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Tag : mothers

The Lilith Blog

May 2, 2019 by

The Object of Your Affections: What’s a Baby Between Friends?



Two best friends undergo a bitter falling out and a tearful coming back together. But this is no ordinary rapprochement—because one of the women asks her friend to be the surrogate who carries her child. Author Falguni Kothari talks to Lilith’s fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the complex, delicate nature of such a relationship, and how it set the plot for her new novel in motion.

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January 10, 2019 by

After Years of Silence, a Phone Call — and a Visit

I jumped awake when my phone rang, and my heart stopped when I realized that it was my mother calling. I couldn’t see her name or number on my screen, just the word “Blocked,” a remnant of a time that had ended only a couple of days earlier, a time when she and my father had removed themselves from my life.

My grandparents had warned me that she would be calling to make amends, so I was somewhat prepared to see “Blocked” pop up. But I honestly didn’t expect she would actually call. Over the past few years, neither of my parents had been my parents—so I assumed this would be yet another false hope. But she called.

One of the first things that my mother told me was that I “still sounded like a baby.” As a person who hasn’t had the luxury of being someone’s baby for a very long time, it infuriated me. But when she asked if she could come visit me in Colorado, I said yes. I told myself that I was only saying yes because I wanted to convince her to let me see the kids. I didn’t let myself entertain the idea that I wanted to see her, or that she truly was interested in knowing me again.

In the days leading up to her visit, I reflected on all that I had lost, all that she and my father took from me. I recalled the trauma of our separation which was caused by a variety of factors, but in part, my decision to embrace my Jewish heritage in the face of deep disapproval. I remembered all the nights that I woke up sobbing, missing my siblings with a ferocity that felt like dying. And it filled me with rage.

Something soul-destroying happened to me when I became estranged from both my parents. I felt like a person whose history, whose childhood didn’t even exist. I felt like someone who was born from nothing but air, not flesh and blood. I would look for childhood pictures and remember that they were all in a house that I and my grandparents were no longer welcome in. I would tell people that I had brothers and sisters, and it felt like a lie. The faces I saw in my mind were frozen in time, not the faces of the children my siblings had become, but the faces of small children waving as they sent their big sister off to school, not knowing that three years would pass by before they saw her again.

I would look around at the people who had become my family—my partner, my grandparents, my friends—and I wouldn’t see myself in any of them. Every time I saw my partner interact with his parents, it felt like ripping out a page from a storybook in an alternate universe, one where my parents could love me without reservations and with consistency.

I knew that my grandparents would do anything for me, but my grandfather wasn’t my biological grandfather. I didn’t see the genesis of myself when I looked at him, although I did see someone who loved me very much. And though my grandmother had saved my life more than once, with her petite frame, light skin, green eyes, and auburn hair, so unlike my own dark skin and eyes—sometimes she too felt like the opposite of me. I felt like that little baby bird going around asking people “Are you my mother?” But I wasn’t a cute character in a children’s book. I was someone whose parents had walked out—which I felt made me a subject of both fascination and pity.

I didn’t feel real. But then my mother walked through my apartment door. And I saw myself. My mother and I look exactly alike, an eerie phenomenon of duality that exists throughout her family. It always shocks people. It shocked my partner, who commented on how beautiful we both were, but how odd it was that we had the same face, the same hair.

I don’t need people to tell me that I’m my mother’s twin. Even when things were good, she was more of a sister than a mother. She had me at 22, and throughout my childhood I was her best friend and confidant. I always felt like it was my responsibility to protect her, but I didn’t know what I was protecting her from. I just knew that she was deeply sad and deeply upset about everything in her life, including me. It would be easy to say that the cruel way she chose to manifest her disappointment in me proved she didn’t love me. This is the story that makes the most sense when I review the evidence.

But as a writer, I am learning that the obvious story is almost never the story that needs to be told. I am learning that truth is almost never swallowed easily. I am learning that we can be most fulfilled by accepting the things that scare us.

In our time apart, it was surprisingly easy for my mother to become a monster in my mind. I had a lot of material to make her into this monster—hell, one time she even told me she was one. Other people who had also been hurt by her felt the same. I thought I had my mother figured out. And seeing her this way made easier to cope—after all, who could love a monster that couldn’t love them back?

