I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Mothers and Daughters

The Mirror

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Homework

I am in the middle of a yoga training with Colleen Saidman Yee. She has designed thought-full and specific sequences of poses to enhance or mitigate significant emotions and life transitions. All with a goal of achieving peace and confidence in ourselves, in order to be able to say: I Am Enough.

Our assignment this week, among other things, was to look in the mirror, see ourselves, our souls, and say I Love You. When I looked in the mirror, I felt so silly. Who says that?

Why not? Why don’t we give ourselves permission to love ourselves?

It brings up a long buried memory. I am at the wedding of our neighbor. My first wedding. I am about 8, perhaps. I am wearing a fancy dress and my mother did my hair in her favorite way, pulled back into a top-knot. I feel excited and grown up. At the wedding we are chit-chatting with another neighbor who remarks how pretty I look. Feeling confident and pleased, I respond, “I know!” My parents are embarrassed and scold me. One should be modest and humble, not braggy and conceited. The neighbor smiles indulgently and defends me. But the damage is done. A lifelong struggle with how to be in this world begins. Pretty? Smart? Assertive? Confident? Bossy? Slutty? Ambitious? Bitchy? NICE?

It is more socially acceptable to commiserate: I am so busy. I am so tired. I have so many problems. Or to be self-deprecating: I’m too heavy. I’m too thin. I’m too old. I hate my hair. When was the last time someone asked you “How are you?” and you answered: “I am beautiful, healthy, and strong. I like my job. My kids amaze me. My husband loves me.” Well, dammit, that’s how I am. I’m tired of complaining.

Don’t get me wrong. I could complain! My beauty is one of a middle-aged woman now. My wrinkles, age-spots, thinning eyebrows, and jowls (wtf?) shock me. SHOCK! I am not passionate about my job, but it’s interesting. I wish I had more time for yoga, both practicing and teaching. I’ve been hurt. Badly. A lot. I worry about everything. But… I am who I am and I am enough.

What is beauty anyway? We women are encouraged to meet an impossible external standard. Tall, thin, fit, young. Those of us who come close work very hard to get closer to the standard and feel like failures when we don’t. Those of us who don’t come close work very hard to get closer to the standard and feel like failures when we don’t. Or, we give up. As we get older, perhaps we find more peace with who we are and how we look, but our fading looks are a bittersweet reminder of the fleeting impermanence of youth and of life.

We look in the mirror and see our soul shining through our eyes. The same soul from 50 years ago, from 40 years ago, from 30 years ago, from 20 years ago, from 10 years ago. Real beauty is self-acceptance. Self-confidence. Pride. No more wishing to be someone else. No more wishing to be richer, thinner, smarter, nicer, more successful, more popular, more badass, more happy. We are enough.

Besides, it’s not about me anymore. I want my daughter to be happy and to love herself and to know – really know – her value. If I can’t model that kind of love and confidence for me, what makes me think she can do it for her? If my love for myself is a bit tentative and embarrassed and filled with buts and what-if’s, my love for her is fierce.

Dear girl, you are enough.

The Light Is Always On

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For You

Last night, your first night of your second year of college, I tiptoed into your room and turned on the light. That simple habit I have from your teen years, welcoming you home on the nights you are out late.

I like to go into your room and soak you in. I look at the mementos, always surprised and touched at something new (to me) that you found meaningful that someone gave you, indicating what a rich life you have – apart from me. I smell your perfume and lie on your bed looking at the posters on the wall. And bask in my pride and my wonder of you.

A year ago, this quiet, occasional ritual would sometimes make me cry. Missing you and wondering where the time went. Now, well, it still can make me cry, but I am so happy you are happy. Confident in your body and your soul, taking your place in the world with energy and intelligence, so honest, wise and compassionate.

While I do miss you, I now know, a year later, that even though your daily presence is gone, we have new traditions for staying connected and a deeper and more mature relationship.

I suppose that a decade from now I will speak with my younger friends about their children going to college and smile indulgently. The trauma having faded. Just like the joys and crises of having a newborn have faded. How could I have thought that was hard! It is SO much harder to have teens. And cope with dying parents. And watch one’s career ambitions shift toward achieving something less material and accomplishing something more meaningful. And cry with frustration at one’s arthritic hip, knee, shoulder. I am looking forward to the increasing peace and contentment that comes with each decade.

