Sunday, October 24, 2010

Autumn comes before Winter, Yes it does . . .

Although I don't want to dwell on it too much, because it impinges on others' privacy, I've been grappling with some intense, if occasional, sadness lately, sadness that seems to hit regularly on weekends when I have time to slow down for it. While my life overall is full of good things, I can't help but react to the effects of aging on both my mother and my mother-in-law: my mom is fortunate in her physical health and able to walk vigorously and often; my mother-in-law's joint pain keeps her confined very close to home; both women are experiencing Mild Cognitive Impairment, with my MIL sinking very quickly into a state which will require changed living arrangements for her and my FIL.
Because my mother and I are only 22 years apart, I can't help but occupy her role imaginatively, although I recognize the many, many differences between us. I've battled much less with depression, am much more outgoing, set intellectual and cognitive challenges for myself much more vigorously. We are not the same; her present is not my future. Still, what I fear we may share, what I catch myself anticipating defensively, is that dismissal, even irritation --at best condescension-- that I admit I've sometimes directed at both older women, as have my sibs and my sibs-in-law. Perhaps it's only the guilt I feel at my own impatience, dismissal, condescension, but I begin to detect traces of it aimed at me, by my own kids -- poetic justice!
Rose glauca hips

After decades of playing such a vital role in my children's lives, their calls come less and less regularly, and I try to find a way to stay connected without wearing out my welcome. One friend has adopted a policy of never calling hers, of waiting for them to make the phone call. This might work for her, but given that my mother may have called me five times in my entire adult life -- and I have siblings who might put their number even lower -- I'm wary of such an approach. Still, I have a super-sensitive ear and any hint of impatience at my call means a long delay before the next one (meanwhile, unanswered voicemail or e-mail or Facebook messages land me in a no-man's-land of waiting for that tennis ball to bounce back into my side of the court, even though everyone has obviously left the park . . .)
If any of you have watched Brothers and Sisters, you might know that I dread being the kind of mom that Sally Fields plays -- her kids love her, but roll their eyes at her among themselves. Where's the dignity?! Before that, Ruth on Six Feet Under made me shudder at the recognition that her role represents a broad social perception of the "middle-aged mother of adult children." I do NOT want to go gladly into that dark night!

Viburnum tinus berries
I'm not sure what, if any, solution can be found to this inevitable role change. Part of what I'm feeling, I suspect, is simply a long-delayed response to the Empty Nest -- while our Nest has been formally empty for quite a few years now, the fledglings have still wanted support -- a shoulder to cry on, if only through a long-distance phone call; a loan or other form of financial aid; advice about formatting a job resumé; a query about how to handle a difficult co-worker; occasionally, an 11 p.m. call from someone who needs to check a Trivia or Scrabble question from across the country. Now -- and I'm truly happy this is the case -- other important people fill this role: their partners, friends, trusted colleagues. With busy lives establishing careers, furnishing new homes, juggling daycare drop-offs with board meetings, thee independence we wanted for them has the should-have-been-obvious corollary that we see much less of them.

Out in the garden this weekend, I sought a happier perspective on the beauties of this stage, the autumn of my life. Berries and richly-coloured leaves reflect the vibrancy of this period, and although I see the portents of winter all 'round, I am not yet at my mother's or MIL's place in life. While my children, part of my harvest, are wonderful adults with their own thriving lives to focus on, there are other gardens to be busy in: I'm so much more fortunate than mom, who gave up her teaching career when she had children, or my MIL, who retired from hers much earlier than she wanted to in order to keep my FIL company. I have satisfying, engaging work that tells me I'm meaningful to a broader community, even on those days when my kids find me mother-irritating. And I have a partner who wouldn't dream of asking me to give that up simply to keep him company. There are no guarantees of what winter may or may not bring -- meanwhile, I'll do my best to squeeze the most out of my autumn.

I am curious to know, though, if any of you have experienced any of these responses -- My sense is that I'm a bit older than many of my readers, and because I had my children fairly young, I suspect I've entered a different stage of the mother-child relationship than many of you (mine are 25 to 34). Or, instead, to know if you've noticed this tendency to find mothers irritating, even while loving them dearly -- and if you have come to any resolutions about how you'll negotiate this stage when you do get to it.


