Katie Hafner asked herself that question more and more after inviting her 77-year-old mother, Helen, to leave her home in San Diego and move in with her and her 16-year-old daughter in San Francisco.
"I was determined to do what I could to help my mother. I also held fast to a fairy tale view of our relationship that made us certain everything would work out fine," Hafner recalled. "We referred to our adventure as 'our year in Provence.'"
Instead of basking in Provence, Hafner found herself grimly sandwiched between her obligation to her mother and her love and responsibility for her teenager, who was particularly close to her since her father had died.
This experimental living arrangement led to her book, "Mother Daughter Me," and Towne Center Books is hosting Hafner in Pleasanton next week in conjunction with Mother's Day.
Hafner's childhood was not easy. Helen had a history of drinking, and Hafner and her sister were taken away from their mother by court order to live with their father when they were 12 and 10, respectively. Even years later, Hafner still had much anger and resentment toward her.
"I began acting out, in small, often cruel ways," Hafner said. "I rejected the things she brought with her into our cohabitation, right down to her kitchen knives, which I considered inferior to mine. If she needed me to do something for her, I did it, but grudgingly."
The "year in Provence" quickly turned into a "half-year in hell," and her mother moved out after six months.
Although Hafner was a professional writer, she did not plan to write about her mother moving in with her.
She worked at The New York Times for 10 years, writing on health care and technology, and also worked at Newsweek and BusinessWeek.
"I entered into the experiment in multigenerational living with my mother with no intention of writing a book," Hafner recalled. "But as it turned out, I wasn't over my feelings about my childhood, which had been, to put it mildly, less than ideal."
"I lay in bed at night confused, angry, sorry and tormented," she added. "One night, while in this state of mental anguish, I thought to myself, 'Either this experiment is going to kill me, or I will write about it.' I got out of bed and wrote."
In the end, Hafner came to admire her mother for the life she was able to make for herself in San Francisco. And critics have come to admire the book, which was published by Random House and last month came out in paperback.
KJ Dell'Antonia of The New York Times called it, "The most raw, honest and engaging memoir I've read in a long time."
Abraham Verghese, author of "Cutting for Stone," said, "This brilliant, funny, poignant and wrenching story of three generations under one roof is quite unlike anything I have ever read. I love Hafner's prose, her humor, the images she conjures, her choices of what to tell and when, the weaving together of family threads to produce this luminous and lasting tapestry. The story lingered with me long after I read the last page."
Hafner said although the book is nonfiction, she approached the writing as one might a good novel.
"It's all in the storytelling," she explained.
She had written five nonfiction books before, on the origins of the Internet, computer hackers, German reunification and pianist Glenn Gould. She said she thought "Mother Daughter Me" would be easier because it didn't require extensive research.
"It turned out to be the hardest of any book I've written because it was so emotionally wrenching," she said. "The first draft took a year to complete, and the subsequent drafts each took many months."
Her writing also has been in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, and O, The Oprah Magazine.
For the release of the paperback, Hafner partnered with Mighty Leaf Tea so her appearance at the Towne Center Books event will include tea and treats with the idea that mothers and daughters may enjoy attending together. The event is at 11 a.m. May 7 at the atrium in the backyard of the Prim Boutique on Main Street. Call Towne Center Books at 846-8826 for more information.