But what does terrify me, right now, is that I can now imagine my final good-bye to you. If the last 20 years have flown by, then surely the next 20 or 30 will go by even faster. I try to be present, but my mind races to the future. Like reading the last page instead of enjoying all the details in the middle, I hurry to the end, skimming.

My wish for you as you embark on this next year, this more grown-up year of college, is that you not skim ahead to the end. As you grow up and deal with life’s inevitable losses and disappointments, everyday stress and busyness, new friends and adventures, honor it all. It hurts to see you lose some of your childhood dreams, your childhood heroes, your childhood illusions. But it is through loss and sadness that you gain a richer life with moments of deep passion and joy. May you have a year, a life, filled with passion and joy. And may it move slowly enough for me to savor it with you – as well as apart from you – as we transition to an increasingly mature adult mother-daughter relationship, side-by-side.

The light is on in your room. Always.

Mother’s Day Presence

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My Teachers

I’m feeling a bit subdued this mother’s day. Kind of dreading the cheerful saccharine. Not sure the world needs another mother’s day post. What about all the people who have difficult relationships with their mothers? What about all the people who have lost their mothers? What about all the people who want children but can’t or won’t? What about the women around the globe dying because of poor maternal healthcare? Better to spend the money allocated to mother’s day gifts to helping women and girls around the world. Better to spend the time spent shopping for those mother’s day gifts with people you love. Basking in their presence.

My friend just told me about a student of hers, a high school senior, whose mom is dying of cancer. He is spending mother’s day weeping. It makes me cry. This young man is still a boy. What must this woman be going through? What is it like to know you are dying and to be saying good-bye to your children? I can’t imagine! Well, actually, I can imagine. Sigh. Can’t I just enjoy a nice mother’s day without ruining it with questions and angst?

I am so lucky. I want for nothing. I’m like ridiculously happy that we have a new garbage disposal. We’ve spent the last year (or more) finagling the old broken one. We had a system. My husband would go downstairs and turn on the electricity. Then I would plug it in and let it grind. Then he would turn off the electricity. Then I would unplug the whole contraption. All while yelling up and down at each other.

I’m like incredibly relieved that it didn’t cost $1,000 to fix the minivan with 120,000 miles on it. Come on Honda! You can make it to 200,000 miles and a couple more trips with dormloads of stuff.

I’m like ecstatic and at peace now that my daughter is home from her first year of college. I really don’t want anything. Theater tickets are always on my list though. My husband wants to buy me a tree, but the yard feels as cluttered as the house. Maybe next weekend I’ll feel the urge to plant. All I want today is a day with no errands and chores. And to feel loving presence.

I remember carefully making handmade cards for my mother and picking flowers (aka weeds) for her. When I got older I would bake something special for her. When I no longer lived at home nor near enough to visit easily, I would buy her a nice card, send her flowers or a book, and call her, of course. She always seemed thrilled with whatever tidbit I gave her. She completely understood that I was busy busy busy. Never did she say: “Why don’t you visit me more often? Please come visit me!” Did she not think that? Do I wish she had said that? Shaken me and knocked some sense into me: “Life is short! Stop being so busy busy busy! Come visit me dammit!” But no, she would never have said that.

My dad is very lonely. He deeply misses her presence in the house. He sometimes expresses surprise that I am not more grief-stricken. Me too. But I have mourned her loss for years. She faded to such a shell of herself over the last decade of her life. I was always wondering when she was going to die. It was a relief when she died. Finally. This is how she dies. Now we know. This is how we go on without her. This is it. Life. Flying by. Busy busy busy. Until we die.

Her presence. It’s true. Even as she faded away, her presence still permeated the house. When I did visit, her face would light up and she would forget that she was 92 and forget that she needed a walker and would try to get me food (always food!) or other items I might need or want. Sometimes I see an old woman who reminds me of her. I smile and send her love. When I slow down enough to breathe, to concentrate, to remember, I can conjure her presence. I feel her.

