"Mothering & Daughtering"

Daughtering My Mother

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A walk in Oregon

My 90-year-old mother is clearly a child of the Great Depression: she saves and reuses everything, and not out of concern for the environment. There are cottage cheese containers holding dried apricots, supermarket bags as garbage bags (in Florida, we still get plastic bags at checkout), and envelops doubling as notepapers. But the efficacy of using every scrap of paper, including yesterday’s newspaper that’s about to go into the recycling, as a place to write a shopping list, a relative’s address, a friend’s phone number, or even a reminder to take one’s pills and eyedrops is questionable when one’s memory dulls and the pieces of paper seem to disappear, somewhere.

Growing up, there was always a notepad with a pencil by the telephone (back when they were rotary and connected to the wall by a cable). This woman had it together. It’s taken a while for me to notice that she doesn’t anymore and to realize that I need to help her. It's not easy to realize that your parent needs you in a way that infringes upon your independence—and the image of them that you built over a lifetime.

Remembering that younger daughter used a daily planner to keep herself organized in school, I decided to get one for my mother. We went together to Target and I showed her the one that I thought was right. Feeling conflicted about making decisions for her, I didn’t want to buy it without her participation. She might forget where she put a note, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t remember what she wrote on the note and why she needed it.

There is the intense fear that she will lose her independence and become dependent on me. It’s not an unfounded fear. Too many people I know have stories of parental dementia and dependence to not think about how I would respond to the challenge. And knowing that my brother won’t be a partner to me in any care, means that the decision-making is mine.

But here is where love and good parenting are appreciated. As I make decisions, and deal with new confusions, and get frustrated with and question myself, my daughters have become my sounding boards. Perhaps if I was married or if my brother was a better son, I wouldn’t have to turn to them for feedback and support. But this is the situation. The cycle of mothering and daughtering continues: none of us is in a fixed role.

My mother is still trying not to need me, even as she thanks me and says that she doesn’t know what she would do without me. I’m finding that I need to stand up for myself and not glide into letting her needs overshadow mine.

I’m taking a class in Mussar (an ancient Jewish spiritual tradition) where the goal is to work on different personality traits to better ourselves (and in the religious sentiment, better serve G-d). The first trait covered is humility. We were given a focus phrase, which seems appropriate here: “No more than my place, no less than my space.”

Perhaps this is what I need to have in mind when I think about daughtering my mother and mothering myself. The place and space may change depending on the circumstances, but there should never be a negation of one for the other. This is what I need to have in mind as I continue creating my life, and not denying it for my mother, whatever her situation.

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A walk in Florida

The Aging Body—Not Mine, Yet

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My private pool at one house where I dogsit.

A comedy skit of old women going out to eat wouldn’t be as funny and poignant as my mother and her friend, Ann, getting out of and then back into my Corolla when we went out the other night. They ignored my suggestions about what to hold onto and where to walk. Or they didn’t hear me. Or they were too preoccupied with their own thoughts of how to conquer the curb that had morphed into a mountain to pay attention to me. Or, even though they both walked with a shuffle, they were not going to give up any autonomy, so they pretended that I was “the girl,” who they didn’t have to heed.

As a disclaimer and a warning that this could be me—or you, my mother played tennis for years, learned how to golf in her 70s (even making a hole-in-one), and power walked Manhattan for years. Ann has mobility issues and uses a walker, but she was less steady than usual, as if she had taken advantage of the $7 martinis even before we even got to the restaurant.

Since I hadn’t been my bitter, critical self during the drive there and the meal itself—even when we told the waiter at least five times that we weren’t ready to order because my mother couldn’t decide what she wanted to eat, so we ended up ordering when the restaurant had filled up, resulting in a long wait for our food—I was able to see humor in the drama and sound effects of their attempting to exit and then later enter my car. I even got them to be momentarily lighthearted in the face of their own dismay. It would have been a pee-in-my-pants moment if I hadn’t crossed my legs in time. (When will that not be enough and I will need a lady diaper or a post-period pad?)

Ann needed to figure out where to hold onto my car, so that she could maneuver up and down the curb. Not only is there the fear of falling, but the frustration of not being able to do something that should be so simple, added to her heightened mood.

Because of curbs, my mother needs to start taking and using a cane. Something she, obviously, hasn’t acted on yet. Who knew that those few inches could pose such a grave danger? I told her where the cutout was and it took her about five minutes to round the corner that would have taken me seconds.

Our evening out made me see that my mother does need me more than I realized. While she’s not bedridden or so felled by memory issues that she can’t be left alone, there’s a sense of daughterly responsibility (that feels a lot like being a mother) that is uncomfortable. When I recently visited my daughters, one told me that I need to stay by Grandma and the other told me that I need to live my life. Yes and yes.

