As I delve into the collection of family correspondence at the archive1, I inhabit a familiar role: observer, holder of family secrets, empathetic listener. I also feel a pang of familiarity as I witness the tension in the mother-daughter relationship which lays at the core of this collection.
Tolstoy famously wrote “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”2 I believe that only someone who isn’t a daughter could have written that. The universality of the profound love and misery inherent to every mother-daughter relationship strikes me, as I recognise myself, my mother and grandmothers in the exchanges between two adult women whom I do not know.
In an article in The New York Times, Dr. Birditt, a researcher who has studied the tension between adult children and their parents, describes the mother-daughter relationship as “the closest and most irritating” relationship.3 I think that this fundamental contradiction, along with the push and pull of love and hate, of opposing desires for independence and nurturing, the conflicting craving for space and closeness, render this relationship the most fraught and the most enriching in our lives. It’s also the relationship I’ve tried to heal and grow my entire adult life. My fascination for it continues to grow as I grapple with the futility of my efforts and the intrinsic pain that comes with such intense intimacy and love. That is probably why I became absorbed in the letters and felt the need to insert myself into the narrative, and continue a dialogue opened almost a century ago.
What follows are my observations and subjective interpretations of the relationship between a mother and daughter who were brutally separated by the Romanian communist regime. The correspondence stretches over the course of over a decade, during which the daughter, Maria, made tireless efforts to bring her mother, Elena, from Romania to the Netherlands, her new home. My personal experience and family dynamics shape my reading of their exchanges. My aim is to reflect on the emotions and memories these letters stirred. I also make guesses about what was hidden behind their words, based on the limited information I have. However, it would be presumptuous to claim that they are accurate. This endeavor is driven by empathy and my desire to connect with the women with whom I’ve developed parasocial relationships due to the unrestrained access I’ve had to their intimate conversations. While not every reader will relate to the mother-daughter relationship I describe, and some might not have had a mother or a maternal figure present in their lives, I believe the struggle of navigating a close relationship that spans over decades is relatable for most of us.
What is written and what is said
Reading the letters from Elena to her younger daughter, Maria, I feel like there is a gaping hole between the words written on the paper and the meaning that is being conveyed. One might think this is due to the communist censors, who would examine every letter, searching for information they could use against the writer or the recipient. But despite being historically removed from Elena and Maria’s conversation, which happened over half a century ago, I recognise their family dynamic of leaving the most important things unsaid, of the absence of certain words or conversations weighing more heavily than their presence. This doesn’t seem to be an ad hoc code developed upon their separation, but rather the subtext that women become fluent in as they navigate a patriarchal world where their straightforward opinions and thoughts are not often welcome.
Professor Karen L. Fingerman posits in her book about the relationship between mature women and their mothers that the disadvantaged societal status of women is one of the factors that engenders the closeness characteristic of relationships between mother and daughter.4 Women are socialised to cater for everyone’s emotional needs and be empathetic to a point where they become experts in deciphering even minute cues. Between daughters and mothers, silence is pregnant with meaning, and its timing can convey more than a thousand words.
In the case of Elena and Maria, silence manifests as letters not sent or avoided topics. Elena is the one who sets the rules of the exchange and also the first one to break them. She tells her daughter that she only wants to hear good news. But when she does not hear from Maria, Elena grows anxious and asks whether something bad has happened. Even when her daughter writes about positive or regular events, Elena actively tries to discover hidden meanings in the quality of her penmanship. There are multiple instances where Elena asks her daughter if something is bothering her, because her writing looks “nervous”.
When it comes to bad news or uncomfortable conversations, the message from Maria takes a convoluted detour and reaches her mother through unsuspecting intermediaries. For instance, one day Elena receives a phone call from an acquaintance who asks how her son-in-law is feeling after his surgery. Elena is taken aback, as she was not privy to this event. So she writes a letter scolding Maria for hiding the truth. Maria finds herself in a Catch-22, damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. Perhaps informing mutual acquaintances is her way of choosing the middle path.
But these are not the only contradictory demands that Maria needs to fulfil. Since most of Elena’s possessions were confiscated by the authorities, and at some point, she has no pension, Elena relies on her daughters for financial support. So Maria experiments with a role reversal: from a child she morphs into a caregiver. Despite receiving money, food, clothes and medicine from her daughter, Elena is not ready to relinquish power in exchange. Because acknowledging the reversal of roles would trigger a shift in power dynamics.