I feel all the women who have touched me, helping me to become who I am. The teachers I idolized. The babysitter I wanted to be. The other moms, my friends’ moms, especially Margie, all unique and different from my mom, adding their own perspectives on how to be a woman. Later, it was my friends who were my teachers. A community of women all worth honoring and celebrating this mother’s day, even if they weren’t or aren’t moms.

It is my own children who have taught me the most about how to be a mom. Their wisdom, their neediness, their resilience, their intuition, their amazing love for me and my breathtaking love for them that has taught me that life is short. Be less busy.

We are past the stage of handmade cards and weed bouquets. But my children are home. I am basking in their presence, feeling my mom with me and all the women who have been moms and mentors to me. Soon enough my children will be grown up and no longer living at home. And if they don’t visit me, well, then, I just might have to visit them.

True Love

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Mothers and Daughters

After the memorial service for my mom, I returned to New York and hunkered down for a few days, a rare luxury. (Just as one is allowed a parental leave of absence on the birth of a child, we should be granted a child’s leave of absence on the death of a parent.) I slept, spent time with my family, and watched movies. I was drawn to see Maleficent, Wild, and Into The Woods. Wonderful movies with rich characters. Spoiler alert – read no further if you have not seen them and want to.

Maleficent is the story of the scorned woman, scorned by a man not worthy of her, who gets her revenge by cursing his child. It’s the more interesting and complicated story of the older woman who has lived and raged, not the story of the virginal princess who has yet to learn that “happily ever after” is a fairy tale. As the kiss scene approached, it was obvious that the prince, a marginal character, who is entranced by the princess’s outward beauty but doesn’t know her inner soul could not possibly offer the spell-breaking kiss of true love. I began to ponder the implications of Diaval, Maleficent’s raven/human confidant, being her true love, when my daughter whispered, “It’s Maleficent!” GASP! Of course! What truer love than a mother’s – or fairy godmother’s or revengeful witch’s – for the precious girl in her charge?

Next up was Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her physical quest and spiritual journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after hitting lower-than-rock-bottom following the death of her mother. I had read the book upon the recommendation of a yoga friend of mine and loved it, as I love most memoirs by women telling their stories overcoming whatever it is that is holding them back. What came through in the movie for me, even more so than in the book, was the deep bond of true love between mother and daughter. Cheryl is unmoored by the loss of her mother, beautifully played by Laura Dern. Cheryl doesn’t know how to love herself without the presence of her mother. It is mother Bobbi’s passionate insistence on choosing love and a life with no regrets, even while facing death, that is so moving. How could she regret her marriage to an abusive man when it resulted in her amazing daughter? GASP! Indeed.

I found myself sobbing into my daughter’s shoulder when Meryl Streep, the not-so-evil witch from Into The Woods who is raging at the loss of her youth and beauty, sings “Stay With Me” to Rapunzel. I, again, identified with the raging old and ugly witch watching over the beautiful princess, anxious to protect her from selfish and unworthy men and other dark evils of the world. Anxious to restore her own youth and beauty.

Stay With Me (from Into The Woods)

Don’t you know what’s out there in the world?

Someone has to shield you from the world.

Stay with me.

Princes wait there in the world, it’s true.

Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too.

Stay at home.

I am home.

Who out there could love you more than I?

What out there that I cannot supply?

Stay with me.

Stay with me,

The world is dark and wild.

Stay a child while you can be a child.

With me.

Stay with me my beautiful girl!  I not-so-jokingly sobbed.

But off she goes. Again. For her second semester of college. As she should. As I want her to. I will miss her. Each homecoming and each departure become more familiar but not more easy. My heart is bursting with love and pride. I will return to my busy busy busy life, shocked at the old face I see in the mirror. She will return to new classes, new experiences, deepening friendships, and explorations into the world of love. I want to protect her, but she must learn her own lessons.  It is her turn.

As I mourn the loss of my mother whose love for me was deep and true, I pass on a love for my daughter that is deep and true. I have new appreciation for the tears my mother shed when I left home.  When I cry at each step my daughter takes away from me, they are bittersweet tears of pride and loss.  I don’t really want her to stay with me.  I want her to go.  I will create a haven for her to return to, while encouraging her to create a life she loves apart from me, while together we figure out how to build a grown up mother-daughter friendship.

