Relationships & Divorce
Relationships & Divorce
38 Questions My Daughter Asked Me
My daughter set out to know me better. Through it, we both learned more about ourselves
My daughter is afraid I will die.
Obviously I’ll die. So will she. What she’s really afraid of is that I’ll die before she’s ready — and one of the ways she’s trying to handle that fear is by capturing and “preserving” me through my words.
It makes sense. I’m a writer, a talker; words are the way I share myself with the world. Some daughters collect photos of their mothers, or lay the scarves and sweaters their mothers have knit in a cedar chest. My daughter wants to collect my words.
“Can I interview you, Mom? Ask you some questions about your life and record it on my phone?”
I agreed, and she sent me a list of 38 questions that she wants me to answer for her.
Some of the questions were straightforward, predictable. Who was your first kiss? When was the first time you got drunk? What was the happiest day of your life? Others were more complex. When did you begin to truly love yourself?
The ones that touched me the most were her questions about the chain from generation to generation. She wanted to know how I felt about having parents, being a parent, and imagining her as a parent.
She knew my parents as grandparents — old, fussy, generous beings who didn’t nag her to do her homework or clean her room, but simply treasured the time she spent with them. But this was different. She wanted to understand what it was like to have them as parents, not as grandparents. What traits do you have that remind you of your parents? How have those traits helped or stifled you in your life? How do you feel you let your parents down?
She also wanted to understand my experience as her mother — not as a mother, generically, but as her mother. She wasn’t an easy adolescent or young adult — we both knew that — and I think she wanted me to assure her that I had forgiven her, or maybe she hoped I would help her to forgive herself. What do you wish you could have saved me from? What advice do you most wish I would have listened to? If you could change one thing about my life, what would it be?
Other questions had to do with her own emerging vision of herself as a potential mother. In them, I read her hope that I might help her to do it well. If you could give me three things you hope I instill in my children, what would they be?
As I continued to ponder her questions, however, I began to see them in another way.
Some are about her desire to know me more deeply. She wants to know about my jobs, my favorite holidays, my childhood friends. Who do you feel knows you the best? How many times have you been in love? After all, that’s the stated purpose of the “interview.”
But other questions are about her desire for me to know her — to be sure that I’ve truly seen her. What have I done that has made you the proudest? What have I done that has caused you the most pain?
That took me aback. It seemed as if she was sneaking in a request for me to talk about her, rather than about myself. Then I realized: of course.
The two desires can’t be separated — to know the other, and to be known. To know the other without being known oneself leads to a deep loneliness, a sense of isolation even in the midst of presumed intimacy. To be known without knowing the other is equally isolating; it means the other has held back, refusing exposure and the vulnerability that follows. It’s the mutuality we long for, the reciprocal sense of being seen.
And then I realized that there’s a third level.
When I know that I’m truly seen — because I revealed myself intentionally, or because I find myself under the gaze of someone who’s managed to penetrate all the masks — I become visible to myself. To be seen like that is to be accepted. Through your vision and acceptance, I can see and accept myself.
I understood now.
My daughter wants to know me more fully because she hopes, in knowing me, that she herself will be known — by me, and by herself.
Isn’t that what love is all about?
I don’t have the answers that my daughter is really seeking, behind the specifics of her 38 questions. She’ll have to find them for herself, in her own time and in her own way. But I’m honored that she’s trusting me with her questions.
I don’t have a terminal illness, by the way. I’m simply mortal, with a finite number of days. It’s good to keep my daughter’s final question in mind, as I try to live them well: How do you want to be remembered?
What question do you wish you’d asked your mother? What do you want your daughter to ask you?
Barbara Linn Probst is the author of Queen of the Owls, about a woman’s quest to claim her neglected sensuality and find her true self hidden behind the roles of wife, mother, sister, and colleague. To find out more, please go to Barbara’s website or her Amazon page.