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These days, I call my mother every morning, somewhere amid the chaos of waking, washing, breakfasting, and remembering the lunchboxes, of driving my 14-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to the bus stop or to school, of tackling the e-mail, voice mail, and snail mail when I finally get to my office. It's our ritual, one that began after my father's death three years ago. Every time she answers, I'm struck by the unmistakable delight in her voice at the sound of mine. There probably isn't anyone else in the world who is as glad to hear from me, who is as sincerely interested in the details of my life, in my firsthand reports of what I have to do that day, or even in my secondhand account of what my young son thinks about the latest Red Sox game.
What are we doing, my mother and I, with all these phone calls? Staying in touch, letting one another know that another day is beginning and all is well -- no small thing anymore, in the world we live in. We are establishing our places, too: Whatever else I may be, I'll always be your daughter; whatever else you are, you'll always be my mom. But we're also becoming friends, both of us adults, independent of one another, yet deeply connected.
I have to reach back a long way to remember another time when every day began with my mother's voice -- all the way to my early teens, when the two of us lived under the same roof and our connection was far more troubled. It turns out that both phases of our relationship follow a rather classic pattern.
"When girls are adolescents and launching themselves into the adult world, the relationship is demanding for mothers, but much later, when a mother's health declines, the relationship is demanding for daughters," says Karen Fingerman, PhD, associate professor of human development and family studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of Aging Mothers and Their Adult Daughters: A Study in Mixed Emotions. "However, during the period in between, which can last for decades, feelings of closeness between mothers and daughters reach their peak. At the same time, there are complexities and nuances in the relationship that allow both women to accept each other's negative qualities in the same way they might in a friendship. It's much more emotionally rich."
Part of the harmony stems from the fact that with the fractiousness of the early years behind them, both mother and daughter are on their best behavior, according to a 2001 study by Dr. Fingerman and Eva S. Lefkowitz, PhD, assistant professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. The researchers asked 46 mothers, ages 69 to 93, and their middle-aged daughters, ages 32 to 60, to look at a photograph of a mother-daughter pair and write a story about it; mothers and daughters were then brought together and asked to prepare a joint story.
The researchers, who monitored the pairs' conversations during the process, found that no matter how the women performed the task -- some daughters simply submitted their own version or suggested their mother do so, while other pairs wrote a new story together -- their interactions were far more positive than negative: Rating the amount of negative behavior on a scale of 1 to 5, the researchers gave a 1.2 overall score for the mothers and 1.3 for the daughters. "We found that middle-aged daughters tended to dominate the conversations, which is the opposite pattern of what studies have found with adolescent daughters and their moms," says Dr. Lefkowitz. "But even though they structured the conversations, middle-aged daughters gave their moms plenty of encouragement and support."
When I think about my relationship with my mom, the findings don't surprise me. I was consistently rude to her as a teenager -- I was the kind of kid who often responded to some innocuous comment like, "Good morning, dear!" with a snarl. A heartfelt, somewhat pained question like "Why are you doing this?" was met with "Get off my back!" I was by turns sullen, needy, and resentful. I had an arrogant certainty that I'd arrange all aspects of my life in ways that would absolutely leave my mother in the dust. Forgiving as she is, my mom insists that I was a "complicated but interesting" teenager, occasionally challenging, but always intriguing. I know better. I remember, on a family trip to Europe when I was 14, loitering on the deck of a ferry near a group of guitar-strumming college students, hoping they'd take me for a fellow globe-trotting sophisticate -- then biting my mother's head off when she asked me to hold my little sister's stuffed monkey.
On the other hand, no sooner had I started college when my feelings subtly started to shift. My very first morning in the dorm, the phone rang rather early, and I jumped out of bed to grab it so my roommate wouldn't be awakened. It was my mother. "I just went into your room to wake you up and you weren't there," she said, laughing, though she was slightly tearful, too. I laughed along with her, but I also felt a slight catch in my throat. There was something extraordinary in her ability to feel wistful about not having me there to rouse, despite all my years of sour sleepiness. Perhaps in that moment, I took the very tiny first step toward an adult relationship with her, toward understanding the value of her ability to look past the skirmishes of everyday life -- toward understanding the value of her love. Still, I had not yet crossed any threshold. When my roommate looked at me blearily on her way to the bathroom, I sort of smirked and said, "My mom," and she nodded knowingly back.
As you grow up, you learn and relearn something you knew as a very young child -- that sometimes, only a mom will do. Twenty years ago, when my first child, Orlando, was born, my mother flew up from New Jersey to Boston, and it was she who was with me and Larry for the 24 hours of labor. In the delivery room, I remember thinking, "I'm so happy she's here, because she's done this before -- I mean, here I am, so there must be a baby at the end of this." And when it came time, both of them held me when the baby was born, and we turned into two parents and a grandmother.
For many of us, having children of our own changes and deepens our understanding of who our mothers really are, and why they did the things they did. "I used to be annoyed at my mother for how much she worried about me and my siblings when we were growing up," says Eileen Costello, 46, a Boston doctor and mother of three, who admits to waging a prolonged rejection of her mom as an adolescent. "Then I had kids of my own, and began suffering from the free-floating anxiety that comes with motherhood -- you know, fretting about things happening to my children, or things not happening when they should. Now I understand her completely."
With that understanding comes the knowledge that our moms are not going to be around forever. Just when we are getting to know them, it seems, they are getting ready to leave us. "I miss being able to talk to her," says Elizabeth Barnett, 48, a physician whose mother died two years ago. "There are so many questions, like 'Were you always home when we came home from school?' or 'How did you handle sibling rivalry?' that I can't ask her about."
Making friends with your mother is a way of acknowledging that you yourself have really grown up. Yes, she's still Mom and takes care of you when nobody else does, but now you need her as something other than a caretaker. You can understand and appreciate one another -- what you have in common as well as your differences -- and savor the good times when you laugh together or eat a good meal or take a little trip. My mother is more than a friend; I know, deep in my soul, that she'll be proud -- sometimes disproportionately so -- if I call with any kind of good news about myself or my family. She's the person who, more than anyone else, wishes me well; and she's the one whose joy and approval I want most.
So we keep some of the roles that go all the way back. Even now, when I visit my mother, she makes me tea, hands me a mug and napkin and spoon and a tiny dish to receive the tea bag. When I sleep over, she makes the bed in the morning while I'm brushing my teeth. No one else in my life, needless to say, waits on me like this; in fact, like any mother of young children, I spend a good deal of time muttering to myself how nobody ever wraps food up properly before putting it in the fridge or takes a proper phone message. Sitting in my mother's apartment, carefully taking off the little tinfoil cozy she's fashioned for the mug to keep my tea warm, I relax into the guilty, never-outgrown pleasure of spending time with someone who loves me without limit.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, May 2004.