For Every Woman Who is a Daughter and the Mother of a Daughter

Our daughters need to grow, to push up against our expectations, and to be independent, because they are ultimately showing us that they can and will carry on as torch bearers for another generation.

As my mother grew older, I was fascinated by her reimagining her colorful life’s history. It had been full enough many times over, but during her later years, she selectively tabled the middle period when she and my father drifted out of each other’s emotional orbit as she continued to pursue a graduate degree while becoming a school administrator and, ultimately, head of a girls school. My father was indeed proud of her, but as a World War II vet and a proud man, his vision did not include an ambitious and often absent wife. This was not part of his idyllic fantasy and they grew more cautious and less likely to share stories of work. They walked around their feelings and kept to safe moments - holidays, family celebrations, and children’s milestones.

The year after my mother retired, my parents, who had doggedly and courageously stayed together, moved to Cleveland, as my mother took on an interim headship. This lead to a happy year for them, attending all of the cultural events they could cram into a year and a new city. It must have been a relief to be a bit distant from the demands of their now adult children and grandchildren, although I suppose we never stopped being a little dependent and needy from time to time. When they returned to Pennsylvania, beset by my father’s heart attack and stroke, they curated a quiet life of reading, walks, dinners for which they always changed clothes and where they talked endlessly about children and grandchildren and basked in the glow of their last chapter.

Sometimes I had a hard time seeing through the glossy and rose-tinted lens of my mother’s memory. Over the five years she lived after my father’s death, her memories of family were what sustained and nourished her. On her bedside table shone dad’s handsome framed face in his naval officer’s uniform. He remained 32, virile, strong, and vital. Once, when an old friend of my mother’s made it clear that he was interested in a romantic relationship with her, we saw him no more. We children had been happy for this unexpected next chapter, but when asked, she answered in typical Adele Sands fashion, “Why would I want to be married to an old man when I had your father?”

My mother was never fully comfortable with her ambition and the demands of her job, which she loved. By re-creating an image of us gamboling on the lawn while she made cookies, it helped to round out an important fantasy for her, because she also truly loved being a mother. What I most remember and cherish was the complexity and nuance of her life. We children were often banished from her study, particularly when she was writing her dissertation, and yes, we grumbled, but forcing us to solve our own problems from time-to-time did us no harm. She needn’t have worried about her legacy or her time away from us. I remain extremely proud of her and love her still, flaws and all.

I have always believed that my daughter and I have a special and open relationship, but writing this blog made me question my decision to be living across the country. I called her the other day and asked if she realized that if she needed me I would immediately fly to her. She laughed and said, “Mom, crisis is your jam. You are always there for us. I never doubt your emergency availability, but just remember that the harder choice for you is to say, “Let’s go to London and visit Jane Austen’s home.” And there she had me.  

There is profound truth in what she says, and for all of my differences with my mother, she and I and all mothers struggle with our guilt over being less, or at least our desire to be more. I need to allow my children to be their best selves in a crisis, big or small, without my input. Our daughters need to grow, to push up against our expectations, and to be independent, because they are ultimately showing us that they can and will carry on as torch bearers for another generation. And we mothers need to celebrate one another and most importantly ourselves.  Having your daughter seeing you as a fully complex and flawed woman is a gift. Being perceived as “The Giving Tree” will force us to lose our leaves and branches, the parts that make us most interesting.

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