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

Choosing Silence

When and why mothers of middle-aged daughters bite their tongues.

Choosing Silence

Women who came into adulthood during the 1960s and 1970s fought to have their voices taken seriously. The world was changing and women were changing right along with it. We learned to speak up, speak out, and say no when and where it was needed. We advocated for ourselves, moved ahead in the workplace as was possible, and had a sense of how to, as our grandmothers might have said, “stick up for ourselves.”

Yet in my interviews for It Never Ends: Mothering Middle-Aged Daughters, mothers invariably reported that they retreat to a self-protective silence when visiting their daughters. This was, they told me, the only intimate relationship in which they “walked on eggshells” or “held their tongues.”

Why was this, I wondered? Why do these competent, verbal, engaged women choose silence with their daughters? And is it a wise choice?

Mothers are eager for the opportunity to spend time with their daughters and grandchildren. But in addition to the pleasures of their visits, they also see the ways their daughters are stretched too thin or struggling to do everything without enough help from partners. They see the grandchildren acting out or fighting with their mother, the financial corners being cut, the leaking roof, the impatient glance.

As one mother said,

“It’s hard for me when I visit and see the mess that’s always in my daughter’s house. I have such a strong impulse to start cleaning. I know she’s busy with the kids and her job, and I also know if I do anything to tidy up, even in a cursory way, she’ll take it as a criticism and feel both ashamed and mad at me.

She chooses to tell me what she wants me to know when we have our Skype visits. But when I’m there with her, I see all the things she doesn’t tell me. The overwork. The messy house. Her angry, demanding husband. The overwhelmed feelings about work. The struggles with menopause and a middle-aged body. All the fault lines become visible right in front of my eyes. I wish we could talk honestly about what’s happening, but we can’t. So I remain quiet. I just see."

How do mothers navigate seeing too much? When, if at all, do they speak? When do they look away and join the necessary pretense that everything is fine?

Many remember when their own mothers came to visit them decades ago. They recount how they cleaned carefully before they arrived and pressed everyone to be on their best behavior while their mothers were there. This was to assure them, and themselves, that they were fine, happy, and successful. They wanted to be supported and praised for what they were doing right, not pulled into discussions, no matter how gently, about what was going wrong.

Now we are those visiting mothers. We might think our wisdom or advice could really help our daughters, but in reality we realize we need to be very careful about what we say. Our daughters, like us, want their mothers to see them as they want to be seen. And so we wait to be invited forward into a more honest, revealing conversation and remain silent if such an invitation is not forthcoming.

The choices our daughters make are complex, rooted in part by their psychological histories, the realities of their economic lives, the temperaments of their partners and their children, and their definitions of a successful life. It is rare that those definitions and choices are the ones we have made, or the ones we would make for them or for ourselves now. But they are our daughter’s choices.

Recognizing and accepting the fact that our daughters chose the partners they have, are raising our grandchildren in ways that are unfamiliar and even uncomfortable for us, struggle with work/life balances in ways we feel certain we could be helpful, are all inevitable and necessary steps along the long hard road of accepting where she is in her life at this moment.

Sandra Butler
Source: Sandra Butler

Moments change of course, and we may be invited forward. But for now, the job is to love them as they are, where they are, how they are and who they are. And the words that come so easily to us in nearly every other part of our lives, remain tucked away, awaiting our daughter’s invitation.

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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