Different facets of mother-daughter relationship explored in new books

Mother’s Day is approaching. We know it because of the marketing campaigns showcasing the perfect cashmere sweater or perfume, the greeting card displays and advertisements for ornate bouquets.

But the relationship between mother and daughter isn’t always a cause for celebration. Three new books — one specifically Jewish, the other two written by Jewish women — attempt to dissect these unique relationships through the words of both generations.

The mother-daughter relationship can be nurturing and sustaining, but it can also be the source of great frustration. Journalist Iris Krasnow wrote “I Am My Mother’s Daughter: Making Peace with Mom Before It’s Too Late” on the premise that these days, adult women are much likelier to have their mothers around a lot longer than before.

“Women in their 90s comprise the fastest growing segment of the aging population, so love her or loathe her, the majority of adult women may have their mothers still showing up at their dinner tables,” said Krasnow, who will be in the Bay Area next week to speak about her book.

But, she noted, this is not a book about Jewish mothers.

“I’m a fiercely Jewish woman with a Jewish husband and Jewish children,” she said. “But out of my 116 interviews, I can make no generalizations. This was an ‘aha’ for me. Mothers are mothers, and Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt seem like the same animal to me.”

Krasnow described her mother, who was a Holocaust survivor, as a pillar of strength, but as she had suffered a lot, “she wasn’t the classic cuddly mother.”

She could also be highly critical of her daughter, often when it came to how Krasnow was raising her children.

Accepting her own mother’s flaws led Krasnow to investigate this primary relationship.

She interviewed adult women from all over the country, of all ethnicities and religions, about their relationship with their mothers. And if there was any common thread to be found, it was that “love her or hate her, the way you relate to your mother dramatically affects you more than other relationships you have: how you work, play, love, marry and mother your own brood.”

Krasnow acknowledged that there are some women who were so mistreated by their mothers that they cannot simply put it behind them, and this book is not for them. However, she said, in most cases, mothers made plenty of mistakes along the way, but were doing the best they could.

Rather than hold onto and relive those mistakes, most women need to just accept their mothers for who they are and move on, Krasnow said.

“You can’t say you’re sorry at a funeral,” she emphasized. “You need to do your work now.”

After writing the best selling “Motherless Daughters,” and speaking widely on the topic of women who lost their mothers prematurely, Hope Edelman thought she was ready to move on to a new topic.

Years went by, and once Edelman found herself married with two young daughters of her own, she found that there was a lot more to say about how premature mother loss affects a young mother and how she mothers her children.

In “Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become,” Edelman, who lives in Los Angeles, combines research, interviews and memoir. She was in the Bay Area recently to promote the book.

Edelman was 17 when she lost her mother to breast cancer. Once a close-knit Jewish family in Spring Valley, N.Y., her father was ill-equipped to parent three children on his own.

While her book does not talk about Jewish women specifically, Edelman said that from her own experience, she knows that Jewish women often feel the loss most acutely during the Jewish holidays, as the maternal grandmother usually hosted events like family seders.

“Unless these women had a mother-in-law who would host, they often felt they had nowhere to go, and they felt homeless at that time,” she said.

Edelman has two daughters with her Israeli husband, 4 and 8. When asked what they know about her mother, Edelman said “I tell my daughters stories about her all the time.” Her older daughter is especially interested in stories from her mother’s childhood.

“I work my mother into stories in a way that makes her a character in their lives, too,” she said.

Edelman found that having a child can be extremely healing for women who have lost their mothers, as the mother-child relationship that they lost early is restored.

“Having a child is restorative because it brings that love relationship back into their lives, even if they’re entering it from the other side,” she said. “They also find that by giving a child the love they lost, they are healing something inside of themselves, especially when they raise that child beyond the age they were when their mother died. They are truly giving them something they didn’t have.”

While the first two books are filled with self-help angst, “Every Mother is a Daughter,” is a light, breezy mother-daughter memoir.

The authors, daughter Perri Klass and mother Sheila Solomon Klass, have numerous books between them, but this is their first effort together. And in it, they take everyday situations and write about them, with each writer weighing in.

Despite the fact that both women married academic men and had three children while working full time, their lives were profoundly different. Sheila grew up a child of the Depression, and had to fight to get an education. She still lives frugally, always preferring to take the subway in Manhattan rather than splurging on a taxi. Although Sheila commuted and taught, she felt she was failing somehow as a mother if she did not have a hot, balanced meal on the table for her family at night.

Perri, meanwhile, who was in the Bay Area recently, grew up a privileged child of the suburbs for whom going to college was a given. A pediatrician, she spends money freely, and thinks nothing of ordering takeout, or sending her kids out the door with a handful of nuts instead of breakfast.

Writing the book together proved to be interesting, in that mother and daughter got to know each other better and, with that, understand one another more.

“Once you’re a grown-up, and your mother is a grown-up, it’s not that we don’t get along, but things get ritualized,” said Perri. “You have the same conversations over and over. You don’t always go in new directions. But this was a decision to have conversations we didn’t always have, and to talk about things that might be tense or painful.”

Sheila agreed, saying, “I don’t know that I learned so much more about her, but I like her better.”

While the mother-daughter pair take on domestic topics such as cooking, how to keep the kitchen clean and knitting, their favorite chapters are the ones in which they travel together. Since they had once lived in India as a family in the 1960s, they decided to go back together, both to the place where they lived, and to places they hadn’t seen.

The book ends with a mother-daughter visit to the Taj Mahal, soon after it is opened for nighttime viewing. Perri fantasizes about sharing the rare view of the majestic monument by the light of the full moon with her mother, but after much effort and planning, the moon remains obscured by a cloudy sky. There is a happy ending to the chapter, though.

“I was aware this is a real gift to get to do this,” said Perri.

“I Am My Mother’s Daughter: Making Peace With Mom Before It’s Too Late” by Iris Krasnow (223 pages, Perseus Books, $25).

“Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become,” by Hope Edelman (410 pages, Harper Collins, $25.95).

“Every Mother is a Daughter: The Neverending Quest for Success, Inner Peace and a Really Clean Kitchen (Recipes and Knitting Patterns Included)” by Perri Klass and Sheila Solomon Klass (289 pages, Ballantine Books, $23.95).

Iris Krasnow will read from her book 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 9 at Books Inc., at Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto; 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 10 at Cody’s Books in San Francisco and 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 10 at Stanford University Bookstore.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."