kids to Egypt, and wanted to be able to read the ‘glyphs. That just gives you an idea of the kind of person she was.
She was a lifelong teacher. She loved getting people engaged, had a thirst for knowledge. I never felt that way — growing up, I was clueless. I was lost in space! I really had no idea of what direction I would go in. I had two really outstanding science teachers who got me excited about science. That’s been a core theme in my life. I was also very interested in athletics — I practiced gymnastics, volleyball, basketball. I also did drama. I was all over the place! I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I wasn’t very confident in my academic ability.
I didn’t think I’d turn out like my mother. I didn’t think about anything at all! My parents were both very smart. We lived with an encyclopedia in our house. If anyone ever had a question, the answer was always: Go look it up. It was so irritating! Like, just tell me! I didn’t have very high aspirations for myself.
I hope my parenting style is different from my mother’s! She was very demanding and I’d like to think that I give my kids more latitude to grow. It’s not that my mom wasn’t affectionate, but she was… cooler than I am. I’m a very hug-y person. That tactile piece has been important in raising my own kids.
I’m in awe of my kids, my daughter in particular. My son died last year. He was a lovely, gentle guy. It’s — it’s difficult to talk about. He worked for the homeless. Basically, he’d go out and try to reach people who were living on the street, get them the necessary documentation and proper housing. He had a very special ability to reach people.
My kids are so beyond me, best thing I ever did. I feel like I’m just a holding vessel. They far exceed me. I feel deeply grateful for our shared humanity — a commitment to making the world a better place. And my daughter loves having kids, just like me. She’s so good at juggling it all.
If we’re lucky, we don’t become our mothers — we take the best of what we recall of our mothers and build on that. We all have inadequacies. I’m sure if I asked my daughter what I could have done better, there would be a whole list. The question is: As offspring, can you make that difference?
I don’t sit here with lament. I have been the recipient of a lot of unqualified love. But my mother was more withholding. I feel there was a period of time when my dad would come home and I’d run to the door to meet him and my mother would get competitive. I was a kid! How could she possibly have felt left out?
I wish my younger self had more self-confidence. I think you’ll find that if you scratch under the surface, a lot of accomplished women have a lot of self-doubt. That plagues me — did I raise a child who, like me, grew up with these pockets of low self-esteem? How is that possible? How did I make that mistake again?
Gisue is an architect, daughter, and mother living in Manhattan, NY.
I was born and raised in the Middle East. From age 12, I knew I wanted to be an architect. Architecture was so precious where I grew up. The domes, the bazaars… the public spaces were very unusual, organic. Most homes were behind garden walls, and going out was a big deal.
My mother was a fabulous woman. She grew up in a multitude of cultures — born in India to a Persian family, raised in a British colony. She had a little bit of everything in her. Growing up, it was clear to me that she was very special, because she was not like other mothers. She didn’t fit into our society. But that was also difficult to handle. On one hand, you’re so proud — your mother is so different from everybody else! She speaks English, plays sports, reads books. Women at that time, where I grew up, were not avid readers like she was. But because she could read in other languages, her head was always in a book. At the same time, she wasn’t your typical “mother” — she didn’t cook, come to school, or do all the things that most traditional moms we saw around us did. There was an interesting dichotomy.
I came to the United States to study architecture. It was so drastically different. I grew up in a country that was thousands of years old, so I felt very rooted. There was a strength in me that I didn’t see in the American girls. That was a shock — coming from a developing world that’s becoming more modernized, arriving in a country where the progressive youth are actually very fragile. That was very eye-opening for me. It was a long, difficult program. I barely spoke English. I realized that architecture isn’t really about making buildings, drawings or math — it’s about having a philosophy about living. You create environments for people to live accordingly. It goes beyond physical structure.
Just as I was completing my thesis, there was a revolution in my country. This is when I learned that nothing in life is certain. What is certain is that everything will always change. I had an identity crisis and a student visa. The architecture program lasted five years, and I didn’t know if I could obtain the funding to continue my education. I had learned theories, philosophies, how to draw and how to dream about the most amazing structures, but I had never built anything and had no idea how business worked. To make matters worse, the United States was in a very big recession. So, I took responsibility for my own survival. I moved to San Francisco, where there were more opportunities. I got a position at a firm, doing odd jobs: driving, delivering packages.
I began to rethink my whole education. Did I just want to make buildings and money, or create art and push boundaries and break all the laws? I studied architecture because I wanted to make a better world — I had a mission. In order to make something meaningful, you first have to discover what the meaning is. Nobody will just hand this to you! You have to go out and search for what’s important to you, because it isn’t written in your books and your professors don’t have a clue.
It was time to get my boots dirty. I moved to Arizona, to Paolo Soleri’s workshop, Arcosanti. They gave me a bunk bed in a tent and told me to get started. They showed me a couple of huge boulders and said, “You’ve got to clear these rocks.” And I said, “Well, how am I going to do that?” And they told me, “Well, you’ve got to figure it out!” I started crying. Nobody would help me. But I learned how to find smaller rocks to use as anchors to slowly move the larger rocks, until they simply rolled away.
We disrupted the minimum amount of landscape. This was sustainability, 40 years ago! We were totally off the grid and self-sufficient. We would make our own electricity, had our own compost, grew our own crops, cooked our own food. It was very idealistic, but so compelling. I had seen suburbs and sprawls of American cities, cardboard buildings that fall apart and burn. To see someone was concerned with caring for the environment and conserving this beautiful, bare landscape… it was fascinating. It was the most amazing time of my life. It was something I needed to do.
Life isn’t made of separate episodes — everything is interconnected. If you understand that, you can live your life with fluidity.
I never dreamed of growing up to become like my mother, because the women who I was attracted to were not stay-at-home moms. I have a lot of respect for women who don’t work — motherhood can be a full-time job — but these women usually were passionate: They were teachers, fundraisers and contributors to society. They had ideas. They wanted to better the world around them. My mom was a great mom, but she didn’t stand for anything. I always felt she never explored her full potential. I didn’t want to be like that.
I never wanted my daughters to be like me either. Kids choose to come through you. But you, as a mother, only have the responsibility to give them tools to become themselves. Some mothers have argued this with me and gotten very upset. But this is how I understand motherhood. I don’t choose my kids, and they don’t choose me. It happens in a very magical way. You become a home, a place for your kids to grow into themselves.
There is nothing more profound than experiencing motherhood, another life growing within you. As women, we are privileged. It’s a gift — magic beyond anything I have ever known in this world.
I had thought that by now a lot of the roadblocks in front of women would have diminished and wouldn’t exist for my daughters. But there’s still a long way to go. I think all mothers and daughters need to come together to demand what is their right — justice, equality and equity in this life.
It isn’t our job to judge our daughters’ behavior and decisions. The only person who can judge you is yourself. You are the only critic of yourself. You decide who you want to be. I learned that the hard way. No one has the right to tell our daughters what they are, who they are, what is right or what is wrong. They have to decide for themselves.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi and Iman Hariri-Kia.