I unintentionally read two books last month that were both, at their core, about toxicity in mother-daughter relationships. Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and Adrienne Brodeur’s Wild Game are very different types of stories. TVH is a novel about two light-skinned Black twin sisters who choose different paths in life—Desiree living life as a Black woman, and Stella choosing to pass as white. It moves forward through time until we see how their choices impact the lives of their daughters. Wild Game is a memoir by a woman who, when she was 14, got wrangled into being a co-conspirator in her mother Malabar’s affair with a family friend. The affair goes on for more than a decade, fully absorbing Adrienne in the drama and lies throughout her adolescence.
I might not have dwelled too long on either of these stories if I hadn’t read them back-to-back. But both Stella and Malabar tell extraordinary lies to keep their secrets safe, and it comes at great cost to their daughters.
It’s sort of a given by now that our mothers will hurt us in some way at various points in our lives. Little comments about our appearance, the choices we make, and the people we love can all add up to big, swollen pain. Times when they paid too little attention, times when they clamped down too hard. As we age we begin to see them as human, capable of both vast love and error. Even so, we swear to do better by our own children.
For me personally, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. My biggest regret so far in my daughter’s short life has been calling her shy in front of another adult when she was about two or three years old. I can’t remember a time during my childhood when my outgoing mother didn’t apologize to others for my shyness, causing me to intuit that shyness was a bad thing, meant to be overcome, compounding layer after layer of anxiety about my anxiety. Even though I now carry with me the knowledge that introverts are important and necessary members of society, I still experience that gut-twisting fear in large groups that I’m not talking enough, not contributing enough.
My daughter has run up to me on a few occasions and asserted that the cats hiding from her in the closet are “a little shy, like me!” I don’t really think she comprehends that she has grown out of her shy phase and is now just a cyclone of wild, talkative energy. But when she claims to be shy, I don’t correct her. Instead I tell her, “And that’s ok. I am too.”
I will surely misstep in a myriad of other ways as she grows. I hope I can find the strength to apologize. So many of my friends have commented on the apologies we rarely, if ever, received from our mothers. An acknowledgment of our suffering, even if it was petty and small. Maybe that was a standard of parenting toward the end of the last century—like a car accident—never admit fault. Or maybe that’s just part of being human, a natural resistance to being in the wrong.
In The Vanishing Half and Wild Game, neither Stella nor Malabar ever offer their daughters the apology or the reckoning they yearn for. But still their daughters love them and chase their approval and try to know them. In some ways this seems sad. As a daughter, I mourn the lack of righteous comeuppance for these women. In other ways, I think thank god. As a mother, I will have room to make missteps and, most importantly, room to atone.