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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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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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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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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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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The Odd Couple: Co-Authoring a Book with a Friend

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?

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A Silent Rebuke

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.

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Reclaiming Mothers’ Day

Long before Hallmark card and bouquets of flowers, Mothers’ Day was a day of anti-war activism, begun after the Civil War by women who had lost their sons. In l870, Julia Ward Howe, American writer, lecturer, and reformer, wrote the words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and introduced the idea of an anti-war Mothers’ Day message, an important reminder of the profound loss and pain war creates for all mothers.

There are many wars plaguing America in 2018. Many battles to be waged. In l967, the combination of the founding of Another Mother for Peace in 1967 by a group of women strongly opposed to the war in Vietnam, and the early stirrings of second wave feminism created the landscape upon which I have lived my life.  I am grateful to have been swept forward by women who were conceptualizing their role to fight against injustice and oppression of all kinds through the language of motherhood. I was a 29 year old mother and began to understand that there was a political identity in that role. I was resisting injustice, not only because I was a mother, but also resisting the injustices of my life as a mother.

The responses to It Never Ends: Mothering Middle-Aged Daughters have affirmed the importance of shining a light onto the unexamined and unacknowledged dimensions of women’s lives. I have heard from women who had all the responsibility and very little of the power to guide their daughter’s lives as they wanted to. 

Nearly 50% of marriages in the l960s and 1970s ended in divorce, and mothers report having scrambled to make a living, care for their children and participate in the cultural upheaval that was changing nearly every part of contemporary life. There was no safety net for them or their children, and no recognition of what were then called, “divorced women with latchkey kids” had to face.

I receive emails from those women who are now aging and experience themselves as doubly invisible. Seen as “over the hill,” their voices less valuable, their lifetime of experience unsolicited in all the conversations that consume the United States in this political moment. In addition to being allies to the urgent concerns of younger people, older women have our own issues that need to be brought forward and engaged.

I don’t want flowers. I don’t want balloons. I don’t want a sentimental Hallmark card. On this Mothers’ Day, I want women who are mothers to have the fullness of their political, cultural, psychological, physical and spiritual lives taken seriously, to be honored for the very presence they have in our bruised world, and for the steady hand they continue to use to guide the next generation forward.

Happy Mothers’ Day, everyone!