Live your life my beautiful girl! My love for you is true.

 

Photo Credit:  from Disney’s Maleficent

Savasana

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Ready to Rest

If death is like Savasana, maybe we have nothing to fear.

Savasana, the deeply restorative “corpse” pose at the end of yoga class, at the end of practice, at the end of life, is when you put aside the ups and downs, the effort and the ease, the breathing in and the breathing out. You just be. Usually, it is simply a sweet break at the end of class. Sometimes, it’s an impatient pause, the anxious to-do list intrudes. Every now and then, it is bliss. Nirvana. Samadhi. It takes a long Savasana for me to reach this point. (Take note yoga teachers! A 2-minute Savasana is not enough!) I float into a state of consciousness that is not awake, not asleep. Sometimes I see colors, feel tingling, radiate intense warmth. But generally I hover, aware of my soul, but not really aware. At these moments, it is profoundly enough to just be.

If death is like Savasana, maybe we have nothing to fear.

But we fear death – for ourselves, for our loved ones – fighting our body’s evolution/devolution, attempting to stave off the inevitable with doctors, pills, and procedures, prolonging life until … until it is not life anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in favor of life. I want to live to be old. VERY OLD! I am disciplined to the point of being obsessive with eating healthily, staying thin, keeping active. I plan to fight my evolution/devolution HARD!

But maybe, for the person at the end of life, they are ready to rest in Savasana. Maybe we should help them go peacefully to a place of bliss. Maybe we shouldn’t hang on to them so hard, with doctors, pills, and procedures.

My mother is nearing the end of her life. I visited her and my father last weekend, with my daughter. It was painful. Every aspect of their lives is focused on getting her to survive another day. He measures out her pills. He coaxes her to eat. He trains the aide on how he wants her bathed and dressed and exercised and which diapers are for the daytime and which for the nighttime. My mother has stopped speaking and spends most of the day sleeping, exhausted from being fed, medicated, bathed, dressed, exercised. It was the first visit where she was unable to exhibit much enthusiasm for my presence and none for my daughter’s.

As an only child, the aging and inevitable death of my parents is an unshared burden. No siblings to mull over what to do. No siblings to compare notes with. No siblings to mitigate the dysfunction. Just guilt that I am far away and not doing enough. Just anger that there are still so many unresolved issues and things unsaid. Just grief at my beautiful and vibrant mother’s deterioration and regret at the adult mother-daughter friendship we were never able to establish.

People tell me how lucky we are, how sweet it is that my father is so devoted to my mother. I smile and nod agreeably, not wanting to diminish his faithful attachment to her.  It is taboo for me to tell them what I am really thinking. He is terrified of being alone. It is an act of selfishness to keep her alive. Let her go. Let her go to her Savasana.

Every visit I am armed with good intentions to say more, to ask more, to do more. All with the goal of resolving the past, healing the present, trying to find more love and compassion for the future. I try. I never say, ask, or do as much as I intend. I tried waking my mother up in the mornings by offering her Reiki. If nothing else, perhaps it would be soothing to have someone she loves and who loves her offer her healing and loving touch.  I tried to not be judgmental and annoyed with my father.  He tried to not be judgmental and annoyed with me. Negativity begets negativity. In the midst of our awkward attempts to not succumb to judgment and annoyance, he tried to tell me I was a miracle. He tried to be interested and loving and not self-absorbed. I tried to appreciate his terror at being alone, his grief at losing his beautiful and vibrant wife. We tried.

We took pictures. Is this last time I will see her? Is this the last photo I will have of her? I smiled, because that is my habit. It was not all painful – there was some joy in the visit. I am no longer sucked into the dysfunctional triangle that is formed by my parents and me.   I can honor how who they are helped me become who I am.  I can love them for that.  My daughter was with me, thank God, and I am looking forward to being able to build, with her, an adult mother-daughter friendship. It begins now.

Image Credit:  Savasana sketch by Missy Briggs on her blog The Rascally Rabbit, used with permission.  Thank you Missy!

The Countdown

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Extra Strong or Maximum Strength?

