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Listen to your mother: Tips for honoring (and recording) your mom’s life story

7 min
Maggie lemere as a child sits in a a grass patch next to her mother who is crouching down to smile for the portrait. They both wear dresses.
The idea of interviewing my mother about her life story is something I’ve thought about for a long time. When I tried to picture pivotal experiences throughout her life, they felt fuzzy and elusive, and that frustrated me—especially since interviewing people about their lives is something I do for a living. What’s more, as an oral historian, I recognize that my mom’s story is a living piece of women’s history, one that may never be captured in the depth it deserves unless I do it.

And yet, every trip home, every quality visit together, I found a reason that it wasn’t quite the right time to hit “record.”

...Until now.
Maggie Lemere and her mother stand behind a bonfire in a valley clinking their wine glasses together.
As the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, I’ve been confronted by the profound precarity of life, and last month, I decided to finally interview my mom. To my surprise, we spent nine hours talking over several weeks. Part way through the process, two of my mom’s closest family members became hospitalized with COVID-19, deeply underscoring the importance of doing this “work” (as my mom described it) for both of us. It was fun, surprising, hard, and ultimately, so worthwhile.

Asking your mother to share her life story isn’t necessarily for everyone, but if you find yourself thinking that this might be the time to jump in, here is what I learned . (I also suggest reviewing this excellent background information on how to do an oral history interview).
1. Put your mom at ease

My mom is much more private than I am, and I knew she would be a bit reluctant to be recorded. To put her at ease, I explained that this was less of a formal interview and more of an informal conversation; that we could start and stop whenever she wanted to; that we didn’t have to talk about anything she didn’t want to or wasn’t ready to. Finally, I assured her that I wouldn’t share the recordings of our conversations with anyone without her permission. This helped my mom to feel comfortable beginning the process, and like most people I’ve interviewed, she relaxed more and more the further we got into it.
Hearing about your mother’s life story can be emotionally challenging for you, and sharing it can be challenging for her.
2. Anticipate that you’ll both need space to process complex emotions and truths

Hearing about your mother’s life story can be emotionally challenging for you, and sharing it can be challenging for her (the process can also be joyful—more on that below). You are likely to hear perspectives that potentially contradict and complicate your own––and in most families there are difficult experiences that need to be sensitively approached, thoughtfully navigated and processed. Before you begin, I recommend asking someone you trust to be available if you need to debrief or process things after a conversation with your mom, and suggesting that she do the same. For example, I didn’t expect my mom to tell me about having to quit a job because her boss wouldn’t stop sexually harassing her. Although she has processed that experience, I needed space to absorb all of the new layers in my mom’s story.
Maggie Lemere's mother holds Maggie in a hospital bed shortly after giving birth
3. Embrace being (physically) distant, if you are

Generally speaking, oral historians tend to think of conducting interviews in person as the gold standard; it lets us better read body language, build a connection with the interviewee, and show empathy. So I was surprised and moved to find that interviewing my mom remotely (our only option because of COVID) likely allowed us less awkwardness and more vulnerability when I asked hard questions like: “Do you regret having kids so young? How do you think your life would have been different if you hadn’t?” (My mom met my dad the day after she finished college and had a baby a year later.) After the heavier moments, we could easily take breaks and decompress in our own home.
4. Remember that this is her story and listen deeply

It can be hard to fully conceive that your mother had a whole life before you—and continues to have one apart from you. But the point of oral history is to facilitate the interviewee telling their own story, from their own perspective. Be ready to witness your mother beyond her role of mothering you. This means listening deeply. Going into the process with a list of themes to explore, rather than a rigid list of questions, can help give your mother the space to guide the direction of the conversation, which will undoubtedly bring details to the surface that you would otherwise miss with a more tightly scripted approach. Throughout this process, I realized I tend to talk to my mom a lot about my issues, but I hadn’t ever listened this much to her; I am probably not alone in this. An oral history with your mom is an opportunity to put into practice the empathy we might ourselves expect to receive, intentionally flip the dynamic and tell her that this time, it’s all about her.
5. Embrace vulnerability

Moms are often in the role of protecting us, of being the “strong one,” but understanding the depths of the challenges they’ve experienced might help us understand exactly how strong they actually are, and appreciate them for who they are fully in a way we couldn’t have before. For example: After being the first woman in her family to graduate from college, and having two babies—one of whom was very, very sick with a yet-to-be identified disease—my mom persevered to financially support her family and simultaneously earn a graduate degree. I knew this, but I had never before asked her in so much detail how it felt at the time; I think I was afraid to. It was difficult to hear how scary, uncertain and lonely those days, weeks and months were for her, but now I better understand her values, why she prioritizes what she does, and the advice/real-talk she gives me.
A black and white photo of Maggie Lemere as a toddler being held by her mother
6. Take your time

Before I began this process, four hours was a “long interview” for me. But with my mom, after nine hours, there’s still so much more to cover—and that’s ok. Stories are not static; how we think about them and tell them changes over time as we have new and different experiences, and as our understanding of ourselves and our pasts evolves. I felt more comfortable talking to my mom about my parent’s divorce in the ninth hour than I ever could have in the second or third. Don’t feel pressure to do it all at once––or to do it on days when either of you just aren’t feeling up to it.
7. Honor the present and future, as much as the past

It is important to understand that your mother’s story is as much about understanding her present and the way she thinks about the future as it is about the past. In other words, your mother’s story is still unfolding. This is a chance to ask her things like how she relates to her current age, for example. As life goes on, we don’t always take the space to truly honor what our mom’s dreams are where they stand today. Through this interview you can ask, listen, and then support them becoming realized.
8. Trust in the benefits of the process

While interviewing our mothers invites an unparalleled kind of openness and vulnerability, the process can also be joyful: I’ve always known my mom as the most responsible person in my life, and as the person who worries most about me, so I loved hearing new stories about her hitchhiking across Europe and rock climbing in Yosemite before it was cool.

This process has also helped me think more deeply about my own ideas around the importance of my career versus relationships. And my mom is now reaching out to old friends with whom she’d lost touch. Together, we’ve discussed how we can act upon some of the things we both shared during our time together (a family reunion with my brother and dad, in my case).

Ultimately, the more I got into this process, the more I wanted to keep going, the closer I felt to my mom, and the more my respect for her grew. I’m so grateful for the deepened connection, understanding and trust I have with my mom in this moment as we navigate new challenges together.

All relationships are work: They are about honoring what we share, and also what is different between us; oral history is a beautiful way to intentionally take the time to do this, to grow closer, and to tell your mom that she, and her story, matter.