As friends tell me, it’s not easy. Seeing these women try to maneuver the world reminds me that I, too, am aging. There are sags here and there that I’m not happy about. Someone much younger than me told me that she has a herniated disc that her doctor told her is because of age.

How to balance this one life we have so that it’s lived, but also to be responsible and caring because that, too, is part of life? Clearly, we each have our own answers and they change depending on circumstances. I need to remember, as I watch my mother navigate the perils of walking, that there is no answer, there will never be complete satisfaction, and that that is part of living life.


Aging Is So Much Fun!

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South Beach in Miami Beach


My 89-year-old mother is at the time in her life when she has enough pills to take that she needs a pill organizer. Of course, organizing the pill organizer requires remembering what she needs to take and when. When I say “what,” I don’t mean the name of the pill and/or its function, she remembers what she needs to take by size, color, and shape. She is, to put it mildly, a reluctant pill taker. She doesn’t think about how they’re helping her, but how they and the doctors who have prescribed them are torturing her by making her swallow them. Though credit where credit is due, she has finally managed to swallow each of her pills, one-at-a-time, without loud complaints. Instead, she now gives herself a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back when her mission is accomplished, each time.

There are also eye-drops and ear-drops, which, surprisingly, she manages to take without too much complaining, and astonishment at her expertise.

For a month, she needs to measure her blood pressure morning and night. But this is too technological for her, so I put the cuff on her upper arm. I make her push the button to turn it on because it seems important that she participates in her care and maintenance. It could also be that I’m uncomfortable taking on a carer role.

It’s interesting to live with an older person, where “interesting” needs to convey an element of sadness. I told my daughters that she’s not the grandma they remember taking them all over Manhattan, rushing uptown, downtown, and crosstown like a true New Yorker. There is a progression. There is change.

The other day, she commented on her good skin. I thought she was kidding. She was not. Her skin had been smooth for years, even with her never putting on moisturizer or face cream. But at some point, her entire face creased and crinkled. Can you consider your skin being good if it resembles a caricature of an old lady’s wrinkled face?

Perhaps I’ve finally learned not to correct her, so I nodded, wondering how we see ourselves when we’re away from mirrors.

At dinner recently at yet another lousy local Chinese restaurant with her and a friend of hers, they talked about how the previous week at lunch my mother seemed like a different person. That didn’t sound good. And when she got into the car after stopping at the local library, she said that she had been a little confused and someone asked her if she needed help. That didn’t sound good either.

And she fell again. This time, just a cut. But still.

It makes me realize that I, too, don’t see her for who she is. It’s not easy to see a parent as no longer the fully capable person they’ve always been. A parent holds us in-place, makes it so we aren’t really this older person who is called “ma’am” and overlooked. This is about me aging too.

About a month ago at a different restaurant, I joked with the server about older people and then I realized, before I could laugh, that he probably saw me, too, as an older—old?—person. That dinner was for my 62nd birthday.

I realize now, as I sit here thinking about my mother aging, that I need to use the life I have left on life, not on a holding pattern till death. Glass half-full. Glass half-empty. There is sustenance in both. One feels more enjoyable than the other. I want that! To feel refreshed as I move forward, not lukewarm and worn out. Perhaps I can help her see how full far less than half-a-cup can be.


PARENTHOOD IS A STRANGE THING

Winter Warmth

Parenthood is a strange thing. Stranger even than marriage (surely the person who came up with that idea didn’t understand human caprices) since all parenting ties are undeclared, and are either supportive or subversive, subliminal or coerced. What’s a mother to do when you aim for independence and then have to live with what you have sown so successfully?

 

We parents who find that our nests have emptied are like trees in winter, all naked and exposed, pitching in the wind back and forward, just not standing in the bareness of now. What the heck are we? Are we trees or are we twigs? Are we parents or people of the world who didn’t need those kids before they came and surely can survive without them cluttering up our lives with all their desperations and dreams? Those who race to redo their children’s bedrooms might not understand what’s going on in my mind and life, but I bet they get it. Yes, I think they face it by pretending that they’re facing it, but they’re really ignoring it. That’s why the formerly postered bedrooms in their homes become bare so quickly, the pain of emptiness is too hard to face.

 

It’s odd to say, but it kind of feels like having an ex’s presence around all of the time. You know what I mean: you can’t forget them because they were an important part of your life, but you darn well know that you need to move on. You can remember Saturdays that used to be a frenzy of practices and games and friends and parties and shopping, but that’s all gone. It’s suddenly all about you when it never was when they were around. Like I said, like having an ex around.