My daughter moves to college one month from tomorrow. In 32 days. Exactly. Not that I’m counting the days. Except that I am. It’s this big looming day that seems to mark the end of family as we currently know it. I think I’ve been counting the days since the day she was born. Only 18 years with her! They’re going to fly by! Better enjoy it because before you know it she’ll be going to college!

So. Here we are. She is going to college. In 32 days.

We spent two days at Orientation. Thankfully, schools now include parents in the process, allowing us to familiarize ourselves with the campus, the curriculum, and all the transitional support services. It’s a massive relief to have spent those two days together — together but separate…they whisk the kids away from the parents.  It’s a massive relief to have spent those two days together in July, well Before Moving Day. I can approach the next 32 days with some familiarity about what her life will be like After Moving Day.

It’s not how it was done when I went to college. I moved into a dorm under construction into a tiny room with bunk beds and a roommate I had never met. My mother broke down in tears. Who could blame her? Except that it made it even harder for me to separate. I was very homesick. I think my daughter will miss home, a lot, but I don’t wish that kind of homesickness on her. As the mothers who have gone before me have told me would happen – I am sad and anxious but also excited and proud.  Really, all I want is for her to adjust as smoothly as possible and to find her own way as a happy and successful (whatever that means) young adult.

So. Here we are, cramming in doctors’ appointments, filling out paperwork, paying the first tuition bill, making to-do lists, and getting lost in the details of what needs to get done. In 32 days. Before Moving Day. Should I get the Extra Strong garbage bags or the Maximum Strength garbage bags? (Who is the marketing copywriter who thought those categories were clear to the consumer?) Frankly, I never would have even known that garbage bags are better than boxes if it weren’t for my amazing sister-in-law who seems to know everything I don’t know. I pretend I am more capable than her. I research stuff and come up with my own opinions. But when it comes to getting things done, she is way more capable than me. So when staring at the confusing array of garbage bag choices, I knew I had to consult her. Get the Extra Strong, she said. Extra Strong is better than Maximum Strength? Yes, she said. You can throw pillows and bedding into them. And for heavier stuff, like shoes, you just pack as much as you can carry. Okay. Well said. I completely trust you.

All this To-Do Busy-ness is a distraction from the momentous emotion of this still pause in time, between high school and college, a caesura before she leaves. I am too busy to cry. I am too busy taking care of the details to stand back and do what really matters. Be With Her.

So yesterday, we spent the afternoon together. She introduced me to Reiki a while back and we decided to do Reiki training together this year. Yes Reiki. Crazy Hokum, I know. I, the only offspring of scientist, aetheist parents, discovered Reiki through my yoga friends and my wise daughter who explained it to me, simply: “I don’t know. It feels warm and nice.” Indeed. She is so wise. Those engineering students are going to be lucky and grateful she is in their midst!

As my swirling nervous energy entered the Reiki training workshop, our wonderful Reiki Master reminded me to get out of my head and just be. Just feel the moment. Let it happen. Instead of wondering if I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and feeling what I was supposed to be feeling, just appreciate the moment. When my nervous energy wakes me up in the middle of the night, sends me walking briskly at dawn, drives me to pick my cuticles or rub that poor sore spot by my right ear, she suggested that I feel my feet on the ground. “I feel my feet on the ground, calm and peaceful.” I try to say this when I’d rather be picking at the sore spot by my right ear.

At the end of the afternoon training, my daughter and I took turns offering and receiving Reiki from each other. As I was on the table and she was offering me Reiki, she was radiating energy. Such love and warmth were emanating from her. I wondered if I could offer my mother Reiki, allowing her to rest and be peaceful, to touch her with love and warmth? I imagined (or was it a vision? I have visions when receiving Reiki. Yes, I really do. Call it crazy hokum, but it’s the truest peace I’ve found in my nearly 52 years of this life.) I saw myself as old. Old and dying. And that she, my daughter, was offering me Reiki to send me love and peace. I can’t imagine a better way to die. I just hope it’s a long time from now. But it’ll be here before I know it. So I better slow down and enjoy every day. With her. (And all the people I love.) Before Moving Day. In 32 days.

