Barbara O'Neal on Mothers and Daughters

Mainstream author Barbara O'Neal dishes up another heartwarming tale of love and baking in this month's How to Bake a Perfect Life. When Ramona is thrust into the role of guardian of her teenage granddaughter, she is at a loss about what to do next. Now the author shares the personal story that helped her connect with Ramona's situation and explains the role of "mother dough" in her new novel!

I remember a night when I was eight months pregnant with my first child. It was the thin, dark part of the night, and I sat on the side of the bathtub in the harsh yellow light, rocking back and forth in terror: what have I done? How could I raise a child? I had no idea what I was doing! My husband slept in the other room, oblivious, while I locked myself in the bathroom. Alone with my giant belly and a baby moving soft fists on the other side of my skin, I wept for all the ways I would ruin his/her life.

A bare two weeks later, we sat together on the couch in my living room, Ian and I. He wore a little green jumper and his skin was a lovely olive, his eyes big and blue and so very curious. We sat quietly, he studying me, me falling head over heels into a kind of love I had no idea even existed until then. No one can tell you how your universe shifts when a child is born, how all happiness is suddenly tied to the well-being of this small, sturdy, fragile being. Sitting there with him that sunny August afternoon, I was sure I could be the best mother of all time.

Go ahead, you can laugh.

I am not only a mother, but a daughter to a woman who was quite young when I was born, and granddaughter to her mother, who favored me shamelessly. I adored them both. Still do. And yet, no one on earth can make me feel more exasperated, for less reason, than the two of them. My grandmother drove my mother insane. She drove me insane and made me feel smug, and—this is how the circle turns—my children are old enough now that I can hear them sometimes take a deep breath when I do something that irks them. I see how they almost deliberately misunderstand my motives at times, as I have done with my mother.

So much love. So much knowledge. Even good mothers make giant mistakes, and even those great mothers can be exasperating. And children….well, it’s very difficult for us to make room for our mothers to be simply human beings with lives that have nothing to do with us.

It was all these swirling things that made me want to write about mothers and daughters in How to Bake a Perfect Life, which centers on Ramona Gallagher, a 40 year old mother of Sofia, her pregnant daughter, and the daughter of Lily, who is both loving and interfering and clueless and utterly wise. When Sofia’s soldier husband is grievously wounded in Afghanistan, Sofia races to his side, and Ramona finds herself trying to mother a lost, prickly 13-year-old who has been abandoned by her own mother again.

When Ramona was fifteen and pregnant, her mother was devastated on her behalf, but also furious. She exiled Ramona to her Aunt Poppy’s house, where she learned to bake the breads she so loves, diving into the messy, heady alchemy of sourdough, which is called “mother dough” for its ability to start new loaves of bread. Each mother dough is different according to where it is born, who tends it, and what goes into it. As Ramona learns about her mother’s and grandmother’s history, the lives and choices each of them faced, she finds ways to make choices of her own—which includes raising her daughter instead of offering her for adoption. As that long ago summer reverberates through the present summer, an old love arrives in Ramona’s life, bearing his own scars and losses and the possibility of hope for Ramona, if she can accept it. Unfortunately, she’s trying to mother the recalcitrant Katie, make peace with her own mother, and hold a tent of hope over Sofia, frightened and lost. There isn’t much time left for the love of a man! As the summer hurtles toward its conclusions and conflicts, all four women learn something new about love, in some form or another

Meanwhile, I’ve learned to be more patient with my own mother, to recognize she’s tickled when we order the exact same thing at a restaurant, while I feel dismayed. Because she’s my mother, she’s started changing it so I won’t feel annoyed, while now I want us to match to please her. So it goes, over the years, on and on…

- Barbara O'Neal

To read all about Ramona's adventures in parenting, you can pick up your own copy of How to Bake a Perfect Life when the novel hits bookshelves tomorrow!