Poems & Essays

03 Aug

Don’t Tell My Daughter She Looks Like Me

In Mother Words Blog 12 Responses

“Mama, can I grow my hair very long?”

“Sure, darling, it’s your hair.”

“Can you cut your hair very short?”

“Um, how short are we talking about? I kind of like it this way.”

“I want people to stop saying we look alike. We look NOTHING alike!”

Ah. Got it.

People love to comment on resemblance between parents and children, even if it isn’t there. My daughter doesn’t look that much like me. But people like patterns; they like evidence of familial connection (even though not all families are genetically related); and they like continuity. Passersby love to smile approvingly at my child and me as we sit on our front stoop. They exclaim, “She looks just like you! She’s your mini-me!”

It isn’t hard to imagine how crummy that feels. Who wants to be a facsimile? Who wants, worse yet, to be a miniature facsimile?

But it goes much deeper than that. Who wants to look like her mother?

Still, it’s hard to hear her anguish.

“Mama, I look NOTHING like you!” It feels like a rejection. What, am I not pretty? Am I not something you might aspire to be? Do I not project an air of confidence and well-being that you might someday like to have as a woman?

Of course these aren’t things a child can process. Honestly, as an adult, it hasn’t gotten much easier to hear a stranger (or a friend) tell me that I look just like my mother. I cringe when someone tells my mother and me that we look alike—and it happens all the time. I know too well my mother’s flaws, both physical and emotional. I know her weaknesses, her history, the parts of her face that I am certain I did not inherit and frankly wouldn’t want to, her foibles, her neuroses, her mistakes in life.

It’s a common trope that daughters reach a stage when their need to differentiate themselves from their mothers is so powerful that rebellion ensues. They find fault with everything we do, they are embarrassed by us, they wither in horror when we open our mouths to say anything. So goes the conventional wisdom.

The truth, at least for me, was more complex. My mother was at times an embarrassment, but she was also my lighthouse, a source of wisdom on matters sartorial, intellectual and artistic. If I had an ethical problem, I trusted her judgment. If I’d been unkind, my mother’s was a resonant voice guiding me toward better behavior. If I didn’t understand a poem, my mother would have an idea. Her interpretations were iconoclastic. My mother was an original. I loved that about her, above all else.

And that may be what’s really at the heart of hating all the comparison. We all want to be originals. We want to look like ourselves. We want our favorite traits to shine and we hope that whatever we dislike about ourselves is obscured in some protective shadow. They say we edit when we look in a mirror, seeing only the impression our moods create. If it’s a good day, we like the person we see. If it’s a bad day, we see the facial traits we dislike.

But we always see ourselves, not a reflection of another person.

Now I cringe when people comment on my daughter’s resemblance to me. You are bringing a world of trouble to my doorstep, I think. Please don’t. Don’t comment at all. I know you mean well, but that’s actually a dagger you’re wielding. I see the avuncular or maternal smiles that accompany your observations; I know you think it’s an innocent remark, a friendly tip of the hat to two strangers. But think before you comment: did you react well to such comparisons when you were small? Do you now?

I want to distance myself from my daughter. Or rather, allow her to distance herself from me. When people continually drag her identity back to one of its points of origin—and to the person she is arguably closest to in the world right now—it creates a problem for her and for me. Let me be her lighthouse—and not one equipped with floor to ceiling fun-house mirrors. Let me be an island of safety, not one from which she is trying to find an escape route.

My mother is seventy-five now. She suffered a brain-altering stroke six years ago. I struggle to remember her old glamour, her wit, her world-view. She is so changed that we now truly look nothing alike. Her eyes don’t sparkle with immediacy anymore, and even her gait, so commanding all her life, has changed. She is no longer my lighthouse.

I search old photos of her, and I try to see our resemblance. Now that I am at last appreciative of the struggles and joys of loving a daughter, I wish I did see the similarity I used to deny so emphatically. Was my mother beautiful? Was she special? Was it an honor to be considered an obvious relation? Did I hurt her when I recoiled from the notion?

I don’t see it, even now. She was dark, I am light. She was tailored and crisp; I prefer soft and delicate. She had straight hair, I have curly. She was direct; I am non-linear. We are so very different.

Maybe the eyes. Yes, I have my mother’s eyes. And though I would never tell my daughter so, she has mine. If she sees it in photos someday, so be it. It is not for me to tell her that she has inherited anything from me, except a strong sense of where one person ends and another begins.

The next time you see a mother and daughter together, don’t tell them they look alike. Instead, maybe ask what their favorite books are. Their answers won’t be the same, and the conversation will be a lot more interesting. Similarity is a dead-end; difference is a starting point. And boy, will her daughter love to point out that difference.


Leslie Kendall Dye has written for The Mid, The Huffington Post, Off The Shelf, Tipsy Lit, Mamalode, The Washington Post, Erma Bombeck, Nanny Magazine, Coffee+Crumbs, and several other sites. She is an actor and dancer in NYC.







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Would you like to join the discussion? Feel free to contribute!

  1. Chris Carter

    August 3, 2015 at 2:07 pm

    That was absolutely beautiful. Sharing this everywhere.

  2. Andrea

    August 3, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    I relate to this so much. I resemble my mother, and people have always remarked on our similarities. Though I admire her, I never quite know what to reply. Thank you? I know? It’s a conversation ender, to tell someone they look like someone else. It’s almost as if you’re saying that they are invisible.

