Our Mothers, Ourselves?

When it comes to the way we choose to live our lives, how free is our will, really ... and how much has to do with the way mom lived hers?
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When it comes to the way we choose to live our lives, how free is our will, really... and how much has to do with the way mom lived hers?

I got to musing on this particular question after reading an interview in the Guardian with both Erica Jong -- author, writer, sexual revolutionary and coiner of the term "zipless f*ck" -- and her daughter Molly Jong-Fast, a self-described prude. Who else but the daughter of Erica Jong would choose that word, of all words, to describe herself?

The piece was tied to the recent release of Sugar in My Bowl, an anthology of sexual memoir edited by Erica Jong, and to which her daughter Molly contributed an essay. Its title? "They had sex so I didn't have to."

It's the Alex P. Keaton effect: the character, from the 80s sitcom Family Ties, was the eldest son of hippie parents. He wore a three-piece suit at all times, and loved Ronald Reagan as much as he loved the smell of money. I have a friend whose story is similar: she spent several years of her childhood on an ashram in India, returning to the San Francisco Bay Area where her home was often the meeting place for her mother's meditation group. She told me recently about how, growing up, all she wanted was to shop at Talbots.

Rebellion, of course, is a natural -- and healthy -- part of growing up, individuation in psychological speak. The more extreme the circumstances of our upbringing, the more extreme our rebellion may in fact be. And the pendulum of social norms tends to swing from one end to the other, from generation to generation, too. Here's a bit from the Guardian article:

Molly maps out the gulf between young and old in more detail in her essay, writing that while her mother grew up in a culture where sex was secretive and tightly tied to marriage, she grew up in a sex-obsessed era, with Britney Spears, for instance, constantly on-screen, 'pulsating in a bikini, musing on her virginity.' They each reacted against their circumstances, and against the mores of the previous generation--as did many of their peers. As Erica writes in her 1994 memoir, Fear of Fifty, 'rebelling generations follow quiescent ones, quiescent ones follow rebelling ones and the world goes on as it always has.'

As it is across generations, might it be across the individuals that make up the generational branches of a family tree?

It's contrary to the conventional wisdom that assures us that, with or without our consent, eventually, we will become our mothers. Which, upsetting though that may be to some, makes perfect sense: in addition to the matter of shared DNA, there's also the fact that, in all likelihood, our mother was the person with whom we spent the bulk of our formative years. (Likely the very reasons the relationship is so notoriously intense.) And many of us do emulate our mothers. And yet: whether we model mom or the anti-mom, well, mom's got top billing.

Maybe it seems too trite, too reductionist, too Freudian. Maybe Molly and my Talbots-coveting friend and the rest of us are just out to become our own people, making sexual or sartorial choices based on who we are as individuals, without giving any thought to what mom would do.

But. Even for an extreme case like that of the Jongs, it seems that some similarities are downright inescapable. The essay leaves the reader with the impression that mother and daughter are two sides of the same coin: hilarious, outspoken, confident -- just with different views on stuff. (And whether those similarities are due to nature or nurture, does it really matter?) And sometimes, even the stuff falls into line: That friend of mine spent last Thanksgiving at a silent retreat, subsisting on raw juices and enjoying morning colonics.

And my mom and I? I fought becoming a writer -- though that was exactly what I'd always wanted to do -- for as long as I could, thinking it lame to just blindly follow along in mom's footsteps. And yet. We spent the last two years of our lives writing a book ... together.

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