Don’t Tell My Daughter She Looks Like Me
“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.