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Sandra Butler and Nan Gefen, Ph.D.

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.

There is no clear path forward in navigating these challenges because this is still new territory for me. I’m more frail and afraid of falling. I’m forgetful sometimes and probably repeat myself more than I mean to. Yet I am fully engaged in my life, my friendships, and still full of intellectual curiosity. I don’t want my daughters to have to worry about when and how to tell me I should no longer drive or that I have increasingly forgotten to turn off the stove or lost my keys again. I want to identify those moments myself. I want to be the one who notices the changes in my capacities, recognizes my diminishing abilities, and accepts the need for realistic choices. I cannot expect them to magically intuit what I want and need in the next decade and effortlessly provide it. I need to figure out, as best I can, what it is that I want and will need for myself.

It may very well be that my daughters will have to care for my body or my mind at the end of my life. And I’m aware that there is no way to know how my next decade will ultimately unfold. Nevertheless, there are decisions I can make and conversations we can have that will allow both of them a glimpse into the realities of what it is to be me now. I’ve prepared all the necessary paperwork, discussed emergency scenarios with neighbors and close friends who have agreed to be available to me as best they can, just as I will be for them. I’ve navigated the very psychologically complex process of determining who I want to have my medical and legal powers of attorney, if I want to be buried or cremated, and how to dispose of my limited assets. My mothering has an unexpected dimension of partnership as my daughters and I approach my decline and eventual death.

These years allow me to model an alternative way of being an old woman. I want my daughters to witness their mother moving toward the end of her life with the awareness that these years are as much a life stage as was adolescence and menopause, requiring the sometimes painful assessment of the choices I’ve made along the way—choices that have marked and shaped my life, defined who I have become, and how I have lived. I expect long my experience will live on in their memories long after I’m gone and help to guide their own aging years. I have been a mother long enough to know that the words I say will matter very much less than the ways they watch me live the years ahead.

My daughters approach this growing reality with the promise that I will be at the center of all decision-making for as long as I am able, even if they may feel that those decisions teeter dangerously closer to the autonomy I want and need rather than prioritizing the safety they might prefer. They have promised me and I trust them. With my life. And with my death.


About the Author

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


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