I’ve always known that I looked exactly like my mother. But what always terrified me was the possibility that I might be exactly like my mother. The idea of that I had some evil lurking in my soul that would cause me to lose the people I love ate away at me. Maybe my parents were justified in abandoning me, maybe I wasn’t worthy of anyone’s love.

But when I saw my mother this weekend, when I talked with her, I did see myself. I saw someone who was deeply and irrevocably hurt by her own mother. I saw a black woman who struggled to be valued by her family, and by society. I saw someone who was desperately looking for someone to protect her, and going about it in all the wrong ways. I saw myself. And this time, I didn’t flinch. I’m not big on forgiveness, but in this moment, forgiving my mother felt like forgiving myself. Forgiving myself for being impacted by a world that doesn’t value women like me. Forgiving myself for “acting crazy” after I was violated by men and by my mother. I needed to understand her, so that I could understand the places I had been, and the places I hoped never to reach.

It was so easy to make my mother into a monster, and she became a vessel that held all of my pain.

But I saw that the pain she had inflicted on me had come from her own mother. And more than anything else, more than revenge, more than the last word, I just wanted peace. I wanted and needed to know what to do to end the cycle.

My mother seemed like a changed person. She apologized to me. She told me she loved me. She’s done that before, but I think I might choose to believe that this time is different. At the very least, it’s different on my end.

She told me that I could come visit my brothers and sisters. I’m looking forward to hugging them, to seeing the wonderful people they’ve grown into. I’m looking forward to grabbing a few of my baby pictures. I’m looking forward to feeling whole.

Nylah Burton is a writer from Washington D.C. She is currently based in Colorado.


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January 10, 2019 by

Late Revelations: When Our Matriarchs Lose Their Filters

Screen Shot 2019-01-10 at 11.53.57 AMAt the age of 90, my mother started speaking very differently about her mother. Her jaw tightened when she mentioned her. “All she cared about is money!” she would say. “She was competing with Rockefeller! She wanted to see how big the number in her bank account could get!” On the dinette table stood a matchbook- size photo of my grandmother’s pallid face in a babushka, her dark eyes huge and worried. She seemed, frankly, locked away, pleading to be released. The snapshot had been there, imploring, since my grandmother died 30 years ago. Now it vanished.

Can there be such a thing as selective dementia? My mother’s mind remained clear in all other matters. This was baffling.

Her mother, my grandmother, had been a widow who’d supported three young children by working as a seamstress in the Bronx. My mother was only two when her father died of tuberculosis. The family was poor. In my girlhood when I visited my elderly grandmother, half-finished dresses still lay piled on the table. Sometimes my grandmother was on her knees, a visitor on a chair before her, as my grandmother positioned a hem. Later, when she could no longer sew, she made 25 cents an hour stuffing records into record-jackets, alone in her apartment.

“She was a slave!” my mother often said bitterly of her mother, while I was growing up. “She worked from before dawn until midnight.”

“Well, what about Saturday?”

“Saturday she went to shul and then, in the afternoon, to Crotona Park.”

“Did she read, when she was in the park?”

“Are you kidding? She was exhausted. She didn’t read. She sat.”

This always surprised me, because I recalled my grandmother’s glass-front bookcase crammed with volumes, all in Yiddish or Hebrew. To be too tired to read! I couldn’t understand a life that didn’t have ample reading.

Mameleh my mother used to call her mother. We lived about eight blocks away. They would sit in our kitchen and drink tea. My mother once forbade me from accepting a quarter from her mother, who needed it. When I saw them, I saw their tenderness. They didn’t hug, but they often kissed on the cheek.

And so, in the beginning, and for a long time after, I dismissed my mother’s late-in-life negative view of her mother. I once asked a psychiatrist about it. “It sounds so warped to me, this brand new version of her mother. Do you think there’s anything to it?”

The psychiatrist frowned. “Well, most people don’t wait until they’re 90 to start resenting their parents,” she said, which I took to mean that if there was actually something to resent, my mother would have found it decades earlier.

So I dismissed this version as nonsensical. But as the years passed—eight, so far—my mother continued to speak of her mother in the same negative way, and I began to concede that there might be something to her version, especially as details emerged. “She didn’t care about me,” my mother told me. “I had my tonsils out when I was eleven years old, and she didn’t come.

