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Sandra Butler and Nan Gefen, Ph.D.
Sandra Butler and Nan Gefen, Ph.D.

Push and Pull: Dancing With Our Daughters

Mothers pull for continuing personal autonomy – daughters push for our safety

Push and Pull: Dancing With our Daughters

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.

In order to maintain their independence and sense of control, mothers may begin to minimize the difficulties they increasingly face in their daily lives. “Fine,” they reply, when asked how they’re doing, or “everything’s good,” if daughters press for more information, then quickly shift the focus to her busy, active, and demanding life. They’re careful not to mention that after their last telephone conversation they neglected to hang up the phone for many hours before noticing. Or they misplaced their keys for the third time in one month. Or put the milk in the freezer and the ice cream in the refrigerator.

These are all small and still benign examples of ways in which aging women experience slippage in daily functioning. Nothing major has happened yet, but we know that over the next years, we will be moving in that direction. Our driving is still okay, although we tend to hug the right lane and notice that more and more people seem to be passing us. We recognize the inevitability of our slowing down mentally, physically, and cognitively. Nothing noticeable, perhaps. Not yet. But we know.

Some of us don’t speak about these changes because we fear being infantilized by an anxious daughter, or perhaps more than one, or being bombarded with questions about whether we remembered to take our medications, lock the back door, or order those long-postponed hearing aids. We don’t want to feel diminished or become an object of concern and worry. On the other hand, we don’t want to dismiss her questions entirely. The shift from independence to anticipated dependency is beginning to require our attention. We can still do what needs to be done, but understand that there will come a time when that is no longer true.

We are still actively mothering. Now, as we age, we can model how to live these last decades of our lives. Mothers can open a conversation with their daughters about the concerns and needs they are experiencing, and begin to talk more truthfully about their aging selves. We might fear they will jump too far forward, make nervous and unnecessary suggestions, offer solutions, feel worried, and worst of all, become burdened by the anticipated weight of our growing needs. That might happen. Our daughters don’t want to lose us. We don’t want to lose ourselves.

While these concerns might be a source of self-silencing for women worried about upsetting the carefully created balance they have established with their daughters, perhaps our generation of women, those of us in our 70’s and 80’s can break through those fears of vulnerability, loss of autonomy, increasing dependency and create a new kind of dialogue with our daughters. Perhaps there can be an exchange where all of the realities of this life stage can be in out in the open, where we can identify and navigate the ever-shifting balance between our independence and our daughters need to be sure we are safe.

Sandra Butler
Source: Sandra Butler

Our only alternative is to continue to engage in that ungainly dance where we are pulling in opposite directions, leaving so much unsaid. One mother defined the subtlety and mutuality of this task best, “I don’t want my daughter to tell me to sit down so I won’t get too tired when we’re in the mall. But that means I don’t push past my fatigue and am able to tell her when I need to sit down. In the past I’ve kept going because I didn’t want to slow her down or have her see me as a drag on her day. Telling the truth is my part of the dance. That both relieves her of the responsibility to hover to see if I’m getting tired and my resistance to being told what to do. I’ve tried owning up to what’s real about my energy, my forgetfulness and it’s working! She doesn’t hover because she knows she can trust me to tell her what I need and I don’t have to pretend that I’m not who I actually am!”

If we can find a way to make this life stage visible, to ourselves and to them, much as we did with childbirth and menopause in earlier years, we will have given our daughters a great gift when it’s their time to age, and can deepen the authenticity, respect and love that shapes our connection with them at this stage of our lives. Mothering Never Ends.

About the Author
Sandra Butler and Nan Gefen, Ph.D.

Sandra Butler, M.A., is an author and co-producer of the documentaries Cancer in Two Voices and Ruthie and Connie. Nan Gefen, Ph.D., is a writer, psychotherapist and cofounder of Tikkun magazine.

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