Paula Mahoney: How to Be a Daughter


 Paula Mahoney is a founding member of the Friday feedback class. She is currently working on a memoir about the five years she spent in Japan as a young mother. This piece was her response to the prompt, "How to Be a Daughter."

Begin by staring up into that face, the face of your mother, believing that she is the sun, the source of light, and life itself. Believe that face exists only for you, and that person is there to serve your every whim, applying a balm for every wound. Keep this going for several years. 

As you grow, there will come a time when you begin to see yourself through the eyes of others, not just through your own, or through your mother’s. At this stage, blame your mother for all of your life’s flaws: the tattered cushions, the house that needs paint, your missing father, the works. Let her know how disappointed you are for the ways that she is failing you, point out her flaws. Use your words to push her back, back as far as you can get her. This is the only way to break free of seeing yourself as an extension of her.

Do things that frighten her. Take drugs, have unprotected sex, fall in love with Mr. Wrong. Move away. Far away.  Write her and tell her you miss her because you really do. You left before you were fully formed. You hadn’t made the break yet. Ask her to visit. See her differently when she arrives. Notice that she’s outgrown you. That she speaks her mind, wears what she wants, has become president of the employees union at work, goes out dancing and has men fighting over her. Envy her independence. Realize that she cautioned you before you left, tried to stop you. Realize you didn’t listen.

Have a couple of daughters of your own who look up into your face as if you were the sunrise itself. Fear for them, try to be everything they need. Fail at this, again and again. Feel bad about yourself, your shortcomings vs. their constant demands. Love them so much it hurts. Try again. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, the ones your mom loaned you.

Become better friends with your mother once you see how impossible the job really is. Let your mother help with your kids, help you in every way. Admire her strength and independence and the light she holds within the family. Do this until her light begins to fade. And she depends on you. And she looks up into your face as if you were the only real source of light. Take care of her, feed, bathe, clothe her. Do this until she becomes your daughter, and the burden is too great, the job is too hard, and you fail her, even though you try so hard, day and night, and again the next day. And no matter what you do, you are not going to do enough.

But maybe, just maybe, you’ll get that one moment when she breaks through her own needs and fears, loses the resentment she feels towards her decline, and maybe she’ll looks up at you, with the light coming out of that face that you’ve memorized, and says, “Oh, hi dear,” as if you’ve just been born. So beautiful in her eyes, her lovely, perfect daughter. And be that, if you can, hold that thought, that moment, because soon you will have to be a daughter without a mother. You’ll have to live on this earth without her. And at first, you won’t know how.

And now there will be others, daughters of daughters who will look up into your face, watching and needing and memorizing who you are, and learning from you how to be in the world. And you will put one foot in front of the other, knowing that you’ve blessed their lives with so much of yourself and that still, it won’t be enough to keep them from their own pain, and that some day they, too, will feel inadequate in the face of so much need.

And so it goes, learning to be a daughter by being a mother. And in your old age, becoming your daughter’s child. Watching her face look down at you until that final dying of the light. And you leave your lovely daughter behind, to live on this earth without you. Your picture everywhere. Your voice always in her ear. Your daughters and granddaughters weeping at your funeral, wearing you on their skin, like a fragrance that lingers forever.

Paula Mahoney is a freelance documentary film and TV producer with a passion for writing. She has lived in Santa Cruz since 1955, where she raised her daughters and enjoys watching her granddaughters grow. 

2 thoughts on “Paula Mahoney: How to Be a Daughter”

  1. How to be a Daughter
    Wow, what a powerful piece. It really hits home. I remember when I was younger blaming my mother for all my shortcomings and more. Took a long time to grow up and take responsibility. Thank God I did that before she passed. Now my daughter is raising a daughter and it’s coming full circle. Thank you for writing this. I look forward to reading more of your writings.

  2. Oh Paula, I just read this piece…how beautiful….how poignant. So much of it is what I am experiencing right now with my mother. I know that you have been through it all. Such a hard time. I have been so lucky to have such a wonderful and loving mother. Thank you for putting those feelings into words.

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