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How to Be a Good Middle-Aged Daughter to an Aging Parent

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There are thousands of books, articles, and classes offered to women about how to be good and successful mothers at every stage from infancy to adulthood, yet there is very little attention or information about how to be a daughter. Particularly how to do this 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 am filled with a sense of regret that I didn’t take the time to ask my questions. I think I imagined there would be time, or a better opportunity, or I was too preoccupied with the details of my own life, or even the details of caring for her life. But the moments I long for now never materialized.

So many middle-aged daughters want to be sure their mothers are safe, comfortable, and engaged in their own lives but don’t notice 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, not just the part of her that mothered you.

Of course, 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 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 histories? The uncertainties, the moments of vulnerability, the unspoken memories 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 most likely have more of a sense of the shape of your mother’s life than I did. Most of you have experienced the ever-changing balance between what you want for yourself and the daily demands of maintaining a partnership, if you have one. You have lived the accumulation of the endless tasks involved in raising your 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.

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 create a balance between herself, her family, and her 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 do not yet exist. So many old 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 essay was written by Sandra Butler, author of "Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest." Her second book, "Cancer in Two Voices," co-authored with Barbara Rosenblum, was the winner of the 1991 Lambda Literary Award. She has two middle-aged daughters and a rich community of women friends. Her latest work, "It Never Ends: Mothering Middle-Aged Daughters" co-authored with Nan Fink Gefen (out Oct. 2017), provides readers with strategies and techniques they can adopt to balance their own aging alongside that of their daughters.

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