Linguist Deborah Tannen writes in her book about communication between mothers and daughters that relationships between them involve “the most daunting struggles for control”.5 This isn’t surprising to me, given the nature of motherhood. A mother begins as the harbourer of life, with sole physical control over her children. But with every stage of maturation, she sees her power wane. In my experience, she hangs on to it however she can.
Elena stays in control by constantly infantilising her daughter. She gives Maria unsolicited parenting advice, she asks her to refrain from swimming because she might drown and repeatedly suggests that she should hire someone else to do the housework for her. Therefore Maria is in a conundrum where she needs to simultaneously enact two opposing roles: that of the helpless child who is dependent upon their mother’s input and guidance, and that of the responsible parent who provides all the necessary material and emotional support in order for the cared one to thrive.
Her mission is further complicated by her mother’s persistent criticism regarding Maria’s efforts. Elena is unhappy with the shoes, clothes and money her daughter sends and inquires multiple times if Maria is not capable of following her instructions. This is also a way of asserting her dominance and reminding Maria who is in charge. As a parentified child who was her mother’s confidant, supporter and marriage counselor in a dysfunctional relationship where her needs weren’t met, I identify with Maria and feel anger towards Elena for the way she treats her.
However, when I take a step back and try to understand Elena’s perspective, I imagine she might treat Maria like a child in an attempt to hang on to a past familiar version of her daughter. That way, when they are reunited, they can resume things where they left off. This might also explain Elena’s hyper-preoccupation with her daughter’s appearance, which inevitably changes as the years pass. She often asks Maria for photos of herself and her family, and almost without fail responds with criticism whenever she receives them. Sometimes, she even warns Maria in advance. In one letter, Elena writes ”Send a photo, but put on weight otherwise you’ll look like a scare crow”. In another, she confesses that she wants a good photo of her daughter so she can prove to acquaintances that Maria is as beautiful as Elena claims. Even though she rarely writes anything positive about Maria’s appearance, Elena openly admits that her daughter’s beauty is actually something she brags about.
Third person compliments are something I’m familiar with. Growing up, I was the main topic of my grandmother’s conversations with friends, family and passers-by. Basically anyone within earshot would learn about my outstanding intelligence which was only rivaled by my beauty. But in my private conversations with my grandma, she would ask me things like “Why don’t you have a boyfriend? Are you so ugly that no one will have you?” or “Why did X get a higher grade than you? Are you more stupid than them?”.
I also relate to Maria when it comes to her mother’s incessant inquiries into her weight. These mostly revolve around her being too thin. My body has also always been a matter of debate in my family. I have been at times too thin, too fat, too pale and “stained” by my birthmark. I was beautiful but. This led to my self-objectification and deriving my self-worth from the way I looked, which inevitably triggered disordered eating patterns and self-esteem issues.
I used to resent my family, but especially my grandmother, who was my main caregiver during childhood, for their thinly veiled criticism. But with the geographical and temporal distance I’ve gained from them, I have started to see beyond their brusque words, and more closely analyse the space between what they said and what they meant. As paradoxical as it may sound, in Romania we call both strangers and loved ones fat to their face, but we don’t say the word cancer, even as doctors to our patients. I think it’s partly because people choose to name only the monster that they can tame. When it comes to big existential fears, one only alludes to them by picking on mundane issues, as if addressing them would conjure the scariest scenarios into existence.
Elena’s underlying fear regarding her daughter’s weight surfaces in one letter, where she writes that she hopes Maria is not refraining from eating, as she is in the habit of doing. This puts her comments about Maria’s weight in a new light. Perhaps Elena’s biggest fear is that her daughter is starving herself to death and she is not there to nourish or nurture her, as a mother should. In a New York Times article, Dr. Tannen’s advice for adult daughters is, “try to remind yourself that it feels like criticism, but it is an expression of caring”.6 What looks like an attack is actually a backwards expression of preoccupation with her daughter’s wellbeing.
When we do archival work and we examine someone’s life, we often zoom in on minute details and assign them meanings. But we often forget that a magnifying glass distorts our view. Now that I’ve finished archiving the correspondence between Elena and Maria, I can finally zoom out and gain a broader perspective. While I was immersed in the letters, I was tempted to pick sides and assign the roles of villain and victim with ease. From afar, the lines between good and bad don’t seem as clear. All I see is an intricate web of connections and emotions that envelopes a mother and daughter struggling to maintain a relationship across borders. If you carefully read between the lines, you will find a loving mother or grandmother cowering under the burden of responsibility for her child. But only a daughter masters the vernacular of a mother.
All images in this article ©Alexandra Bădescu via Canva.com