  3. Melanie McKinnon

    August 3, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Beautifully written, Leslie. You are so gifted and insightful and I love that about you. 🙂

  4. Dale

    August 3, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Since my daughter was a young child people have always commented how much we look alike. When she was little I smiled, while silently taking offense on her behalf, because she really was and continues to be much prettier than I ever was. But now, at 72, when people make that comment (and occasionally they still do) — well, I just feel warm all over…

  5. Suzanne

    August 4, 2015 at 1:47 pm

    My daughter is identified as “mine” whenever she encounters someone who knows me. “You HAVE to be Suzanne’s daughter…you look just like her!” When we’re together, I’m the first to give her an out, some wiggle room “Can you imagine hearing that all the time? Poor thing…” and then I laugh. I look just like my mother and now that she’s 71, I’m grateful. I don’t remember ever not wanting to look like her. Vivacious, strong. As she ages, I see the physical flaws and in all honesty, I don’t want them. But I’m strong, too, and will bear them, I hope, with grace. My daughter is so much more lovely than I ever dreamed of being. I’m sending this to her so she knows it is ok to be herself and I won’t take it personally!

  6. Leslie Kendall Dye

    August 5, 2015 at 12:55 pm

    Suzanne, it is funny that you say your daughter is more lovely than you ever dreamed of being. I feel the same way about mine. And yet, when my mother responded by telling people “Oh, to say she looks like me is a compliment to me but an insult to her,” I think that damaged me, because they say that girls self-esteem is based on how her mother feels about herself, not on how her mother feels about her daughter. I saw that on Oprah years ago, and it always stuck with me; it instantly resonated. My mother was so lovely, so gifted, and so ashamed of herself and certain of her own (imaginary) limitations. I absorbed this model of thinking about myself, denigrating my housecleaning skills, my other skills, the way my mother did. It took years of work to free myself from that yoke. the other night, she was coloring with my baby daughter, and she said “I can’t draw! They had to pick me up from school because I couldn’t participate in art class!” And I wish my daughter hadn’t heard that. I try never to express my feelings of inadequacy in front of my daughter, and I am happy to say practice helps solidify this habit. Thank you so much for reading my piece, for sharing it, and for your thoughtful commentary!

  7. Irey

    December 25, 2015 at 4:15 am

    You don’t have to be ugly to make her feel pretty, or different from you. How about, we are all beautiful. Both daughters and mothers. And we have our OWN traits.
    They have to learn that people will say things just because it’s popular to say them. And to not take such things personally. But not to be quiet about them either.
    To learn to trust more what they see, than what others tell them they see.
    It is frustrating indeed, but no need to blame mother. And I admire that you recognized it’s not an insult to you, and that you were able to have compassion for her side too.

    I’m 21, and my aunt keeps telling my younger cousin and I “WOW you look so much alike I confuse you sometimes.”
    My uncle/her dad’s comment: “Here’s your twin”……… ugh.

    This bothered me SO much and I soon realized that it bothered her too (she is 12). In her life, she’s made comments on how beautiful I am and even called me “princess”.
    Even so, I can tell it bothers her too when she is compared. We both know we have very original traits.
    This Christmas, I will make it clear in a graceful way.
    “Listen, me and my cousin love each other, we have some things that are alike. But we would really want to stop being compared so much because we are still individuals. We still love you and please consider it..”
    -Sigh- Wish me luck!

  8. Leslie

    January 13, 2016 at 11:54 am

    I agree that they must learn that people will say things because it is popular to say so, or the thing to say. In fact, that can help her process the frustration, because she can understand it has nothing to do with objective reality. (If there is such a thing.) But I believe it is the very fact that people say things on auto pilot that is part of what is irksome. We wonder if people are truly looking or thinking at all.

  9. Harsh

    February 21, 2016 at 10:22 am

    I understand the meaning when they say ahh what a cute baby just like mom/dad…..but u know thats just a phrase to adore a kid….may not be so meaningfull actually….

  10. Eliza

    November 14, 2018 at 12:24 pm

    It doesn’t bother me when people tell me I look just like my Mother. I DO and she’s strikingly beautiful. But I hate being told I look like certain OTHER people when I KNOW for a FACT I DON’T. I know I’m not better than anyone else. But last night my Aunt texted me a picture of a girl who supposedly ‘could be my twin.’ Nobody is ‘ugly’ but it really bothered me.

    My Aunt really meant well. But she seems to forget that I’m an expert on my own appearance. I know who I do and DO NOT look like. I know I could be my MOTHER’S twin and everybody under the sun tells me that. I have also been told that I look like Vanessa L. Williams and Nicole Richie. I DO actually look like these ladies.

    Other than a certain few people like the celebrities I mentioned and my Mom, I cannot stand being told that I look like other people whom I TRUTHFULLY and REASONABLY know I DO NOT look like. I don’t mean to be vain but when someone says I look like someone who does not resemble me in any manner it really makes me feel self conscious. I’d rather not be told that I look like anyone but myself under those circumstances.

    I know it’s just an opinion but sometimes I wish people would keep things like this to themselves. I don’t always tell people whom I think they look like. They may not always want to know my opinion in the matter.

  11. Kalyani

    January 12, 2019 at 1:19 am

    Liked it very much. All the three females sound extraordinary.

  12. Kate

    July 17, 2020 at 6:11 pm

    I have seriously never related to something so much in my life, I always HATED absolutely hated when people told me I look just like my mom and I always felt guilty about how I felt, but I never made the connection that the main reason is I don’t want to be just like my mom I need to by an original, my own person. This was so comforting to know I’m not alone in hating that comment and understanding part of the reasoning behind it thank you!!


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