When and why mothers of middle-aged daughters bite their tongues.
Women who came into adulthood during the 1960s and 1970s fought to have their voices taken seriously. The world was changing and women were changing right along with it. We learned to speak up, speak out, and say no when and where it was needed. We advocated for ourselves, moved ahead in the workplace as was possible, and had a sense of how to, as our grandmothers might have said, “stick up for ourselves.”
Yet in my interviews for It Never Ends: Mothering Middle-Aged Daughters, mothers invariably reported that they retreat to a self-protective silence when visiting their daughters. This was, they told me, the only intimate relationship in which they “walked on eggshells” or “held their tongues.”
Mothers pull for continuing personal autonomy – daughters push for our safety
As women age and see the end of life more clearly than its midpoint, we and our daughters find ourselves engaging in a new and unfamiliar dance. Mothers pull to maintain their independence, while daughters push for their safety. While the dance is understandable and inevitable, the difference in intention can create stumbles and missteps.
Older mothers, as I came to understand after dozens of interviews for It Never Ends: Mothering Middle-Aged Daughters, want to keep their independence for as long as they are able, and to be the ones who determine when and how it should be relinquished. Yet their daughters are concerned about accidental falls, or pots left too long on the stove, and their mother’s physical well-being.
Mothering doesn’t end as women age.
I am nearly 80 years old and my daughters are in the last years of their 50s. When I was a young, a mother just starting out, I imagined that I would be actively engaged for about 18 years before they left home, at which time I would return to the concerns of my own life and they would find their way forward into their own. Of course, I quickly learned that the relationship doesn’t unfold like that. Mothering almost always begins at their birth and ends at our death. I understand that now.
As I prepare to enter my ninth decade, I think about how I want to live these final years. I no longer find the same things funny. I strain to hear, chase after lost proper nouns, try multiple remedies to soothe endlessly aching joints and make every effort to keep my spirits positive. Things seem to take longer now. I am slower and more deliberate in my choices and my actions. And I’m so much more appreciative of what I have, even as the list of what is going and gone continues to grow.
Older mothers with more time yet less contact with middle-aged daughters
I no longer call my daughter, but instead wait to hear from her. That way, I’m certain that she has both the inclination and time to visit. That way, I protect myself against the fear of hearing even the slight hesitation as she adjusts and juggles whatever it was she was planning to do at the moment the phone rang. I don’t trust my spontaneous impulse just to hear her voice but instead send a text or email with a brief update or asking when she has time to talk.
I miss you. There are so many things I want to tell you, so many conversations I didn’t know enough to have when you were still here. Sometimes I’ll put a picture of you on the side table and talk to you in my mind about what your granddaughters are doing in their lives, lives you never would have imagined for them. The one you feared would never be successful and able to make a living is thriving in work she loves. The other with a formal degree guaranteeing success has left the field she was trained for and moved into a more financially precarious world of caring for others. They live near one another now and after some awkward adjustments (you know how different they are!) have settled into a self-aware and accepting sisterhood. Neither of us ever would have imagined how their lives and their relationship have unfolded. All your fears were the wrong ones. Many of mine were too.
Have I been a good-enough mother to my daughter? This question hovered in my thoughts on past sleepless nights when I replayed the scenes of my maternal mistakes—for which I had tried, judged, and sentenced myself. The choices I made as a young woman continued to reverberate painfully through her life and in retrospect, were so foolish, even though they seemed so urgent and necessary then. But crossing the “broken bridge” has taken time.
Preparing a will: a way to model conscious aging for our middle aged daughters.
As aging women, the decisions we need to make about the closing down of our lives are both specific and yet filled with bewildering ambiguity. What are we leaving behind? Who inherits the artifacts that represent our lives? How and why have they been chosen?
When my father died, he left the money that had been accumulated to my mother. That was common then, and undoubtedly still is. But he didn’t leave me anything. I was a grown woman, in my forties, but I wanted something. His Masonic ring. His wristwatch. The ice skates he wore when we used to go to the rink on Sunday afternoons. I know I could have asked my mother for those objects and she would have happily given them to me. But I wanted him to be thinking about me as he made his final decisions. I wanted him to honor the unique ‘us-ness’ of our relationship. It’s not just a home and money that is left when a parent dies. It’s an acknowledgment of the memories, the history, the sense of continuity that death unearths and requires.
Is it crazy for two close friends to think they can write a book together—and maintain their friendship?
Five years ago, at our usual Monday breakfast in a café, we asked ourselves this question. We’d been toying with the idea of co-authoring a book about the experience of mothering middle-aged daughters and imagined it would be a challenging and provocative way to spend the next few years. We would develop our ideas and questions, interview a range of women, and write a book that would open a long, overdue conversation among older mothers about these relationships. While we were used to being together often, we understood this would mean that we would have much more contact, and we’d need to create a balance of work and non-book time so that we’d continue to share other parts of our lives. There would be differences of opinion that would have to be navigated, and we hoped we’d do this skillfully, but the question that was paramount for both of us was: Could we make it through the predictable ups and downs during this period and keep our friendship in one piece?
Whenever my mother came to visit during the early years of my own mothering, I allowed my two young daughters to make messes. I encouraged them to express both their disagreements and their often disagreeable thoughts. Raising daughters who knew how they felt and had the confidence to speak up for what they thought was right and fair was a value I held, one emerging from my own longing and inability as a child to express my feelings and, as my grandmother would have put it, “stick up for myself.” My mother’s intention was to raise children who were well behaved and successful. Perhaps that was her way of communicating to her immigrant mother that she was living the American dream of white upwardly mobile motherhood of the l940’s and 50’s. She had a well scrubbed carefully furnished house. Obedient children. Her own car. All markers of American success.
I place the phone in its cradle (yes, I still use that kind of phone) and allow the sound of my daughter’s enthusiastic voice to fade. We have just finished what used to be our weekly, Sunday morning phone visit and now is our in-the-car-on-the-way-home from-work call. I know when she’s pulling into her driveway because she always chirps,
“I’m glad everything is good with you, Mom. I love you.” That signals the tender end to our conversation. I have received my allotted time.
This is not a complaint. My daughter and I love one another deeply and our relationship is sustaining and satisfying to both of us. Yet there is always a moment, in the quiet after I hang up the phone, that I hear the questions that remain unasked. She doesn’t yet know enough about what it is to be an old woman to know what they are.