  1. I know what you mean about feeling those waves of sadness. This is a wonderful and a very tough stage of life, all at once. I'm feeling as though we've achieved a measure of financial secutity (though tenuous, with the economy the way it is) and have built a support system that allows us to travel periodically, yet I can't help but feel some loss in really truly letting go of youth, or even early adulthood, and knowing that many possibilities and opportunities are now behind me. We're having to think about planning for our son's future after we're gone, and worrying about how helpless he will be in the world at large and how dependent on the good will of others (both close to him and not). My parents both passed away last year, but we're noticing that my MIL (who is very active, but has some health issues) has started to ramble noticeably in conversations, and we wonder what kind of caretaking may be in our future. And the creaks and pains that didn't used to be there tell us our bodies won't last forever.

    Regarding kids and phone calls, I can only speak from my own experience as a young adult, as we're still very much in child raising mode. During my early 20's and early 30's, I was very involved in building my own life and often didn't speak to my parents for months at a time. But then, they were also very involved in rebuilding their own lives after their divorce, and for a couple of decades afterward. (My mom's alcoholism exacerbated this, as we had a couple of estranged periods that lasted for several years each.) But then when I was more settled and starting a family, I found that I wanted to connect more with them. I think it's just the nature of things.

  2. I don't know if I can offer any advise to you, mater, but I will explain my situation in hopes you may see yours differently.

    I am 56, and the only parent still alive is my mother--she is 80 and lives independently. We share a lot, in the summer she lives closer to me and we do lunch and drinks frequently.

    My mother in law, however, was another story. She lived with us, was very unhealthy, physically and emotionally. She was like a black hole. She died very young at 64. I had all I could do to deal with her...I did a LOT OF YOGA and found things that were safe to talk about. Strangely enough, a safe topic was gardening.

    My best to you and yours~

  3. Yes. Yes. I will be back with more.

  4. Mater, this is a very poignant post. I think I'm at the first stage of that slippery slope; my teenage boys no longer need me like they used to, and, because they are fairly close in age, do plenty of eye-rolling together, aimed at me! I'm assuming that once they are out on their own, they will turn to us again, for a time at least. As for my own situation with my mother - I have lived abroad since the age of 24, more than half my life. My mum never had a phone (until very near the end when a friend gave her an old cell phone) and we used to write back and forth, at least once every week or two. Her letters were always the same - not much happened in her life - but I detailed all my news. I'd like to think that's the equivalent of phoning regularly! At least you can be very glad that you are not going through this alone, but with Pater. Patricia

  5. mater, I have felt those feelings too...
    I think the empty nest and a quiet home magnify the feelings and thoughts...and they are hard to shake.

    As to the phone mother only calls me if I am ill. I call her almost every day, she's 83 and living a little more than a block away...we get along very well.

    My MIL is in a long term care facility several blocks away, we see her often, she has not much in the line of communication there.

    My daughter calls quite the laundry free tonight! How about a bottle of bubbly and dinner too! (love these nights!)

    My son and his wife are new parents, busy and rarely son and husband text often so I get the news through him.

    I think that as different as we are individually and as diverse the family groupings there are many scenarios...I like you, do not want to appear "needy" so I stop myself from picking up the phone at every's a definite challenge for me.

    I'll be back to read what others have written...

    I have the sense that your garden images here are almost weeping...perhaps it was the raindrops.
    Hugs X

  6. Pseu: Although we're in different situations, you seem to grasp what I'm struggling with -- in some ways, this stage is so promising, with certain comforts finally achieved, but there's a sense of being at a peak with downward slopes all around. As for the kids, you're right that I was equally busy during my 20s and 30s, and I'm lucky that we getting along really when we do get together. It's just that I'm hyper-aware now of how little time there may be -- and as for that, I'm so sorry to hear your MIL is failing in physical and perhaps cognitive health -- she is such a delightful woman and I enjoyed spending that afternoon with her and you last year.
    F>50: It's all so complex, isn't it? At least I haven't had any parent, my own or in-law, who was really difficult to deal with, although there have been challenges along the way. And I've never had to live with any of them, which would be a whole different bag of tough, I'm sure.
    LPC: I'll look forward to hearing what you have to say on this.
    Patricia: Yes, the whole thing with boys is different than with daughters, in my experience. Not so toxic in some ways, but equally exclusionary -- which is all healthy, of course, as we want them to draw a clear line of autonomy at some point, but it can still hurt. Especially the part of it that is not about us, personally, but about some role we have been assigned to as mothers. Then again, I just had the best conversation tonight with my youngest, my 25-year old son, who can tease me in a truly loving way that makes me forget some of the eye-rolling.
    And, oddly, my mom and I now have easy and entertaining phone conversations, with her trying to remember what she did so she can tell me about it, and enjoying being teased about her latest shopping purchases or outings or foibles. I call her two or three times a week, and she lets me know how much she appreciates the call -- I'm really glad we've finally arrived at this after a lifetime of awkward, strained calls.
    Hostess: I'm lucky that we're generally close here as well, but I do wish we have the geographic proximity you do to your family. Especially as I watch my mother and mother-in-law and the various responses to their situation within the family, I wish that we didn't have to battle for family time with geography, careers, and other responsibilities.