There was another girl near me who’d also had her tonsils out. I heard her say to her parents, ‘Give my leftover ice cream to the orphan girl’. That’s how I seemed. An orphan! So they gave me the ice cream after she licked it.”

She also said, “When I was six I had bronchitis, and the hospital sent me to a Catholic hospital in Brighton Beach. I was there months. My mother came to visit only once, at Passover, and brought me a box of matzah. That was the last thing I needed! The other kids were already sticking pins in me for being a Jew! What did I need with matzahs then?”

She’d never told me these stories as a child or young adult. Only in middle-age did I get to hear them. And for many reasons I felt I was lucky to have a mother who’d lived so long.

Because my new understanding is that in advanced age, defenses thin. In old age my mother was giving me a portrait of her internal world as a very young girl. How else to understand a mother who is too busy to give attention to her toddler? She must be money-hungry! Insatiable. How else to understand a woman who doesn’t visit, but remains obsessed with her sewing machine? I am getting the version of her mother that my mother experienced when she was a child.

“I never could never find my love for her,” my mother told me one night, when I had ordered a glass of wine for her over supper. We were staying at the Marriott on my husband’s business points; my parents’ apartment had bedbugs, so we shared a bedroom for the first time in our lives. My mother didn’t drink alcohol, even at Passover. “It feels like floating!” my mother reported back, laying in the next bed over. “It’s a very nice feeling!” Then she confessed to me how she felt about her mother.

Hearing this, my own childhood finally made sense. For my mother had never enjoyed reading to me or, it seemed, paying me much attention. One of the few times she did read to me, The Cat in the Hat borrowed from the Francis Martin Library, she leapt up after six or seven pages, exclaiming, “You have no idea how it dries the throat! How much it hurts!” before she hurried out of the room to the sink.

Why did it pain her so much to read to me? I believe now I know. It sometimes hurts to give what you haven’t been given. She was as bored with me in my early childhood as her mother must have appeared to be with her. Happiness seemed a zero-sum game to us both, and if I was happy, I must be taking from her.

I felt quite mediocre, as a child. My accomplishments, when they began in my senior year of high school, came as a surprise to me, and always seemed a fluke. My intelligence, discovered so late due to a lack of early mirroring, seemed extraneous, a fun hat tied to a dull head. But now in my mother’s advanced old age, I feel that I have been given a precious lens.

Nor is it only with my own mother that I see this phenomenon of age exposing a person’s emotional core. My husband’s mother, who in fact does have dementia, often rocks in place, moaning yearningly, “Mama, Mama, Mama!” During her life of cogency she was a loquacious but emotionally aloof woman. Conversation, always filled with laughter and chatter, seemed a method to keep others at a distance. She appeared irritated by others’ needs. She was a woman with a voracious appetite, a secret eater, and her favorite thing was to be left alone to read, as my husband jokingly called them, “sagas of Hebrew passion.”

But in her mid 80s, when her mind gave way, she started saying “Mama.” Now it is almost all she says. I may be making too much of this, but I don’t think so. I think she is finally voicing the painful longing that hid behind her obdurate affect. She once told me that her mother advised her, “Nobody wants to hear about you.” Her tone at the time was impassive, her story told with a shrug. I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to hear that from one’s own mother. But now she is showing me.

How grateful I am for these late revelations. They give me pain, yes, but knowledge can be healing. If my mother had passed away before she started resenting her mother, what a loss for us both! Now, what has emerged is ambivalence, for I do believe she experienced for her mother both love and hatred. My mother suffered early deprivations that made her think that a poor woman supporting her family was in truth avaricious and cold, hoarding her assets. Consigned to the hospital ward, how lonely she must have felt, wanting the woman who apparently didn’t want her. Back home she was ignored, even neglected, while her mother bent over the sewing machine. A shard of my mother’s emotional truth flies down through the years and illuminates my own childhood. I understand now the strange absences that shaped me.

In my earliest years I recall being in a playpen, a crib, or strapped into a high chair, always at a distance from the besieged woman I craved. As an adult I was surprised to discover that “What did you learn at school today?” was considered a standard inquiry. A sense of inferiority—my own mother was uninterested in me—has haunted me, and effloresced in various kinds of mundane masochism that only midlife let me conquer.

