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 wasn’t always this hesitant. Ten years ago, her life was as busy as it is now, as she balanced her partnership, a demanding job, multiple friendships and community involvements. What was different then was that I was doing much the same.
Now I am a retired 79-year-old woman operating at a much slower tempo, and while my days are nearly as full and rich as they have always been, I have more leisure than I once did, more time that I want to spend with talking to her, visiting with her, loving her. But she has very little space in her life to reciprocate. It isn’t that she doesn’t love me. She does. It isn’t that she doesn’t cherish our time together. She does. But there is simply no space for us unless she carves it out of her day, just as I once did.
It’s hard to know what to do with this reality of having more time and less contact. I fear sounding needy and worry that I might place the additional burden of my own unexpressed longing upon her. I want to lighten the weight of her emotional responsibilities, not add to them.
I am still mothering her, even as I am hungry for the reciprocity a grown daughter can provide. My involvement in her life takes on a very different shape than it once did as I listen to the details of a stressful departmental meeting where she describes successfully lobbying for her students. I murmur supportively as she
reports the endless details involved in moving her very aged father (from whom I have been divorced for over 50 years!) from one side of the country to the other into an assisted living facility where he can be both comfortable and safe. I’m careful not to reveal that I feel displaced and even a little jealous as even more of her already limited time is eaten up with all the details such a transition involves.
She tells me what activities will shape the coming week. Yet as I listen to her words, I have deeper questions. Is she happy? Is her life unfolding in the ways she wanted? Is her partnership satisfying? Does she feel secure at her job? Can she afford to take a vacation this year? These are the questions I don’t and will never ask. Instead, I receive what she chooses to tell me, and while I may try to deepen the conversation a bit, I am watchful that I’m not either directive or intrusive in any way. Interfering mothers the dominant and still inhibiting stereotype.
I arrange a time to visit when she is not in the middle of her semester or preparing for a work-related conference. I try not to feel squeezed into the corners of her life, yet I know I am. I am careful to remember that my love for her is not dependent upon the frequency of our visits or the amount of time she has when we’re actually together. I remember how, for so much of her childhood, in addition to my full-time job, I chose to involve myself in political activism which took me away from home during the few hours I might have been at home with her. She was proud of me while at the same time wishing I mothered in more conventional ways. I know because she told me. And it was painful to hear. How all of us make choices and how they always leave something or someone out. I made mine and now she is making hers. This is as it should be.
It’s a messy, complicated, never-ending business being a mother. I’m often caught between wanting more of my daughter’s time and not wanting to be seen as demanding or needy by the child I love and miss. And now, for the first time, I wonder now about the ways my mother must have missed me. I remember how I fit her into my life when things were slow at work and I could get away to visit for a few days. I never thought about the possibility that she was waiting and hoping for the time I would be free. I never pictured her hearing the phone ring and hoping it was me. I never noticed that she never asked when I would be coming to see her. The same ways I’m careful not to ask now.
Sandra Butler, co-author with Nan Fink Gefen of It Never Ends: Mothering Middle-Aged Daughters, She Writes Press, October 2017.