  7. A very moving post - and responses. I think I was just getting a hint of this feeling the other day when I commented about the feeling of sadness when my son first shaved, that feeling that he's growing up and will no longer need me as much. My own relationship with my mother has been both bad and distant (I left home at 16 and we have never lived in the same country since); she is not someone I would ever turn to for any form of help or emotional support. I don't ring her often; I try to be friendly when she rings me. I think and hope that my kids and I have a different sort of relationship.

  8. I love "her present is not my future" I too am moving heaven and earth not to become my mother, she is only 20 years older than me I have been wondering for a while when it is I start listening to radio 4 and buying Good Housekeeping, but thankfully that day has not arrived. It is the physical deterioration that is the most scary and I am forcing myself to stay fit because if it.
    Daisy too has noticed just how often she repeats herself, 3 or 4 times a day she will say the same thing.
    I always envisage you as a more diligent daughter than I am though and I think the aging process will be very much delayed by your career and active lifestyle. Daisy has emailed twice since she left home, when I asked her she said she forgets! Yet moans that her boyfriend only phoned her twice last week, twice more than she phoned me!! I am entering new territory here both with a mother who is getting older quicker than we thought and daughters who can barely give me the time of day. It makes me more determined to keep my own goals as a priority and all the while remember those amazing icons of age Georgia O'Keefe Louise Bourgeois and Co.

  9. Tiffany: While my relationship with my mother definitely sounds better than yours, we nonetheless share the hope that we have created/are creating a better relationship with our own kids. And I know that I have, but I'm beginning to see that there are some unavoidable built-ins to the relationship, a generational divide whose very structural elements (if that makes any sense) override, in some day-to-day realities, the strengths of that carefully-forged connection.
    Alison: Funny, I would have said you were the more diligent one -- and "diligent" has been the word for the way I've approached my mom, trying to live up to responsibilities rather than enjoying her company. Oddly, as I've said, I'm enjoying her more as I've accepted her cognitive limitations lately -- not quite pity on my part but letting go of some old resentments that just don't make sense anymore. And on her side, perhaps she's trying harder as she recognizes her dependence or just has a different perspective with so much slipping away.
    And of course Daisy's just doing what we all did, as are mine, but somehow we thought it would be different since we were so different from our mothers. . . Ha!

  10. Others have said it already, but this post is very beautiful, melancholy.

    My child is still young and dependent but I do notice how adolescence is changing her. Fortunately, I'm a person who really appreciates her own space, so I'm not particularly upset by this. As it continues, however, I can only assume I'll be ok. Who knows?

    My husband has a bad relationship with his parents and he fears that, when she grows up, M will no longer care about / communicate with him, much in the way he has done with his own parents.

    My parents left me (yes, those are undertones of abandonment issues) when I was 18, to move back to the States. I've been on my own for the past 22 years. I see them often (though less often in the past couple of years). I speak with them often (though less often in the past couple of years). I wonder how I will continue to relate to them the longer we go along our life paths in different cultures at different ages and stages.

    I refuse to engage in other long distance relationships (blog friendships aside, obvs) because I cannot bear the toll it takes, the effort, to retain relevance in someone's life when you are not a part of his or her every day.

    Your post is relevant to everyone, Mater. Because we're either children or parents. It's an ongoing negotiation and it's hard sometimes. Really, I prefer not to dwell...

  11. OK. There's so much here, so much relevant, strongly felt, and not always discussed, that I can only address one issue. At least for now. "Where is the dignity" indeed. Why are middle-aged mothers such an eye-rolled commodity? We worked so hard for our babies. Surely that's worthy of respect. We love them so. I think the general nose-uppishness comes from the embarrassment of our love. We're like the needy girlfriend standing in the rain waiting for the lover's bus to stop.

    But why should the same love that kept us from throwing those little creatures out the window, when they woke us for the 4th time in one night, become shameful?

