Hi Elderly Aunt, I’ve really enjoyed reading your responses to so many varied questions. And while I didn’t think I’d ever be writing one myself, here I am in a bit of a quandary. I am a single lady of a certain age, long divorced with one adult daughter. She and I have enjoyed a close relationship since she moved back to the Valley after college several years ago. We would meet up for lunch or coffee almost every week and text frequently in between visits. But in recent weeks, she’s either been unable to meet up or had to cancel our lunches and has been slow to text in response. I have asked if everything’s okay. She says she’s just been busy. But I can’t help but notice a chill in her voice. She seems reluctant to tell me many details of what’s happening in her life, and I’m trying not to sound like I’m prying. I remember reading in one of your past responses that you’re a mother of an adult daughter. Any advice for a fellow mom who just wants to restore and maintain a healthy relationship with her daughter?
Changes in relationships can be terribly unsettling. But to be as truthful as she always tries to be, dear reader, the Elderly Aunts finds nothing inherently unhealthy in the change you describe in your relationship with your adult daughter. Might it not be possible that your daughter is simply asking you to let her have more space? Surely, she knows that if she needs or wants your help, all she has to do is ask.
Over the course of her long life, the Elderly Aunt has observed many mother-daughter relationships play out as the psychological equivalent of Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-Pullya—the mother’s desire to still feel needed by her daughter pulls it in one direction, while her adult daughter’s need for autonomy pulls it in another. How clearly the Elderly Aunt remembers the OMG moment her own five-year-old daughter swatted her hand away and announced, “I can cross the street by myself, mo-ther!” That was the moment she realized that if she was to be a truly successful mother, one of the most important things she could do was set her daughter free to function safely and (hopefully) happily as an autonomous person. And the greatest compliment she could give her mother was to do just that.
Yikes! Be still my maternal heart!
So what’s a mother to do when she worries about her adult daughter? The Elderly Aunt suggests you begin by answering these two questions in writing and as much detail as possible.
- How do I envision a close, healthy relationship between my adult daughter and myself?
- And whose needs should drive our relationship — mine or hers?
Sadly, it is the Elderly Aunt’s observation that one of the most egregious burdens we mothers can place on our adult daughters is to make them feel they are somehow responsible for taking up the practical/emotional slack in our own adult lives. With this in mind, she suggests you read the answers to those two pesky questions aloud, and then ask yourself a third—even peskier—one:
- Do I really, really think my adult daughter’s current behavior suggests she needs the same things from our relationship that I do? Or am I projecting my own need to be needed onto her?
The Elderly Aunt’s point in asking these (possibly cruel-sounding) questions, dear reader, is to challenge you to consider your daughter’s distancing behavior from her point of view as well as from your own. That said, she firmly believes that once you’re a mother, you’re a mother for life. To the Elderly Aunt, maternal worry is as natural as breathing. She certainly feels that if our daughters seem troubled, we are allowed to ask once: “What’s wrong?” What we are not allowed to do is to keep asking and so saddle our daughters with the additional burden of worrying about us.
Please, dear reader, ask away—simply and directly and without drama—unless, that is, you have already done so. After which, armed with your insightful answers to the Elderly Aunt’s three pesky questions, she suggests you get cracking on shoring up any holes in your own life as a happy, autonomous woman while you wait for your daughter to do whatever she needs to do on her own. She knows you’re there. She knows you will do anything you can to help her. And she appears to be asking you to trust her to whistle if she should need you.
And my dear fellow mother-of-an-adult daughter, please consider yourself empathetically elbow-bumped by your comrade in the Confusion of Motherhood, the Elderly Aunt.
The Elderly Aunt offers her thoughtful responses to your questions about this wild ride we call life on every other Monday. And as a general disclaimer—to quote the elves from The Lord of the Rings — “… advice is a dangerous gift, even given from the wise to the wise.”
Got a question for the Elderly Aunt? Ask her on Facebook or email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Elderly Aunt question.” (Just please don’t ask detailed financial questions).