My mother always said to me, “The way you treat your mother is the way your daughters will treat you.” I never gave her refrain much thought until now.

I hope it is not completely true. My mother and I would both agree that we have not had the best of relationships. I have often insisted this is because we are so very different, but deep down I wonder if we are more similar than I’d like to believe. This is why my mother’s words worry me. And with three daughters of my own, my concern is understandable.

While the drama, both real and potential, fills the space of my own microcosm, I take some comfort in the fact that my mother-daughter woes are not unique, after all. Why would Pixar take a chance with its movie “Brave” if it felt that the subject matter did not hold universal appeal? I surveyed my female friends—something I often do to gain insight and perspective on family and parenting—and found I am not alone. No topic within my circle has ever generated so much emotional response.

I’m not sure what the key is to a happy mother-daughter relationship. I sometimes think that perhaps, had I been a more compliant daughter or, had my mother been more independent in her own identity, life would have been easier for the two of us. But instead, my mother and I fall into the strong-willed daughter vs. overmothering mother category of relationship. I can already see my daughters following in my footsteps. So now, as the mother, how do I find a balance between the two extremes of isolation and enmeshment?

Hats Off to Wholeness
I love hats. I have a bin-full, ranging in colour and style, some sophisticated and conservative, some youthful, and others just plain fun. These days, however, there never seem to be enough occasions to wear them all. I tend to default to my comfortable newsboy cap, day in and day out. It is a metaphor that sometimes describes my life. Being a mother can be all consuming and at times I lumber on, hiding under my “Mama” hat while the other hats that I wear—wife, friend, learner, dreamer—become musty from lack of use.

I have come to realize that while I love my children and family dearly, and while they make up the best and biggest part of my life, they are not my whole world. These days, I try to carve out space that allows me to be all that I am and/or to just be myself. I acknowledge that I am lucky to be able to do so. I take the time to nurture my friendships. I prioritize the pursuit of my own interests and fitness. Sometimes, I feel guilty and wonder if I’m being selfish, but I know that if I lose the fullness of my identity, I cannot be of service to my family, nor can I be the best of role models. I suspect that it is a mind set quite different than that of my mother’s generation. But looking ahead, when my family is grown, I want to continue to feel purposeful in life as a person and not just as a mother. I want to have close friends who are there with me as I navigate my ever-evolving emotional world. I don’t want to depend solely on my family for my physical and mental needs. Above all, I don’t want to have regrets and feel that I need to live my life vicariously through my daughters.

I wonder how my mother’s and my relationship would have looked had she been given, or allowed herself, the opportunity to follow her own passions. Of course it’s never too late, but as I have found with my hat collection, the longer they sit in the box, the more I lack the confidence to show them off.

Cutting the Cord
My 18-month-old daughter is overcoming her separation anxiety. It has been a struggle—for me as I grapple between letting go of my last baby while reclaiming some independence, and for her as she learns to live her own life and trust a world that is bigger than just me. It is a scenario not unlike that between my mother and I. In both cases, separation despite the anxiety, has to occur in order for growth.

Struggling to achieve a healthy sense of detachment with my mother and developing intimate independence require much mindfulness on my part. My recipe is guilt free no-strings-attached interactions defined by clear boundaries and seasoned with self-discipline, patience and tolerance. All of this topped with the wisdom and discernment as to how emotionally invested I need to become. The proportions and techniques are still hit-and-miss but it is definitely easier on the heartburn and just the right amount of calories. I hope one day my daughters and I can savour a similar experience.

Breaking the Vow
“When I grow up and have babies, I’m going to let them have as much sugar as they want!” swears my eldest daughter. Ah yes, the “vow,” a most powerful weapon and I am sure that this one is just the first of many to come. I think back to all of the impetuous vows I made in retaliation against my mother’s control. Most were moot and following through on them would not have been in the best interests of my own children, or would have left me eating a hefty serving of humble pie. I realize that being mindful of my personal triggers and wounds is the best way to navigate the waters with my daughters, and to perhaps either break unhealthy patterns or avoid the trap of overcompensation. Before I examine the ways that I mother my daughters, I need to ask myself the question: Am I mothering my inner child the way I would like to mother my own children? Much of the work starts from the inside out with me looking at myself with honesty and respect.

Un-doubling the Standard
Every so often, I have to call myself on the double standards that I hold when it comes to my mother. On the one hand, I expect her to respect me as an independent and responsible individual, yet I am content to be mothered when it’s convenient for me. It must be confusing for her. It’s what we often do with family, unconsciously taking for granted and taking advantage in ways that we would never do with others. More so with mothers—we can burden them with unrealistic expectations and judgments of what they can and should do physically and emotionally. Perhaps it’s an inevitable by-product of the superwoman syndrome they tend to fall victim to.

I am trying not to assume that when my mother visits, she will do laundry and help with the cooking and cleaning, or that when I go home to Calgary she’ll take care of the kids while I fly off to the gym or to visit with old friends. Reading this, she would likely say, “Don’t be ridiculous, that’s just what I am meant to do.” But I believe that’s wrong. Again it comes down to boundaries, and these days I remind myself to ask and never assume. It is part of the process of seeing her as a person, and not just my mother—a person who, like anyone else, merits courtesy, consideration and gratitude.

Mending the Bond
For my mother’s seventieth birthday, I took her to Vancouver for a cake decorating conference. I knew it was something we’d both enjoy doing together. It was a decision I made after a visit home that was particularly challenging. I realized that we needed to try something new as simply two people learning together and enjoying a common interest. It was a gift for both of us, a gift of a renewed and re-evolved relationship.

On the first night, we sat across from each other in a beautiful dimly lit restaurant with no children for us to hide behind. Face-to-face candlelight dinners seem to evoke an inescapable intimacy. The initial awkward silence and uneasiness made me realize that this was a new experience for my mother and me. Eventually she began to speak, telling the story of her joys, trials and regrets as a mother. Her eyes filled with tears and as I listened, I realized that we were in fact very different from one another—different generations, different cultural beliefs, different knowledge bases, different pressures and different personal struggles. For the first time, I tried to put myself in her place and understand what it must have been like to be a working mother, making ends meet in a new country with no family support. At the same time, we couldn’t be more alike. We were both mothers suffering from the same insecurities, self-doubt, imperfections, guilt and feelings of “not-enoughness.” I suddenly felt so very sad for my mother but more so for me for not having seen her as just human, fumbling about, tending her own wounds, learning her life lessons along the way and trying to do the very best that she could.

And so, the process of mending my relationship with my mother continues with a new stitch, sewn with empathy, humility and most importantly, forgiveness. It’s not perfect and I am sure there will still be knots and tangles along the way. But I like that the seams will be visible, showing where one segment of our relationship has ended and hopefully where a new one is beginning.

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator, trained Virtues Project facilitator, and Salt Spring Island mum of four children. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” on Salt Spring Island airwaves at CFSI 107.9 FM.