Author Archives: Sandra Butler

Choosing Silence

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.”

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Photo: Sandra Butler and Nan Fink Gefen

Ashby Village Discussion Featuring Co-Authors

Sandra Butler and Nan Fink Gene Discuss Mothers’ Perspectives on Their Life-Long Role

What do mothers over 65 have to say about their current mother-daughter relationships? Authors Sandra Butler and Nan Fink Gefen interviewed 78 mothers, ranging in age from 65-85, of varied backgrounds, family configurations, employment, education, racial identities, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. The authors listened as mothers recounted stories of the complex twists and turns of their mothering over time. The interactive presentation, facilitated by Ashby Village co-chair of the Arts and Culture program Marcia Freedman, was both touching and thought provoking, punctuated by knowing laughter and sighs of recognition from the audience.

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Push and Pull: Dancing With our Daughters

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.

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Still Mothering After All These Years

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.

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More and Less

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.

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Letter from a Good Enough Daughter

Dear Ma,

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.

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Crossing the Broken Bridge

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.

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Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

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.

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