Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sandra Butler and Nan Gefen, Ph.D.

An Invitation to Middle-aged Daughters

Asking questions and opening conversations as acts of active "daughtering."

There are thousands of words written for women with suggestions about how to be good and successful mothers at every life stage from their child’s infancy into adulthood. Yet there is very little attention or information about how to be a daughter. Especially when your mother is old, and you are already middle-aged.

I am nearly 80 years old, with two middle-aged daughters. My mother died 15 years ago, yet only in the past few years have I begun to realize how many questions I still want to ask her. But it’s too late. I am left trying to imagine her answers, piecing together the stories I have in order to fill them in a bit further, so that I have a fuller sense of this reticent and distant woman. I’m filled with a sense of regret that I was too preoccupied with the details of my own life, or even the details of caring for her life that I didn’t ask. I imagined there would be time, or a better opportunity, but the moments I long for now, never materialized.

So many middle-aged daughters feel re-assured when they can confirm that their mothers are safe, comfortable, and engaged in their own lives. Yet they may not recognize how much still remains unsaid between them. Ask yourself: How well do you think you know your mother? I mean all of who she is as a woman, all of the fullness of her life, not just the part of her that mothered you.

Like many of you, I received the official family stories from my mother, those oft-told tales of the value of hard work, persistence, and rolling with the punches. Those were the stories designed to instruct and transmit our family values. I have told those purposeful myths to my own daughters, and added many of my own. Perseverance. Triumphing over odds. Reaching for our best selves in the face of adversity. But what of her untold stories? The private ones? Her uncertainties, moments of vulnerability, the unspoken longings she whispered to herself?

Have you ever asked your mother about her teen-aged dreams or what she imagined her life would become? Why she married, or divorced, or went to work? Or didn’t? How she felt about her body, her intelligence, her spiritual or religious life? The private stories, not the public ones.

I understand, having been middle-aged, and now with my own middle-aged daughters, that you may have more of a sense of the shape of your mother’s life than I did. Perhaps you are juggling the ever-shifting balance between what you want for yourself, and the daily demands of maintaining a partnership, if you have one. Perhaps you have lived the accumulation of the endless tasks involved in both raising children and going to work. Whether that work is inside or outside your home, whether it is a source of expression and pride, or another series of tasks to be accomplished in order to sustain your life, you have been in that whirlwind. You have fallen into bed at the end of a full week, not certain where all that time went. You have looked longingly at that pile of books, or crafts, or videos, or the overgrown garden that continues to remain out of reach.

Many of those realities were true as well for your mother. Not all of them, of course. Times have changed, and priorities and values shift over the generations. Nevertheless, there are enough parallels in your lives to invite your conversations with her to enter a deeper and more forthcoming place.

Sandra Butler
Source: Sandra Butler

How does your mother think back about her life now? What were the years of actively mothering like for her? How did she try to carve out a space for herself, distinct from her family, economic demands and responsibilities? What and who got sacrificed, and what remained at the center of her decisions? You may have different questions, and her answers might surprise you and even open up ways of knowing her that are entirely unexpected.

So many mothers wait to be asked about what it was like to be them. They want to tell you. And I am certain that there will come a time when you will be grateful that you have asked and received her response.

This is an invitation to each of you to daughter with intentionality, openness, and a willingness to go wherever her responses to your curiosity lead the two of you. Together.


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. 


More and Less