But now, discovering my own mother’s longing has freed me to feel empathy. Here is the girl my mother was, waiting alone in her hospital bed for the woman who didn’t appear. That lonely little girl didn’t go away. She’s still there. My mother’s old age introduced me to her. I take my mother’s hand as she sits in the wheelchair. “I love when you visit,” she says. “Me too,” I answer, truthfully.

When I leave her, I am emptier and fulfilled, enlarged by the echoes of the women in my family, by my mother in the present and the past.

Bonnie Friedman is the author of the bestselling Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life and, most recently, Surrendering Oz: A Life in Essays, which was longlisted for the PEN award in the Art of the Essay.


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October 3, 2018 by

Sara Berman’s Closet

Sara Berman's Closet


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October 3, 2018 by

Love at Second Sight

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 11.27.23 AMWhen I was a child, my mother gave me orange slices to suck when I threw up, to take away the bad taste. She sat on the floor, pincushion in hand, to shorten the hemline of my junior-high graduation dress. Other times, she turned my world upside down by screaming, “Get out of my sight, you fucking bastard! Go shit in your hat! Your name is Mud!” She hit me with a wooden hanger sometimes because, “It hurts me when I hit with my hand.” She also tried, with varying degrees of success, to act as a buffer between my strict father and me. In this, I felt we were allies.

Our relationship was complicated.

One afternoon when I was 15, I was shopping on Brooklyn’s Bay Parkway with my mother’s cousin Mildred. All at once, she clutched my arm and said, “Doesn’t that man look exactly like your mother’s first husband?” 

Mildred had always been a little off. “My mother was never married before,” I said. 

“You didn’t know?” 

An hour later, my mother confirmed Mildred’s story with a simple, “Yes, I was.” My initial shock turned to joy at the implication. Only days before, I’d asked why she tolerated all my father’s raging and irrational rules. “I’m surviving,” she’d said, “I’m coping.” She spoke as if she had met her goal. She didn’t realize I was asking why she tolerated it for the whole family, not just herself.

“Who’s my real father?” I asked, “Daddy or your first husband?”

“Daddy. I didn’t have children in my first marriage.”

That ended my interest.

We didn’t discuss it again for 45 years.

When I was 30 and my mother was in her late 50s she retired from a career as an educator. Listening to the PTA president’s speech at her party, I gained a new respect for her. “When Mrs. Conan came to this school, our children could not read. Now our children read!” she said.

My mother soon started a new career, as an interviewer with the Social Security Administration. She also embarked on what would become a decades-long quest for personhood, reading self-help books and filling index cards with sayings like, “We expect from each other only what we are able to give of ourselves.” Over the years, I had felt alternately angry and cordial toward my mother, though never really close. Now I sensed she longed for a deeper relationship. While I understood what she was doing, I wasn’t ready for more intimacy. She didn’t push it.

Little changed until my mother’s early 80s, when she visited me for a sleepover in my summer bungalow. It was three years after my father’s death. As I was drying the dishes, she said, “On Yom Kippur, before you ask God for forgiveness, you’re supposed to ask the person you wronged. So I’m asking, do you forgive me for all the bad things I did when you were growing up?”

This took me by surprise. Our conversations usually consisted of news exchanges, telling each other about places we had been or errands we had run. I didn’t want a give-and-take beyond that.

“Yeah, I forgive you,” I said, dabbing a stray drop on a cup.

“That doesn’t sound like forgiveness.”

Her voice was one I’d never heard before. It was vulnerable. Looking up, I saw an earnest face that scared me. I wanted to bolt. 

“I forgive you,” I repeated, meeting her eyes. 

“That still doesn’t sound like forgiveness.” 

Suddenly, I realized what a risk my mother was taking, and that she was in pain. I had the power to take it away or make it worse. I put down the towel, hugged her, and said, “I forgive you.”

She hugged me back, saying, “Now I know you mean it.”

I wasn’t sure how much I did mean it, though I was glad she thought I did, because I felt I ought to mean it. But in the months that followed, I felt lighter than I had in a long time. My mother had given me a gift. She had acknowledged that the things she’d said and done had really happened, and she knew that they were hurtful.

