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It Never ends: Mothering Middle-aged Daughters

Sandra Butler and Nan Fink Gene Discuss Mothers' Perspectives on Their Life-Long Role

An Ashby Village Arts and Culture Event

Story by Charli Depner, Photography by Nancy Rubin


What do mothers over 65 have to say about their current mother-daughter relationships? Authors Sandra Butler and Nan Fink Gefen interviewed 78 mothers, ranging in age from 65-85, of varied backgrounds, family configurations, employment, education, racial identities, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. The authors listened as mothers recounted stories of the complex twists and turns of their mothering over time. The interactive presentation, facilitated by Ashby Village co-chair of the Arts and Culture program Marcia Freedman, was both touching and thought provoking, punctuated by knowing laughter and sighs of recognition from the audience.

Although much has been written about the responsibilities of midlife daughters, accounts from the perspective of their mothers are rare. Their new book It Never Ends provides new insights through interviews with mothers over 65. “We wanted to challenge the assumption that women are no longer mothering in this stage of life…to learn from women’s accounts of their lived experience,” explained Sandra Butler. She and co-author Nan Fink Gefen, friends for three decades, spent five years mining the interviews to produce a book that documents lifelong exchange in mother-daughter relationships, and describes the varied and changing expressions of contemporary mothering.

When asked to characterize their relationships with their daughters, most mothers began by assessing their emotional closeness.  “There is a yearning women have for a close relationship with their daughters,” according to Nan Fink Gefen, “…a felt mandate for closeness, feeling they have failed somehow if the relationship is not close.”  The authors also noted variations in how mothers defined “closeness.” Often mothers measured it relative totheir relationships with their own mothers.  Emotional closeness can change over time and is not equated with physical proximity.

The mothers also reported that now is a time of introspection and reckoning in their lives.  They ask themselves more profound questions and their answers are honest and less defensive.  However, mothers are concerned that disclosing these reflections could destabilize their relationships with their daughters.  Even in close relationships, mothers often harbor an unmet need at this point in their lives for their daughters to know them better.  Instead, they see their assigned role as being in charge of keeping the relationship on an even keel.   This function of maintaining balance is also present in the commonly reported maternal duty the authors labeled,  “skillful accompaniment,” being there for their daughters, offering support, and acting as a sounding board.  Even so, mothers cautioned that their advice sometimes could be heard as judgment.  Mothers hold back, realizing, as one put it, “I could hurt her more that other people could.”

Them others also felt that the past continued to shape dimensions of their relationships with their daughters.  “As we came of age,” Sandra Butler recalls, “everything about what it meant to be a women changed.”  As young mothers, they had hoped to model these new options for their daughters.  However, competing responsibilities, work, divorce, remarriage and blended families sometimes disrupted mother daughter relationships.  Some daughters looked back on their childhoods with unresolved anger and resentment that their mothers had not committed more time to a relationship with them.  Mothers, in turn, felt a mixture of envy and pride as their daughters seized opportunities that had not been available to prior generations of mothers. 

Generational changes in role expectations also had an impact on whether mothers evaluated their mothering.  Mothers felt they had done well by endeavoring to give their daughters what they found lacking in their relationships with their own mothers, but mothers felt unsuccessful when their daughters did not mirror the choices they had made.

Although the talk focused on common themes, the authors were quick to point out the variations in those themes and the changes that take place over time and circumstances.  Still, what seemed constant was the significance placed on their relationships with their daughters, whether those relationships are positive or painful and however their roles are defined and enacted. In response to a question from a mother in the audience who wanted to know how to maintain her highly satisfying relationship with her daughter, Sandra Butler simply responded, “There is no way to know what will happen in the future…just cherish and delight in it now.”

Thanks go out to those who worked on this event: Rochelle Lefkowitz, Betty Webster, Irene Marcos, Beth Burnside, Joanne Carder, Sigrid Duesberg, Joan Cole, Kristina Holland, Helen Burke, Dagmar Friedman, and Howard Kirsch.

Mark your calendar for the next Arts & Culture Event:

March 25, 2-4 pm – Russ Ellis, Troy Duster and Thelton Henderson, in conversation with Adam Hochschild.

  Mother Middle Aged Daughters A and C photo 1 Ready for the Presentation

In Conversation

Audience with panel