I Spoke to My Mom Today

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And My Mom Spoke to Me

This should not be remarkable, but it is.  After multiple surgeries to remove a recurring benign growth in her throat, she has gradually lost her voice over the last 30 years.  I believe that one’s sense of self is connected to one’s ability to tell your story.  Because she has lost the ability to speak, her self, her stories, and her memories have also gradually faded over the last 30 years.  When I visit her in person, there is a window of time during the visit when she galvanizes her mom persona and I connect with her.  But I don’t visit very often – fraught with old patterns – so most of our interaction is via telephone.  It is difficult to have an in-depth conversation with her in person and even more so on the phone, without eye contact and body language.  She hoarsely whispers and frequently doesn’t finish her sentences.  Our conversations usually consist of me glibly describing my activities and my kids’ activities, a little small talk about the weather and whether she can get outside for a walk, and an attempt to engage with her over whatever book she is reading.  Usually she is reading a book I gave her, because books are where we have always connected and reading together has always been a favorite shared activity.  I am never sure whether she is just going through the motions of reading or whether she is really taking in what she is reading.  She can’t find the words to describe the book to me, other than to tell me that she is enjoying it.

Last week, when we spoke and we completed our routine weekly conversation, she said, lucidly, “I am glad you are doing okay.”  She said it in a way that knocked the breath out of me.  I hadn’t told her anything deep.  She doesn’t know about my writing.  She doesn’t know about my therapy.  She doesn’t know about my midlife search for spirituality.  And yet, she knows?  I shivered.  And wondered if those were her last words to me.  A gentle maternal benediction.  After 51 years, I am doing okay and she can tell.  Perhaps there is more going on inside her than I realize.  Is that what she needs before she dies?  To know that her only child is okay?  I shivered.  That week I dreamt.

Healing

There is a dying withered being, like a malnourished starving child.  My mother?  My self?  My inner child?  It is almost as if she has no skin.  Her eyes are slits.  Oozing.  Tears?  Toxins?  My teacher is there.  She says: Touch her. Use Reiki. But don’t touch her tears, it could make you sick or kill you.  She leaves.  I am alone with this dying creature.  I can’t do this!  I don’t have Reiki power!  I am not a healer!  I am sure she is going to die. I place my hands on her.  She looks at me through those oozing slits. She has no voice and cannot speak. I muster all my compassion and healing energy to comfort her. It is not clear to me that she will survive. I wonder if she will die and feel honored to be the one with her if she passes on to wherever one goes when they die.

This week when we spoke, she was again lucid.  Her voice had some strength and she completed her sentences.  She could tell me what her book was about and that she hadn’t tackled The Goldfinch yet but it was next on her list.  (Same here.)  I told her about my amazing day with my daughter, playing hooky for her 18th birthday.  And then the conversation took a turn:

Mom:  “This is a big year for you.”

Me:  “Yes.  I am trying to spend as much time with my daughter as I can before she leaves for college.  I am going to miss her.”

Mom:  “More than you know.”

Me:  “Mom, did you miss me?”

Mom:  “Oh yes.  So much.”

Quiet pause.  Because neither one of us knows how to take this conversation to the next step.

Mom:  “I am thinking about living to 100.  It’s only 8 more years!”

Me:  Joyful laughter.

Me:  “Mom, is there anything you want to do before you die?”

Mom:  “No.”

Me:  “Just be?”

Mom:  “Just be.”

Quiet pause.  Because neither one us knows how to take this conversation to the next step.

Me:  “Bye Mom, I love you.”

Mom:  “I love you too.”

I wonder what we will talk about next week?

Image:  Visuddha, The Throat Chakra

Sex and the Dorm Room

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Sometimes Yes Means No

Buried on p.18 of the New York Times about two weeks ago was “Obama Seeks to Raise Awareness of Rape on Campus.”  President Obama is creating a task force charged with, among other things, recommending best practices for colleges to prevent and respond to assaults on campuses.  Rape is most common on college campuses and several deplorable statistics were cited in the article.  20% of college students (primarily women) have been assaulted, but only 12% of those students actually report the assault.  In one study, 7% of male students admitted to committing or attempting rape and 66% of those students said they had done so multiple times. 