Until then, I had never wondered what made her the way she was. I’d been too busy surviving myself. Now I began to be curious about what had shaped her, and asked whether she would share her recollections. She was very willing to answer questions. In fact, she seemed to welcome them. Our exchanges, a few minutes here, a few there, added emotional depth to what I already knew.

My mother was the sixth of nine children born to the doting Greek-Jewish grandparents I called Nona and Papoo. I’d never imagined they might not have been that way as parents, being so preoccupied with paying the mortgage they couldn’t give much attention to any one child. My mother didn’t start school until she was seven, because Nona kept her home to care for her brother, four years younger. When she graduated from elementary school, Nona and Papoo came to the ceremony. Afterward, the three of them walked home together, the first time my mother was alone with both parents. She told me how proud she felt making her way down the block between them, for all the world to see.

Nona’s greatest wish for each of her daughters was a husband. My mother craved Nona’s approval, so, at 21, she married her college boyfriend. But Nona wasn’t pleased, because he didn’t have a job. The marriage lasted three years.

Two years later, my mother met my father. She was captivated because he spoke several languages, played chess, and listened to classical music, and because his attentions were a balm after her divorce. Nona was satisfied with my mother’s second match: he was a postal clerk. They were married in four months.

Things deteriorated quickly. When my mother bought an inexpensive dress without first asking my father, he took her name off the bank account. A sewing-machine operator in a factory, she had to turn over her salary to him, and he gave her an allowance for household expenses.

Then came World War II. My father left for Europe when I was two and my brother just days old. Within weeks, my mother got a job as a substitute teacher and opened her own bank account. When my father returned a year later, he resumed his role as the boss at home, but my mother kept her bank account and her career.

I asked why she had never divorced him. “I didn’t want to be unmarried,” she said.

In her late 80s, my mother requested my help managing her paperwork. Once a week, I drove from Manhattan to the Brooklyn house I grew up in. We sat at a bridge table in my brother’s old room and reviewed bills and bank statements, then went out to eat. She always insisted on paying, and on giving me a little extra for myself, because “It shouldn’t cost you anything to visit your mother.”

I looked forward to these visits. My mother felt our togetherness, too. “It’s love at second sight,” she said.

One day, in the course of a meandering conversation, she mentioned her first husband. I asked how the marriage had ended. “He left me for my best friend,” she said.

I visualized my mother as a young woman feeling the pain of abandonment and lost love. “How long did it take you to get over it?” I asked. 

“I never got over it,” she said.

I was stunned. The marriage had ended over 60 years ago. I asked what her husband’s name was. 
“Sam Langbert,” she said.

After dinner, as I began my drive back to Manhattan, I saw my mother in my rear-view mirror, waving from the top of the stoop. When I got to my apartment, there was her usual message on my answering machine. “Vivian, this is your mother. You just left. I hope you have a safe trip home. I had a wonderful time with you. And Vivian, I love you. Iloveyou, Iloveyou, Iloveyou. Bye-bye, Vivian.” 

That night, I did an Internet search for Sam Langbert. After I determined he was still living—he wasn’t in the Social Security Death Index—I looked through directories and found a listing in Florida. I called my mother and told her I had an address for a man who might be the Sam Langbert she married. “Do you want it?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “but don’t throw it out.”

A week later, she called. “Viv, if you still have that address, I’ll take it.” She wrote a letter that began, “If you are the Sam Langbert whose mother lived on 18th Avenue in Brooklyn and whose father had a shoe-repair shop on 34th Street in Manhattan, near Macy’s, then I was your wife.”

Sam’s reply arrived in eight days. He wrote that he had thought of her often, she was a fine person, and he felt bad about what he had done. Her friend left him after a few years, and he had been married several times since. “So you see, I don’t have a very good track record as a husband.”

My mother answered, telling him she had been married 52 years, her daughter was a librarian, her son a psychologist, and she had three grandsons. She wrote that she had been a school principal.

“I wanted him to know I was successful,” she told me.

I asked how she felt having gotten in touch with him after all these years.

“I finally have closure,” she said, looking more peaceful than I had ever seen her.

Two years later, just before her 90th birthday, my mother was reminiscing about her childhood. “I have a picture of my mother in my bedroom,” she said. “And I look at her, and I thank her. I thank her for being my mother. I enjoy her more now, I think, than I did when she was alive.”