 

The divide from life in 1991, birth of older daughter, to 2013, younger daughter off to college, is massive. Then I was married, living in Israel, working in high tech and now I’m divorced, living in Virginia, and teaching from books. It’s like I need to move back into a house I moved out of 23 years ago which I only glimpsed when driving quickly past. Or maybe it’s like I’m my own unknown third child; you know, the quiet kid who no one seems to pay attention to, but now that the other kids are gone, I have been discovered. Yes. Maybe that’s the key, to treat myself like a treat, as I did with my daughters, and not as an intruder.

 

And if that is to be the case, then I should learn to look on myself with anticipation and pride, and not with the always-ready disappointment and futility that it’s just me, and, yes, table for ONE. 


The Pendulum of Care

Sunset

In the week that my younger daughter was here for winter break, I focused on cooking the foods she likes, buying the clothes she needed/wanted, and watching the TV programs we could snarkily comment on together. I also put myself on reserve company duty for when she was in between hanging out with friends, which means that I didn’t get together with my friends (of course, she did have my car). In that week I made myself available for as much daughter-time as possible with my eye on her end-of-the-week flight back to Colorado, which is exactly what I did when I visited her sister in California for a week at Thanksgiving.

There’s no getting around the ache of no longer having one of your children, or all of your children, living under your roof. That is, once you celebrate your way through the first glorious months when you no longer have to deal with A-ttitude and aversion to your voice, your cooking, and your breathing (although younger daughter still has issues with my chewing).

My glorification of cooking seems absurd until I realize that it is a testament to my still being needed—or wanting to be needed. The soups, the latkes, the applesauce, the jelly donuts, the scones, the cake, the quiche, the chili: all made on the stove of Mommy Love. When do I get a chance to show my love other than in awkward “I Love You” text messages? At the same time, there’s no denying the feeling of relief when she left and I stopped being an on-duty mother again. It was exhausting: that constant need to prove my love by actions. It’s like a switch is flipped when I’m around one of my daughters and I revert to being the chief provider of physical, mental, and emotional sustenance.

When my mother comes to visit me, I find that we’re at a delicate phase in our mother-daughter relationship. It’s not that we’re dealing with any infirmities; it’s that she’s in her early 80s and ever so slightly my mommy switch is turning on when she comes, rather than full-force daughter switch. At a certain point you begin to realize that as much as it’s been great to be treated as a precious child, you need to look after your mother as you would a daughter. (Though I sincerely hope I get to skip the diaper phase.) Of course, her not being able to carry a pizza up a flight of stairs was a great indicator that the time is a comin’.

A friend took care of her parents who were both in diapers, while a friend of my mother’s took care of her dying daughter. Another friend commented on his inability to care for his father with his slowly seeping dementia. A colleague joked with her son that for every one of his ballgames she attends, he owes her a diaper change.

My daughters are independent. My mother is independent. I am independent. Within all of that independence is the pendulum of care.

Will I rise to the occasion if need be? It’s natural to mother children. What is it to mother a parent? My mother nursed both my grandmother and my father when they were dying from cancer. Will I be such a good daughter? It seems supremely selfish to demand that of a child. It also seems supremely selfish not to answer the call, as subtle as it may be.

Up to a couple of months ago I would instinctively cut short my thoughts about my mother’s aging with the magic words: senior living facility. But my father’s mother aged frighteningly fast in one. And the stories you hear. And my mother’s response when she hears those words is reminiscent of what hearing the word “Ebola” does nowadays.

Perhaps because I have a good relationship with my mother I have begun contemplating a future when she would live with me: a concept I would have mocked months ago. Is the change because now that I have no one to care for all of the time, I can discern that I derive more meaning than I was aware of from this little grouping, this family. Or is it that I’m not as selfish as I always thought I am.

When I first became a mother 23 years ago, I was shocked to discover that I have patience. It was a quality I had never associated with myself. But there it was when I nursed for hours on end, intermittently cleaning up vomited mother's milk, staring at the wonder of a perfect creation for whom I was ultimately responsible. And while at times I have lost my patience, that deep-seated patience whose source is love and connection has become an integral part of my understanding of myself. How can I direct it one way, to a way that is comfortable, suitable to me? While I hope not to be confronted with this as an actuality, the possibility must be confronted. A baby step. 


Good Daughter?

Am I a good daughter if I call my mother daily, but I don’t pay attention to what she says? And when I berate myself, saying that I must listen with love and intention, I still end up criticizing what she says or else I hang up right before I reach my critique-point. If she ends up developing some form of dementia, will I come to regret having wasted valuable conversational time being angry at her pettiness rather than appreciate her attention to detail (every single detail of every single thing said to her and every single thing done by her)?