I am terrified of violent rape by a stranger, as most women are.  It informs how I deal with strangers.  No eye contact.  Walk swiftly and confidently.  Pair up with someone for safety.  As I’ve become older, my concern is less for myself and more for my daughter.  Perhaps of more concern however, is how to talk to her and help her prepare for the variety of more nuanced sexual overtures she is bound to receive.  I have been thinking a lot about sex on college campuses, as I prepare to send her to college this fall and wonder how to talk to her about it in a loving and supportive way.  It’s not an easy conversation to have.  My mother certainly didn’t have it with me.  I found out about sex from boys who wanted to have sex with me.  Talk about a conflict of interest. 

While rape and sexual assault are of obvious concern, it is crucial that we teach our sons and daughters about navigating the murkier areas of sexual exploration and identifying some guidelines for consensual sex and nonconsensual sex.  Yale published a document at the beginning of the 2013/14 academic year tackling the question of sexual misconduct and presenting a variety of grayer scenarios and how the university would rule on whether or not the situation was consensual.  The goal is worthy but the tone was clinical and Gawker mocked the androgynous fictitious characters.  Perhaps Freshman Orientation should include small group discussions facilitated by trained upperclassmen that would role-play various scenarios, teaching men to be respectful and teaching women to trust their instincts and teaching both to not be afraid to slow the process down.  And to be aware of the disinhibiting effects of drinking alcohol.  Consider this familiar scenario:

Young woman goes to party and flirts with young man she finds handsome.  She is attracted to him.  She wants to please him.  After all, she has been brought up to be compliant and accommodating.  She wants him to like her and only her.  She is aroused and wants a physical encounter.  As well as a lasting relationship.  Young man wants to prove he is a player.  He gets off on the sexual conquest, adding another encounter to his tally.  The more sexual encounters he has the more likely he is to be considered popular and desirable.  The more sexual encounters she has the more likely she is to be disdained as a slut.  Not to mention she bears the risk of getting pregnant.  Or an STD.  It is in his best interest to get her to have sex with him.  As curious as she is, sex is a much more mixed bag for the woman.  Back in the dorm room with him, she may have second thoughts.  No, I just want to kiss, she says, I am not ready for sex.  Oh come on, he says, you led me on!  She reluctantly acquiesces.  After all, everyone else is doing it.  Maybe she enjoys it, maybe not.  Either way, she feels out of sorts about the encounter.  The boy gets his win.  It’s over.  Is that consensual?  No, it’s not.  But it happens.  All.  The.  Time.

It seems there is increasing pressure on girls (and boys) to go along and hook up casually, as if sex were just a physical need that must be met regularly with no emotional consequences.  Consensual sex has gotten more complicated.  Oh yeah, she pretends, I’m cool with sex and hooking up and comfortable with lots of experiences with different guys, with different girls, and all types of sex acts.  Huh?  Sexual contact is intimate and results in a range of emotional reactions.  Young women may be propositioned by other women as well, which can be confusing.  Is it trendy?  Is it taboo?  Female sexuality is more fluid and women form deep and intimate bonds with their friends which may lead to sexual intimacy.  But women should be encouraged to say no to other women as well as to men, if she doesn’t want to go down that path. 

Mother to daughter to granddaughter, it takes generations to change women’s attitudes and behavior toward men, sex, and intimacy.  My mother, whose second husband was abusive, imparted to me through non-communication that sex is better left undiscussed and to be wary of men.  The residue of her experience and its impact on her impacted me.  The essence of her being is at the core of my being which is at the core of my daughter’s being.  

Call me a prude (because I am), but casual hook-ups are not what I want for my daughter.   Nor do I want her to be afraid of physical intimacy.  Here’s what I want for my daughter as she becomes a woman and learns the difference between sex and making love.

Feel beautiful.  Because you are beautiful.

Enjoy your body.  Be comfortable with your naked body.

Have fun exploring your sexuality.  Unafraid, but safely.

Know that it is okay to wait until you are older.  Even if everyone else is doing it.  The older you are, the more self-awareness you will have and the more likely you are to have an emotionally mature experience with your partner.

I hope you will move slowly when you explore your sexuality with another person.  Get a sense of them as a respectful person who will appreciate you, body and soul.

I hope you have a number of fun and joyful sexual experiences that leave you confident and feeling loved.

I hope you have as few experiences as possible that leave you feeling bewildered, hurt, abandoned, violated, ashamed.

