Sunday, October 24, 2010

Autumn comes before Winter, Yes it does . . .


Although I don't want to dwell on it too much, because it impinges on others' privacy, I've been grappling with some intense, if occasional, sadness lately, sadness that seems to hit regularly on weekends when I have time to slow down for it. While my life overall is full of good things, I can't help but react to the effects of aging on both my mother and my mother-in-law: my mom is fortunate in her physical health and able to walk vigorously and often; my mother-in-law's joint pain keeps her confined very close to home; both women are experiencing Mild Cognitive Impairment, with my MIL sinking very quickly into a state which will require changed living arrangements for her and my FIL.
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Because my mother and I are only 22 years apart, I can't help but occupy her role imaginatively, although I recognize the many, many differences between us. I've battled much less with depression, am much more outgoing, set intellectual and cognitive challenges for myself much more vigorously. We are not the same; her present is not my future. Still, what I fear we may share, what I catch myself anticipating defensively, is that dismissal, even irritation --at best condescension-- that I admit I've sometimes directed at both older women, as have my sibs and my sibs-in-law. Perhaps it's only the guilt I feel at my own impatience, dismissal, condescension, but I begin to detect traces of it aimed at me, by my own kids -- poetic justice!
Rose glauca hips

After decades of playing such a vital role in my children's lives, their calls come less and less regularly, and I try to find a way to stay connected without wearing out my welcome. One friend has adopted a policy of never calling hers, of waiting for them to make the phone call. This might work for her, but given that my mother may have called me five times in my entire adult life -- and I have siblings who might put their number even lower -- I'm wary of such an approach. Still, I have a super-sensitive ear and any hint of impatience at my call means a long delay before the next one (meanwhile, unanswered voicemail or e-mail or Facebook messages land me in a no-man's-land of waiting for that tennis ball to bounce back into my side of the court, even though everyone has obviously left the park . . .)
If any of you have watched Brothers and Sisters, you might know that I dread being the kind of mom that Sally Fields plays -- her kids love her, but roll their eyes at her among themselves. Where's the dignity?! Before that, Ruth on Six Feet Under made me shudder at the recognition that her role represents a broad social perception of the "middle-aged mother of adult children." I do NOT want to go gladly into that dark night!

Viburnum tinus berries
I'm not sure what, if any, solution can be found to this inevitable role change. Part of what I'm feeling, I suspect, is simply a long-delayed response to the Empty Nest -- while our Nest has been formally empty for quite a few years now, the fledglings have still wanted support -- a shoulder to cry on, if only through a long-distance phone call; a loan or other form of financial aid; advice about formatting a job resumé; a query about how to handle a difficult co-worker; occasionally, an 11 p.m. call from someone who needs to check a Trivia or Scrabble question from across the country. Now -- and I'm truly happy this is the case -- other important people fill this role: their partners, friends, trusted colleagues. With busy lives establishing careers, furnishing new homes, juggling daycare drop-offs with board meetings, thee independence we wanted for them has the should-have-been-obvious corollary that we see much less of them.

Out in the garden this weekend, I sought a happier perspective on the beauties of this stage, the autumn of my life. Berries and richly-coloured leaves reflect the vibrancy of this period, and although I see the portents of winter all 'round, I am not yet at my mother's or MIL's place in life. While my children, part of my harvest, are wonderful adults with their own thriving lives to focus on, there are other gardens to be busy in: I'm so much more fortunate than mom, who gave up her teaching career when she had children, or my MIL, who retired from hers much earlier than she wanted to in order to keep my FIL company. I have satisfying, engaging work that tells me I'm meaningful to a broader community, even on those days when my kids find me mother-irritating. And I have a partner who wouldn't dream of asking me to give that up simply to keep him company. There are no guarantees of what winter may or may not bring -- meanwhile, I'll do my best to squeeze the most out of my autumn.

I am curious to know, though, if any of you have experienced any of these responses -- My sense is that I'm a bit older than many of my readers, and because I had my children fairly young, I suspect I've entered a different stage of the mother-child relationship than many of you (mine are 25 to 34). Or, instead, to know if you've noticed this tendency to find mothers irritating, even while loving them dearly -- and if you have come to any resolutions about how you'll negotiate this stage when you do get to it.