Technically, I would say that I’m being a good daughter. But, technically, love is not technical, and there is a difference between being a good daughter and a good daughter. Am I supposed to be a board that reflects back to her or an absorbent sponge? Sure, every mother-daughter relationship is different, and, at least in my experience or sense of things, it is generally guided by the mother. Am I trying, now that I have two somewhat adult daughters, to re-determine the flow of our relationship? Can it be done? Am I being unfair to her by changing things midstream, and not to her advantage?

To me, I believe that I am pushing her to be a better friend and person. But I wonder if she didn’t need to be a kinder, less critical person when my father was here because he was the kind buffer, and maybe she didn’t let herself nitpick everyone because getting together with friends was not as central to her existence as it is now that she is widowed and living year-round in a Land of the Retired. Or, perhaps because she had him to soothe and balance her, she didn’t depend on friends in such a way because she could leave them and go back to unload/talk to my father. For whatever reason, now she has an extraordinary amount of time to get together with friends, and time to recount and nitpick to me, and it bothers me that she is this way.

The act of calling may be an act of love, but if I don’t follow it up with a meditator’s focus is it for naught? Am I the problem? Now that I don’t have anyone at home to focus on, to attend to or raise, am I transferring my mothering “skills” to my own mother? What a twisted world I live in. Do I need to step back in my relationship with her as I have had to do with my daughters, letting them be/become their own selves?

What am I proving by being a dutiful but obnoxious daughter? The old diet coke and pizza diet, not the wisest diet around.

Since quantity is not adding up to quality, it seems logical that I step back and not call so often. Be less of a dutiful daughter and try to be a good daughter. Of course, since I have started this daughtering method a week or so ago, she has started to call me twice a day. Could it be that she loves me even when I am obnoxious and criticize everything thing she does? Hmmm, maybe it really is a solid mother-daughter relationship. 

Nests in winter

Nests in winter


The Alone Track

I’ve always considered myself a loner, so I was surprised to realize that I’ve never lived alone. In two months, though, it will be just me, and I’m not as happy about it as I thought I would be. When I first imagined the empty nest, I envisioned sipping champagne while soaking in a lavender bubble bath with a cucumber masque restoring my skin—with the door wide open and “my” music resounding throughout the apartment. Just me doing what I want. No critical, dismissive teen around. No man whose needs I cater to more than my own. I thought that I would have my own little resort spa, Casa Laura. But before I even had a chance to run my bath, I discovered that I’m not elated.

The empty nest marker signals the end of too much for it to be only about celebration. For almost thirty years I have cared for my loved ones. It’s not that I defined myself by the stuffing I made and the carpools I drove, but I did. How could I not? Sure, I’ve always been something else besides partner and mother, and I’ve always identified myself by my writing and my work, but whoa, this is like having an integral part of my identity being torn from me. A mental hysterectomy.

Am I ready to be just me? It seems so bare. So alone. How will I perceive myself? Obviously, I’m still a mother, but if no child is living in my house on a permanent basis, I need to create a new perception of who I am in relation to my daughters.

I can remember the day when the switch from active to supportive-back-burner mom occurred: the day my younger daughter got her own car. Up to then, the process of not being needed was so gradual as not to disturb my hormones, especially because there were always the driving duties to keep me in the need-loop. But, wow, when she could drive herself and not have to coordinate the car usage with me, I was released from an essential part of what being a mother has meant to me. It would be a lie to say that I didn’t revel in her independence, but it’s an empty independence. Gone were the talks in the car; gone, too, were the sullen silences, but, still, we were together.

Which means that I’ll have more in common with my widowed, retired mother than with my daughters. They are striding into their lives, while I am heading to a spot on a bench, next to my mother.

Oddly, the more I think about it, the more I feel ready to be just me. Over the last year and a half of her driving herself, and the year since Kenny left, I have been able to do what I want, no excuses or blame. I have gotten together with friends, and have spent or wasted my time as me and my pocketbook have allowed. I have been becoming the woman I am meant to be. Active motherhood is a thick layer in the lasagna of life, not the whole pan.

This summer, while my daughter is still here, I have plans of my own: I took a class for work last week, and I’ll teach a writing class for a couple of weeks. I’m also going away for a weekend with two friends and taking a woodworking class (which I’ve wanted to do since I had to take Home Ec and sewing in junior high school and not shop like the boys). It occurs to me that I have already started the transition from “mommy and me” to “girls’ night out.” I’ve been making decisions based on my needs and wants, not strictly theirs, but what is essential for my understanding of myself and my relationship with my daughters is that I still want to give and give and give, but they, rightfully, no longer want to live on the receiving line.

I can’t know what stages the relationship with my daughters will go through as they live their lives. What I now realize is that I won’t be an onlooker to their lives, because I will be on a parallel track: watching them and participating in my own race. Who knows? Maybe they’ll want to glance over every once in a while and see what I’m doing.