There are countless books about mothers and daughters, but not so many (if any) about what motherhood is like when your daughters are in their 40s and 50s. Now there’s one, It Never Ends: Mothering Middle-Aged Daughters by Sandra Butler, 79, and Nan Fink Gefen, 76.
The authors, each with two daughters in their 50s, interviewed nearly 80 mothers in their 70s and 80s about their relationships with their daughters (a dynamic different than that between mothers and sons, which deserves its own book, they say).
“There’s an assumption that mothering stops when your kids are in their 40s and 50s,” says Butler from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Nope.
But, as the book points out, the mother-daughter relationship changes through the decades, sometimes in ways that are hard to navigate: In their later years, mothers may have more time on their hands, just as their daughters may be at their busiest — absorbed by spouses, their own children, careers.
What’s a mom’s role, then, when your daughter not only doesn’t “need” you, in the practical sense, but also doesn’t have as much time to spend with you as you’d like?
Butler told us a few things she learned while writing the book (and from her own parenting experience) about this sometimes uncomfortable stage in the mother-daughter relationship.
Closeness is what matters most to moms — but keep in mind that there are many different ways to be close.
“Each relationship is unique,” says Butler. “For some mothers closeness means predictability, such as Friday-night dinners. For some it’s spontaneity, being able to drop in. For some it’s deep intimate talks, and for others it’s cooking family meals together without even talking.”
She points to her “two very different daughters" as examples: "The relationship with my older daughter, who’s going to be 60, Is one of the most extraordinary relationships of my life, we’re all the way down to the bone with each other, all the way…. My other daughter, who’s 57, is an economist and feelings are not her primary language, so we talk politics. That’s our way of knowing each other and sharing our worldview and loving each other.”
Fear of rejection can prevent you from improving your relationship with your daughters.
“Because closeness with their daughters is absolutely the most important thing for mothers, they go to very great lengths not to jeopardize the closeness — anything not to alienate the daughter.” That can result in stagnation rather than growth in the relationship, Butler suggests: “There’s a tension in just wanting to keep everything OK, and saying, ‘Let’s get this the very best we can get it before I’m gone.’"
It helps to acknowledge past mistakes.
“I was too unstructured with my daughters," says Butler, who was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and '70s, when her girls were young. Partly in reaction to her own “very conventional, structured” childhood, she adds, she — along with many other mothers who came of age in that era — had a loose parenting style “that didn’t necessarily fit with what our daughters needed. It fit with what we needed. That needs to be faced, understood, acknowledged and, if possible, said out loud to the daughter, if she’s receptive to that kind of conversation.”
And don't forget your own mom.
Butler calls her late mother “very difficult,” but says that with time, “I came to understand her life in the context of her moment in history — and not as my mother only but as a woman for whom part of her life was being my mother. I would say that one of my great sorrows is that she can’t read this book, that I won’t be able to put it in her hands and thank her."