On Motherhood and Womanhood with MomThenMeNow
New York City-based actors, singers and wonder women, Cassie Levine and Melissa Rose Hirsch spoke with the Inheritance Project for a Mother’s Day feature to to tell us about their most recent endeavor, MomThenMeNow, a photo-sharing campaign and fundraiser for ovarian cancer research.
MomThenMeNow asks you to jump into history and recreate an old photo of your mother in the same place, wearing the same clothing, in a pose as close to the original photograph as possible. Post your photos on social media throughout the month of May with the hashtag #MomThenMeNow to share how you see yourself in your mom.
MomThenMeNow has partnered with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition to raise money for and awareness of a disease that afflicts one in 78 women in their lifetimes. A donation with each post will go directly to an organization at the forefront of the fight against ovarian cancer.
We cannot control the genes we inherit: Five percent of women with a first-degree relative with ovarian cancer will eventually develop ovarian cancer themselves, a risk three times higher than women with unaffected family members.
In honor of our mothers and our mother’s mothers, let’s share photos that celebrate the beauty, wisdom and strength these women embody and passed on for us to inherit.
“What better charity to celebrate our mothers than the place where it all began, in the ovaries,” MomThenMeNow co-founders Melissa Rose Hirsch and Cassie Levine.
Inheritance Project: What inspired you to start MomThenMeNow?
Melissa: Cassie and I have always been in awe of motherhood. We are also suckers for nostalgia. We found some old photos of our moms and we were so emotional about looking at the women who raised us before we met them or they met us! We were so curious about who they once were. Last October, we sang at an amazing charity event called Celebrate for breast cancer in Columbus, Ohio. I think that event really planted a seed for us about getting involved with charity organizations. While we were upstate in the mountains for a long weekend with friends this winter, MomThenMeNow was born!
Cassie: I have always been obsessed with nostalgia. Any time I go home, I spend hours on the floor of my mom’s picture room, marveling at everything she’s documented throughout the years. I’ve also always had this weird obsession with names and the meaning of them. My parents actually got me a baby name book when I was 12. I guess if you mix those two things together you could say that I’ve been obsessed with motherhood, lineage and how the story of my life began before I was even a thought. Finding a best friend who shares the same obsession is pretty cool, and one day Melissa and I decided to make a difference. We know that so many people feel the same way looking at old photos, and thought why not do something fun while donating to a charity that benefits women and the place where motherhood begins: in the ovaries. We were connected with the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and MomThenMeNow became a reality.
Inheritance Project: What did you inherit from your family, and specifically, your mother?
Melissa: The older I get, the more I see my mother in me. It’s crazy! There was a joke in my family when I was younger that I was switched at birth. As a child, I didn’t look like my parents or my sisters at all. However, in the last few years, I see so much of my mom in me. Especially her eyes. It feels like as I fully become a woman in my twenties, she is coming through in me. I got her love for music. I am proud to say that I inherited all of her compassion. She has the biggest heart and I take notes on how to be more selfless from her.
Cassie: I come from a very close knit family, it’s just my parents, my brother and me—the core four. We were raised in a very loving, hardworking, open and non-judgmental household. My mother is the root of why anything gets done, why we all love so much, why we question everything and why we are all good people. She truly holds the world in her hands. I’ve watched in awe as she has run a successful jewelry business for the past 40-plus years, never missing any—and I mean any—moment of my or my brother’s life. She is the personification of the phrase, “I don’t know how she does it”. I wish I could say that I inherited even half of her drive, but I do know that I have inherited her spirit for life, her honesty and her compassion for others. I know she inherited those traits from her mother. I hope that one day my children feel the same way about me.
Inheritance Project: How does your inheritance influence your identity?
Melissa: My mom is Italian and Brazilian, two cultures that place a huge value on family and tradition. My mom’s extended family, however, split up when her mother moved to the states against her family’s will. I think because my mom was raised by a single mother—who had to be fiercely independent when she lost her husband unexpectedly—my mother inherited strength.
She passed that strength down to her three daughters. My sisters and I have been really lucky to be raised in a home that supports women with strong opinions and loud voices. My father comes from a big Jewish family and I feel so lucky to have had my extended family so close by growing up. At my core, family is really important to who I am. My parents also have really artistic backgrounds and I inherited that from both of them. Without the arts, I wouldn’t be who I am. Being an artist is so much of my identity. I have my parents to thank for that.
Cassie: I come from a Jewish background. I went to a private Hebrew day school from K-5 because my parents thought I could get a great education while learning about my faith and heritage. I used to roll my eyes about it all, but I am so thankful for it now. I stand on the shoulders of so many strong and hardworking Jews and feel so connected to them because of the many traditions my family practices. My Jewish faith and pursuing a passion is fundamental to who I am.
My mom grew up in West LA going door to door selling homemade jewelry, chaperoned by my grandmother who supported her passion for creating her own designs. She now runs her own store, and has for the last 45 years. When my mom discovered my love for performing and song, she did the same, immediately taking me to my first voice lesson at the age of five. She did all she could to help me pursue my love of the arts, even sending me to a performing arts boarding school my freshman year of high school that was four hours from our home. I wouldn’t be myself without either of those educations. I’m endlessly grateful to my parents for placing a value on both of those things, for telling me to never give up on what I love and to never apologize for being myself.