I was enjoying my own mother now, and glad she was alive to know it. 

Vivian Conan has written for the New York Times and New York magazine. She has just completed her memoir, Losing the Atmosphere.



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The Lilith Blog

July 31, 2018 by

I Couldn’t Divorce My Mother-in-Law

3_elephants_topiaryThe Lilith blog presents original short fiction: “The Elephant in the Bush” by Penny Jackson

 “Look,” my mother-in-law tells me. “There’s an elephant in the bushes.”

I turn to look where she is pointing. We are sitting on white deck chairs in a very suburban backyard in New Jersey.

“Do you see it?” She presses my hand. My mother-in-law, whose name is Ida, starts bobbing her head in the agitated way I know now so well.

“Of course,” I tell her, taking off my sunglasses and peering at the shrubbery.

“How funny.  Not only an elephant. But a baby elephant!”

Ida is in stage five of Alzheimer’s disease. She is either a late five or early six. I’ve read the books her daughter has loaned me. The 36-Hour Day is the most popular book that is passed around from family member to family member. 

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The Lilith Blog

June 12, 2018 by

Isolated Mothers, Searching for Miracles

The reader knows by page one of Queen for a Day that Mimi Slavitt’s three-year-old son is autistic, but if anyone told her, she wouldn’t listen, because she doesn’t want to know—until at last Danny’s behavior becomes so strange even she can’t ignore it. After her son’s diagnosis, Mimi finds herself in a world nearly as isolating as her son’s. Searching for miracles, begging for the help of heartless bureaucracies while arranging every minute of every day for children who can never be left alone, she and her fellow mothers exist in a state of perpetual crisis, “normal” life always just out of reach. In chapters told from Mimi’s point of view and theirs, we meet these women, each a conflicted, complex character dreaming of the day she can just walk away.

Taking its title from the 1950s reality TV show in which the contestants, housewives living lives filled with pain and suffering, competed with each other for deluxe refrigerators and sets of stainless steel silverware, Queen for a Day portrays a group of imperfect women living under enormous pressure. Maxine Rosaler talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the true-life experiences that led her to write this book. (more…)

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April 17, 2018 by

Silences Between Mothers & Daughters

WHEN MY MOTHER had her first episode of congestive heart failure, I was 46. The doctors prescribed various medicines and told her to exercise, and after a few days in the hospital the crisis seemed to be over. She took up swimming, which she didn’t like, and lived another 12 years.

I never knew how my mother felt about this experience, even though I was there with her through it all. It was some-thing to be handled, not discussed, and she seemed to adjust to her new condition without difficulty. I wonder now about the fear and anxiety she must have felt, and what it was like to be a divorced, aging woman, facing the prospect of living alone with a diseased heart. I wish I knew. But she was of a generation that didn’t talk directly about these things, and she was more interested in controlling her feelings than exploring them.

Still, I could have asked more questions. I could have gone beyond her proper, contained surface and encouraged her to open up. Having worked over a dozen years as a psychotherapist, I had the skill to do this, but I didn’t take the time. I told myself I was too busy. I had just moved to the West Coast, a half hour from her, and was transitioning into a new marriage and a new career as a publisher. My schedule was crowded with things to do and people to meet, and I was in a speeded-up state.

I settled into the role of the dutiful daughter, watching over my mother from a distance, making sure she had what she needed. Every so often I took her out for lunch or dropped by, and we spoke about family matters and the trips she sometimes took. I didn’t talk much about myself. Bruised by her rejection in the past, I was careful not to reveal any-thing about the disturbing issues I was facing in my new life.

Now that I am the age my mother was when she first became ill, I realize she must have sensed my emotional unavailability and known she couldn’t share intimate parts of herself with me. There was no space in our conversations for her sorrows and insecurities or her worries about the future, and in return, I didn’t seek her advice or solicit her wisdom. Perhaps she could see in my face that I was having difficulties, but we continued as though this wasn’t happening. Did words sometimes well up within her and get stuck in her throat, as they did for me?