    Other cultures support mothers better. The Anglo Saxon culture of the mother, in my opinion, is pitiful.

    I wrote a post once, asking whether mother love was an anachronism. I still wonder.

    I say all this with one child, 20, another 23, both still in fairly frequent touch, both of whom say thank you to me, both of whom hang up always saying "Love you." So, perhaps, and this is the thing, maybe it's not them, it's us. Maybe they love us. Maybe we worry about becoming our mothers. Maybe all sorts of things.

    So there you go.

  12. K: Generally, I've been so lucky to have a great relationship with my kids, but like your husband, I sometimes project the distance I have felt from my mom onto my future relationship with my daughters (not so much my son, for some reason) -- all kinds of vulnerabilities mixed together and tough to untangle.
    And what you say about long-distance relationships hits home as well -- I haven't been great at keeping up friendships after either a move or a change in focus (going back to school, changing careers) -- after trying for a few years, we just seem to grow apart, and at some level, I think I might be worrying about this as well. Whatever it is, this middle-age survey is not so much fun! Illuminating, but not fun!
    LPC: Thanks for coming back to share this thoughtful response. I do think there may be something embarrassing (infantilizing?) about a mother's love. My kids say that dad can be just as irritating but he doesn't care so much what they think so he's easier. Which comes back to what you finish your comment with and what is the real nugget here: it may be about us, and not them. I've been thinking about this off an on since I read it a few hours ago, and I'm going to ponder on it some more. But perhaps I just have to risk the eye-rolling, be the irritating one. I'd like to do it with a bit of dignity, mind you, but I'm the one who's at the stage when I know how important a mother's love is -- they're still taking it for granted and rolling their eyes, but I know every phone call is numbered, every memory has a best-by date. . . In the end, I suppose, like so much, it comes down to balance.

    Thanks all of you for your generously-shared wisdom!

  13. This was truly touching, and pulled at my heart. My son is now 16, and eye rolling has been raised to an art form by him. My mother used to tell if I frowned that my face would freeze permanently; I find myself thinking if he rolls his eyes one more time, they may roll back forever. My son was once a non-stop talker, and now I barely get a "morning" yet alone a "good morning". I know adolescence is tough; but we worked so hard to change and make our son's childhood so much different than our own and it seems, right now, to have produced the same effect.

    I had a difficult relationship with both my parents, now deceased. I worry too, that since my mother and her mother both died before 65, that I too will die that young. Both of them were bright, even brilliant women, who felt forced by social mores to be stay at mom mothers and wives, and were unhappy about it. I had a good career and was forced from it by a serious debillitating disease; I am in their role, despite what different opportunities we had.

    LPC said it perfectly. We Anglo-Saxons do not value motherhood and I often feel like my love for my son is an embarassment to him.

    Truly fascinating to read everyone's stories and reading your much more eloquent thoughts on this difficult subject.


  14. I received a Christmas card last year from the parent of a good friend; he was a minister of a large urban congregation. A photo shows them smiling; they announced their move to a retirement home, saying, "We're ending up as we started, delighting in the company of 'just the two of us' ". And I thought, what an inspiring attitude. And to say so matter of factly "we're ending up"- but that's Ray and Billie's faith.

    If we have raised children with some regard for others, they DO have a sense of duty: must call Mum, or must remember the birthday (though that can be erratic when they are young and busy).

    It takes a lot of acceptance to realize you are now receiving, rather than solely tendering, acts of duty. But duty is not without love; duty is infused and carried on a current of love. (Otherwise the person doing whatever becomes resentful, and that shows.)

    I too sometimes feel sadness at the passing of time, how short it becomes the older one gets.

  15. What is interesting is that I'm in a strange similar sort of situation. I moved back to Pittsburgh after my mother's mild stroke in April 2009. We're only 19 years apart, but we are also very different people.

    I'm thrown into a double role of being a sort of care-giver (although neither she nor my father require that at present) and care-receiver. I'm an only child, and my mother is a worrisome, doting mother.

    There are times when I feel as if she's forgotten that I'm a grown woman, and there are times when I want nothing more than to feel her arms around me and cry like a little girl.

    I think the mother-child relationship is a strange one. It ebbs and it flows. It's maddening, and it's delightful.

    I also feel sad about time passing. How did I get to be 44? I feel so young inside, and yet, I know that much of the world sees me as a setting sun. It's difficult to reconcile myself to being "a middle-aged woman".