Inheritance Project: Why is knowing your parents and your inheritance important to you?
Melissa: Stories about people and families and how they got where they are sparks everything in me, but there are a lot of mysteries within my own family history. Both of my maternal grandparents were long gone before I was born. I want to know so much more about the lives of the women before my mother, and my grandmother, and her mother, and her mother. I think knowing where we came from can lead us to who we are meant to be. To me, the absolute beauty of motherhood is that it is something that connects us all the way back. In the long line of women in my family, every woman has been born, birthed her own daughter, and passed on. The only thing we as women know for certain is how to create life. That is pure magic. It’s a line that connects us all.
Cassie: I think knowing where you come from leads to loving who you are. My family has great longevity, and I am thankful to have the answers to so many questions about who we are and who we once were. As an adult, I finally recognize my parents as people living in the world. That may sound odd, but as a child I think we only see our parents as our parents, and not human beings with all the same feelings, problems and life experiences that we have. I am not only my mother’s daughter, but also her confidante and best friend. Listening to her life experiences has only helped me with my own. There are so many nuances to growing up, and knowing even a smidgen of my past connects the dots to why I am the way I am.
Inheritance Project: Tell us a story about your mother that’s particularly resonant or memorable for you.
Melissa: One of my very first memories of my mom is so vivid in my mind. I must have been three or four and we were laying in her bed in the summer. My older sisters were at swim practice, and my dad was at work, so most of the morning was spent with my mom alone. We would look at the ceiling and sing a song that we made up over and over again to each other. The lyrics were, “I love mommy and she loves me. We’re as happy as two can be. We do everything together. I will love mama forever.”
It was so silly and still serves as a really special memory for me. Memories are funny: Sometimes the song will randomly come into my head all these years later and there I am again in my parent’s bed in July in the 90s. I should tell her that. Not sure she knows I remember!
Cassie: My mom and I have so many memories together. She’s my travel buddy. I think my favorite memory is driving down the east coast with her to Florida. I worked down in South Florida a lot after college. Sometimes when I’d be down there for an extended job, I’d drive my car down with her—she drove most of the way. It was so nice to just sit with her for hours, singing through all our favorite songs, stopping at places we’ve never seen before, and sometimes eating Krispy Kreme donuts, but only when the light is on. My mother’s zest for life is unmatched. She still maintains a childlike wonder that has definitely passed down to me. We can turn any situation into a fun one. I will never be too old to hold her hand walking down the street. I picture a little girl one day holding my hand on the other side.
What is the story behind the picture of your mother you chose to recreate? Why did you select that photo?
Melissa: This photo took my breath away the first time I saw it, four years ago. It is also the first photo of my mom that I ever saw that I thought looked like me. I think what struck me the most was how free spirited she is in the photo. No kids. No worries. She is about 24 in the picture. It made me reflect on my future and her past all at once. I never met that woman in the photograph, but I honestly think she would have been one of my best friends.
Cassie: I actually thought the person in this photo was me the first time I saw it. When you look closely I probably look more like my dad than my mom, but there is something about the essence of my mother that is just me. This picture is special because it’s at an iconic landmark that is now in my own backyard. My mom actually came with me a few days ago to take it.
She was obsessed with the Beatles growing up, and being an LA lady, I think New York City seemed so majestic and different to her. I don’t know if she ever thought she would move across the country for love, but without that move I wouldn’t exist. I don’t know if she ever thought her daughter would live in New York City pursuing a career in the arts, but if it wasn’t for her support I wouldn’t be living my dream. Standing in the place where my mom stood 30 years ago was magical. That place has seen so much since then, and it now knows us both.
Inheritance Project: What do you hope people learn from talking to their mothers? What might we not know about their lives and our relationships?
Melissa: I think our society does a good job making us feel strange when we are 100% vulnerable. I get it, vulnerability is scary. But I also believe it is where all the magic lives. When people become parents in our modern world, their identity shifts: parent first, individual second. I hope that the MomThenMeNow challenge inspires people to talk more openly with their parents about the real stuff. Our parents know so much more about this big mystery of life than we do. They are so wise, with a wealth of knowledge and experience, and simultaneously just as lost as we are. I want us, our parent’s children, to remember that before we were their whole entire world, our mothers were young women who had dreams and who got their hearts broken by the wrong guy, who made mistakes and who lay in bed late at night wondering what their life would become. Just like us.
Cassie: We would be nothing without our mothers. That is not to take away anything from any other parent or person raising a child, but we all come out of our moms. From the beginning we are with them, connected, whether we like it or not. I think being able to be open with your mom creates a support and comfort that lets you go out and conquer the world. You come from her, and she wants the best for you, no matter how that manifests into your life. I hope the MomThenMeNow challenge holds a mirror up to what we love about the women who created us and teaches us to celebrate them, and to love the similarities we see in ourselves.
To participate in the MomThenMeNow photo-submission campaign and donate money to ovarian cancer research, visit their Instagram @MomThenMeNow or visit https://events.ovarian.org/fundraise/momthenmenow.