I’m sorry my mother and I couldn’t speak openly during that time. We could have been of solace to each other. I look back at my middle-aged self and see how much I’ve learned since then about the importance of connection. With two middle-aged daughters of my own, I now know how it feels to be in my mother’s position. My relationships with them are more satisfying than ours had been and we speak with much more candor, but I too have experienced awkward silences and censored topics, wanting to say something but holding back, fearing that I’ll disrupt our connection or cause offense or somehow knock us off course. I’ve learned that it is some-times easier to listen to what they have to say than to reveal my thoughts or feelings. But there’s a price I pay when I hide in this way: I’m less known by them.

It took me a long time to realize that I silence myself with my daughters, but I’ve discovered I’m not unique in this way. My colleague Sandra Butler and I recently wrote a book about older mothers mothering middle-aged daughters, and in the process, we spoke in depth with dozens of women aged 65–85. To my surprise, most of them said they often feel unknown or unseen by their daughters.

They tell us about the reasons why this happens. Some fear their daughters’ anger, disapproval, or withdrawal, and say they are “walking on eggshells.” Others carefully circumvent the past so that old wounds are not reopened, or they’re ashamed of the mistakes they’ve made. We spoke with mothers who minimize their own success and accomplishments, fearing they might intimidate or overshadow daughters who are having difficulties, while others silence themselves because their daughters aren’t particularly interested in them, relating to them only as “Mom” or “Grandma.” And there are those who remain silent because they’re afraid of being seen as bossy and judgmental.

Mother-daughter relationships can be deeply satisfying and fulfilling, but often they are troubled because of the existence of their shared history. It’s hard for a daughter to ignore her mother’s pursed lips in the present moment when this reminds her of how her mother looked before punishing her as a child, and it’s hard for a mother to accept her daughter canceling a dinner together when it reminds her of the pain she felt when her offspring chose to live with their father and not with her after the divorce.

Mothers and daughters are deeply connected by a complex history. It’s assumed or at least hoped they will be able to talk to each other in an intimate way. It is all the more disturbing when they don’t.

Mothers often look back fondly to when their daughters were young and they felt they had fewer constraints on speech. As one told us, “I could say whatever I wanted in those days because I was her mother and she was dependent on me. I taught her Jewish values and the importance of family life, but unfortunately that didn’t stick. She hardly ever sees her relatives and doesn’t ask about them, and she works for a company that exploits its workers. I love her—I always will—and there’s a bond between us, but I have to be so much more careful about what I say to her now. Otherwise, I’m afraid I’ll lose her.”

At the heart of mothers’ concern is the fear of loss. As their lives begin to contract and their daughters move fully into their own with partners, children, careers, and community involvements, mothers sometimes feel left behind. This happens at a time when they’re more vulnerable, adjusting to the demands of their aging bodies and their changing circumstances. Contact with their daughters becomes increasingly precious and infused with meaning, and it matters more to them because they understand in a way they didn’t before that it won’t last forever. They don’t want to lose this most-important connection because of saying the  wrong thing.

I’ve focused on mothers silencing themselves since it’s most familiar to me. But mothers are just half of a relation-ship’s equation, as I learned when my own fell ill, and daughters have a multitude of reasons for being silent. I, for one, carried a lot of resentment and distrust from the past, and that made me hold back on revealing myself to my mother.

Failure in communication is not inevitable because of shared history, however. Some relationships grow deeper as mothers reach the last decades of their lives and look within themselves and acknowledge their mistakes. No one is perfect, and when they are able to see the missteps they made through the years and apologize to their daughters, the door to forgiveness is opened. And then silence—the kind that feels like hiding or negating the self or avoiding saying the hard things—is no longer an issue.

I know about this because of talking with so many mothers, and I also experienced it myself. My mother softened as she aged and approached death, and began to express words of regrets. Once she told me she was sorry she hadn’t been a better mother, and another time said she knew mine had been a hard childhood. I didn’t need her to spell out the details. Her intention was enough; I began to trust her more and my love deepened, and I was able to apologize to her, too. And in so doing, I let go of being the stubborn, silent daughter I had been for years and forgave her and myself for all that had gone before. With that, we moved into a state of closeness we had never known. 

Nan Fink Gefen is the publisher of Persimmon Tree: An Online Magazine of the Arts by Women over Sixty. Her most recent book is It Never Ends: Mothering Middle-Aged Daughters (She Writes Press, 2017) . 


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