  16. I also had my children young. I am 52, my son 32 and my daughter 25. They live in San Francisco with their significant others, about 45 minutes from my home. Being this close helps, but I still see them only 4 to 6 times a year. In between we talk on the phone and email. But we are close. There was a period of dissing but this has passed and we've settled into a warm pattern of being in touch, not terribly frequently but enough.

    I used to want more -- the Yiddish word is nachas. That good feeling you have when in the company of your children. I wanted more. But I let go a bit and they got older and suddenly there's a little more.

    It may change again. We'll see.

  17. Blogger just swallowed my response to four of you -- a painfully-achieved response, I have to say. I'll try to re-fashion them through the day. Meanwhile, thanks so much for your comments and know that they're helping me work through what I'm dealing with right now.

  18. Christine: It's tough territory, isn't it, this in between space. I'm sorry for your maternal health heritage and wish you the best in your determination to live in your own present as richly as possible. Adolescent kids can make that tough, but having been there, done that, and watched them emerge into adulthood, I'm pretty confident that once the boundaries get clearly established (and in many ways, those teen attempts to set themselves up as adult deserve our admiration along with our frustration), your son will find ways to let you know your embarrassing love is appreciated. Still, it's complicated and it can hurt. No point denying that reality.

  19. Duchesse: I know you meant this well, and I know I've been oblique, but my experience has taught me that children can be raised with a sense of duty and yet find a rationale for not honouring it. This is not currently the case with my own, thank goodness, but I'm very aware of that possibility and of the deep pain it can cause. As for ending up together, as one began, yes, it's inspiring and hopeful, but one had better be prepared to live well alone, the only guaranteed position. My mother has spent most of her senior years that way, and both my grandmothers were on their own for at least a decade. So yes, I will buck up, but at times the existential realities hit hard.
    Gina: Although I suspect my mother would have liked to, I've given her few, if any, occasions to comfort me physically from my early teens on. You give me some welcome insight into that daughter's role, both as one myself and from my own girls' perspective. And I know how much that move to be closer to yours has cost you, but I have to say that the physical propinquity is immensely important and I question our assumption that we can overcome its lack.
    I feel my response is inadequate to the wealth of your comment -- but I'm pleased to see you here and to check out your blog profile and hope that you might be getting ready to join us again, writing at one of those promising templated. . .

  20. Susan T: Because of the ages of your children, you're probably closest to "getting" what I'm grappling with -- that whole "ages and stages" thing really persists in defining what we go through, doesn't it?!
    I think I had got close to the acceptance you're talking about, but the granddaughter has made a difference, as has the health of my mothers (I'm including my MIL) -- I've become more anxious about making connections while I can. As well, there's currently a glitch in an easy comfortable family life that I've long taken for granted, and I find myself stymied in trying to respond to it by all the caricatures I feel at risk of taking on as soon as I open my mouth. But you're right, and I do hope to grope my way back to a place where enough will be enough . . . and perhaps bring even more. I hope . . .

  21. Materfamilias and everyone, thank you for your honesty. I am younger - turning 40 with kids 4 and 6 - but here's what I think. There may be eyerolling. But they love you to death. I find the comments about the Anglo culture of the mother very interesting, but I am guessing that in a more-or-less healthy family the love will be there. The question is more about the expression - both how to comfortably accept what they can give, and how to decide what you feel comfortable asking for.
    I say this as someone who loves her mother more than anything, but lives across the county and calls much less than I would like to talk to her, because I am tired and the time change and our lives don't line up. I talk to my parents once a week most weeks, but not all. And honestly it's always a struggle to call, there are always other demands and desires. But oh man do I love my mom. And when I lived closer we saw them almost every week and it was wonderful.
    missing my mom every day,

  22. I do see your point about your grandchild and concerns about health. It is not easy for younger people to understand urgency, or in the case of your grandchild, opportunity. You're making me realize how hard this is.

  23. Fruitbat: I feel so honoured that so many of my readers have stepped up to the mike on this post -- lovely to have you here. I'm especially happy to have your perspective as you're not too much older than my oldest, a mother herself. And your comment about deciding what one feels comfortable asking for is something that hits home -- I've been realizing that this is something I've got to figure out on my own. My relationship with my kids has always been close and strong, but I think my history with my own mom has been making me less confident as my kids move quite firmly into their own maturity. I'd like to think mine would say pretty much what you're saying, and it's good to hear. Thanks again.
    Susan: Thanks, you've helped me gain perspective as well. It's ongoing, isn't it?!


I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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