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Mother and daughter relationships are like a dance. The partners move toward each other and away, around and about, and some movements are wild and abrupt while others are more carefully attuned. Over the years the rhythm changes, but one thing is certain: the dance continues to the end.
The rhythm may shift when one of the dancers (usually the daughter) signals that she wants to be less connected. Phone calls and emails are not answered or visits are canceled. There are subtle nonverbal cues; a kiss brushed aside, a vague unavailability. Some mothers are quick to sense that their daughters want more distance. The question, then, is how to respond. A few mothers directly ask their daughters what’s going on—but more often than not, they retreat in anger, hurt, or confusion.
Being a mother at any age is a precipitous task. Perhaps even more so when a woman is in her later years, looking back over the course of her life and focusing on the state of her relationship with her daughter. If their bond is strong, there is a desire to preserve what they have, and if there is tension, to resolve it. Mothers want things settled. Time is short. No longer is there a hazy span of years opening to the future, and this realization brings a sense of urgency.
Yet living with this sense of urgency is too disruptive, and the impulse is to push away these disturbing thoughts. The concerns of everyday life take precedence. Schedules must be kept, calls made, obligations fulfilled. Their relationships with their daughters slip into a familiar perspective and life goes on in its confounding, messy way.
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Most of the mothers we’ve interviewed consider themselves to be healthy and active, yet their knees may need replacement, their winter colds more easily become bronchitis, their hearing is less acute, and many of them have had cancer or other serious illnesses in recent years. The aging vessels are wearing out, and they understand in a sharp, new way that they are facing physical and possible mental decline.
Decisions about money, housing, and future care clearly need to be made. However, very few have managed to do this and even fewer have communicated their thoughts to their daughters. The daunting task of making all these decisions hangs over them, and they are ceaselessly reminded by ads, articles, and interviews in the media and in conversations with friends and relatives.
Mothers find it painful and difficult to think about their remaining days. The life stage they are entering requires a different mindset than they’ve had before, one of thinking about closing down their lives rather than building them up. They feel confused and unprepared for the number of arrangements that must be made and overwhelmed by the feeling of loss No wonder they often procrastinate or never get around to doing it. But the process is piecemeal, with stops and starts and reversals along the way, even for those mothers who are ready to face their own mortality.
Almost all mothers say they want to stay in their own homes for the rest of their lives. Their dream is being independent and self-sufficient, declining gracefully in comfortable, familiar surroundings and dying in their own beds, surrounded by loved ones. This is what mothers want, but they will be fortunate if they get it.
Living at home can become logistically difficult or impossible with a serious accident or illness. The bedroom on the second floor is suddenly out of reach and a hospital bed or cot must be moved into the living room. Bed baths and nursing care become a part of the daily routine, and cooking and cleaning, which used to be so easy, are out of the question. The garden in the back, the greatest pleasure, is quickly becoming overgrown.
Or the mind no longer can hold the difference between day and night. The task of bathing and dressing is forgotten, the gas on the stove is turned on, but where is the pan and what should be cooked? People’s names float beyond reach, although the death of a beloved puppy fifty years ago still brings tears to the eyes.
Mothers approach the years ahead with a feeling of dread. They’ve heard stories about old women who are disheveled and wandering about, or ill and unable to keep up their homes, and they push away the fear that they’ll turn out to be like them. They resolutely move forward, clinging to the lives they have so carefully crafted.
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Many layers of history are present as mothers search for understanding about their connection to their daughters toward the end of their lives. For many, there is hard work to be done. Confronting events that have been kept in the shadows may elicit waves of guilt or great sorrow, and letting go of judgments frozen into painful certainty can be a destabilizing process. But the task for mothers is to look at these relationships as they are today and understand how they developed, so they can come to terms with what is in the here and now.
For some, there is an effort to mend or heal what remains troubled with their daughters. Apologies are offered, or they say the words long unsaid, or reach out in new and different ways. Others come to the point of accepting their relationships as they are, either because they’re satisfied with them or because acceptance seems to be the best or only course. Sometimes those who are distant or estranged from their daughters find themselves letting go and accepting that there will be no change.
As mothers search for the unique meanings of past, present, and future, the healing that takes place sometimes feels spiritual in nature. They now have a larger and fuller sense of time extending before their lives began and continuing after its end, and they say that softens the reckoning.
Coming to terms with one’s mistakes, poor judgments, and misplaced priorities takes a certain kind of fearlessness. Courage is required whether mothers try to heal their relationships or accept them. It is difficult to speak honestly to a beloved daughter and painful to fully accept a disappointing, distant relationship, knowing that this is all there ever will be.
Yet the mothers we speak with have a great deal of strength as they move through this time of reckoning. They report feeling bolder and more confident than they did as younger women, and some have dramatically altered their ways of relating to their daughters. Others have softened old patterns, but most have come to an awareness of the importance of being their best selves with their daughters. They seem to have become smarter about their mothering now and able to shift into the role of loving accompaniment rather than one of leadership.
They have learned that there are few epiphanies but sometimes change can and does happen. The process of life assessment and reflection is an ongoing one. Mothers do not discover new and improved problem-solving techniques but instead recognize their ability to tolerate different kinds of conversations with their daughters. There are fewer repetitions of the unsuccessful efforts of the past, and they have an expanded capacity to hear and become open to their daughters in less defended ways.
Mothers understand now that everything need not be said. The past exists, but it is not excavated with the exactitude they once imagined was necessary. They are less attached to words but more open to the flow of feeling, and they intuit what is being expressed by a silent nod, a hand laid gently upon an arm, a smiling refill of a coffee cup. Words are sometimes a necessary bridge, but they are more carefully considered.
The relationships of mothers with their daughters will never be finished or resolved completely. But in the meanwhile, they cherish and hold on to them, or they mourn their absence. They are flesh of their flesh, the most precious of beings. They are with them all their lives, a gift, sometimes breaking their hearts but also bringing satisfaction and fulfillment in this most human of worlds.