Right now I have an 89-year-old friend who moved away from her lifetime residence and cadre of friends to a retirement home closer to her daughter. Her daughter wanted this move because it would save her expensive flights to visit her mother. Although they were not especially close, my friend wanted to be nearer to her daughter in case she became ill.
My friend spends her days isolated in the facility. Her daughter does not see or talk to her very much and it is difficult to begin making friends at this age, she says. It is now apparent that her daughter may not be there even if she is ill. She thinks she made a mistake but she cannot move back now. She is too old.
The Institute on Aging reported in 2010 that older women are twice as likely to live alone as older men, and that their rate of depression increases with age. It’s a fair bet that many of these women are mothers. In 2012, 1.3 million lived in nursing homes. Staff in facilities for older mothers know the large numbers who do not receive any attention from their children on Mother’s Day, not even a card or a phone call. If there are grandchildren, the pain intensifies.
The conflicted feelings that adult children have about their mothers play out in different ways on Mother’s Day. Motherhood carries an emotional load different from fathers. She is responsible for her child’s being alive, but there doesn’t seem to be a definite limit to when that can end or when she can stop being blamed for their difficulties.
I read of a woman who has a cerebral palsy child. She stated that “my life will be a mommy-and-me project.” I hoped not. For her own sanity and well-being of her child, she needs to define her life beyond her motherhood.
It seems that after a certain point, which varies, some children can either resent or ignore emotional needs of mothers. Part of growing up is, of course, becoming independent of parents. The shift from parent-to-child to adult-to-adult relationship is not always completed.
The task of accepting one’s mother as a personality independent of the son’s or daughter’s needs can lead to efforts to escape all but the most superficial of exchanges. We are forever tied to our mothers, but we may not like them. In some way, we may still yearn for the fairy tale mother.
Is the idea that a mother has an emotional need too threatening to those who are only used to depending on her? Albert Brooks portrayed this issue in the movie “Mother” with Debbie Reynolds.
Mothers who crave attention or acknowledgment may be seen as manipulative, nuisances, martyrs, witches, shrews, or worse. The fairy tale portrayal of stepmothers and mothers-in-law as cruel remain powerful archetypes. The crone, the older woman, is more often a witch, ugly and evil rather than the repository of wisdom found in older cultures.
In our culture, once a woman’s sexual or childcare services are no longer desired, does she become either invisible or irritating?
We read about attachment deficit in children, parental alienation in divorce disputes and unwanted children. We don’t hear as much about unwanted mothers. The motherless child is also a theme in childhood stories. A child who loses his mother will search a lifetime to find a fulfilling substitute, often without success. In contrast, those who have mothers may avoid them as much as possible.
Of course there are mothers who did not nurture, perhaps because they had not been nurtured. But there are many nurturing mothers who have been forbidden to take up too much of their adult children’s attention. Their children still seem to resent or ignore their mothers’ need for connection.
Sons and daughters can both show this impatience with mothers’ needs. The father is an important factor in attitudes toward mothers. But even when dad is absent, the single mother may be blamed for his absence or be criticized for what she could not provide. The recent movie, “Boyhood”, subtly showed how taken- for -granted the mother’s role was, even with few resources. She’s supposed to do it all. She can always handle it. She is not to need anything. If she does, she’s failed.
At the other end of the spectrum, adult children may feel guilty about negative views of their mothers. Or they may be so enmeshed with their mothers they cannot see them objectively. I have seen mothers who I thought neglectful be idolized by their children. I have seen mothers who dedicated themselves to their children’s well-being be chastised for any request they made of their child.
The mystery of unspoken expectations and enduring resentments of mothers by some will probably never be solved. Everyone’s an expert.
Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Your children are not your children. They are sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you.” Roseanne Barr’s attitude was that she’d done a good job if they were alive at the end of the day.
Gibran wasn’t a mother. He didn’t raise them and send out his heart inside their bodies when they grew up. Roseanne is, but was joking.
Even though the pain of what feels like their rejection lingers, you are more than your motherhood. The discrepancy – how you want your relationship to be with your children versus how it is – does not mean the entire effort was a failure. If you’ve tried to mend the connection and been rejected, there is still your life to live.
If you are an unwanted mother this year, someone whom children resentfully force themselves to call, or even totally ignore, I want to offer you a gift.
I encourage you to treat yourself. If you want, find another unwanted mother to share the day with. Or somewhere perhaps there is a child who wants what you have to give. But if not, you can still forgive yourself for your shortcomings. Consider consoling yourself with one bit of common wisdom from those who braved the parental gamble:
whatever we try to give our children, they may want something else.