Remember that men may approach sex differently than you and that it may not serve you well to acquiesce.

You can say no.

You can ask for help.

You can talk to me.  There is absolutely nothing you can say to me that would surprise me.  I went to college.

You don’t have to talk to me.  Thank goodness for aunts and cousins and wise friends who love you.

I love you.

10 Questions

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Conversations with the Mother of a 12th Grader

When I was a new mother, it seemed like there was a finite timeline placed on the parenting experience, concluding decisively 18 years later with COLLEGE.  At the time, that seemed like an eternity away.  Now that it’s quite suddenly here, I am deeply aware that motherhood does not end when they leave for college, nor do I want it to end.  As I sort through how best to help my daughter navigate the college application process, I find that the well-meaning curiosity of the people in my life tends to heighten my anxiety and, frankly, my anger at the process.  On a daily basis, the questions go kind of like this:

  1. So, got those applications in?
  2. No?!  She’s not applying Early Action?
  3. Isn’t the deadline soon?
  4. Where does she want to go?
  5. Oh.  Pause.  So, she decided not to apply to Harvard?
  6. Or:  Oh.  Pause.  Wow.  What’s her safety school?
  7. Where are her friends applying?
  8. How’d she do on her SAT’s?
  9. What does she want to major in?
  10. Somehow we all manage to pay for college!

They are not satisfactory conversations, and I don’t help.  I put on my cheerful and confident persona – making jokes or giving curt answers – masking the intense anxiety I have and minimizing the potential for a genuine conversation that is honest and connecting.  My anxiety prevents me from revealing how I really feel, which goes kind of like this:

  1. How much should I help?  Should I sit down next to her until she’s done and presses the submit button or should I let her struggle with completing the applications on her own?
  2. How high should she reach?  There’s so much pressure to apply to top tier schools, but what if she doesn’t get in?  Or worse, what if she does get in, but we can’t afford it?  I am jealous of and angry at the more affluent families who are legacy’d in to the top tier schools and have the money to pay for it.
  3. Where will she be happy?  What if, like me, she has trouble adjusting and her confidence wavers?
  4. What if she has little trouble adjusting and doesn’t miss me?
  5. What if she gets in somewhere far away and wants to go?  Do we let her?  I am going to miss her.  Should I tell her how much I am going to miss her?
  6. Should I advise her to be pragmatic and follow a path that pays well or should I advise her to follow her heart?  Can one do both?
  7. How are we going to pay for college?  When do I get to start working less hard?
  8. I’ve go to do this again with my son in 3 years?!
  9. I can’t believe 18 years have gone by.  I am afraid I have squandered these years with my own career ambition, short-changing my children and my time with them.
  10. When I left home for college, I never returned.  What if she never returns?  May she and I do a better job at creating a loving and connected adult mother-daughter bond.

If I were more open with how I feel about the college application process, I imagine that the questions could go more like this:

  1. Hey, how are you and your daughter handling the stress of applying to college?
  2. It’s okay that she has no idea where she wants to go what she wants to do.  She’s only 17!
  3. You must be so proud and excited for her!
  4. How’s your husband doing?  This must be hard for him too.  Are you able to take advantage of the opportunity to spend more time together and reestablish some closeness in your marriage now that it’s not all about the kids?
  5. Yeah, finding the balance between letting her do it at her pace and nagging her is challenging.
  6. It’s hard to let them go.  I cried a lot too.
  7. You’ve raised an amazing girl.  You are a good mom.  She is happy and will do well.
  8. She still needs you and loves you.  Your relationship will evolve to a new place.  You are not your parents.
  9. Your son is different and you will be different when he goes through the process.
  10. What a time of transition!  What next?!

Indeed, what next?  I will tell her I am going to miss her.  I will help her as much as she will let me.  Together, as a family, we will find a school that makes sense for her.  We will help her leave home.  And we will welcome her back home when she needs, or just wants, our love.

Before You Die

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Dear Mom,

How well do we know our mothers?  As children, we focus on our own survival and development.  Our mothers support this behavior, desiring us to be happy, safe, and loved.  Our mother’s life before us is mysterious except as it pertains to our own personal development.  Our mother’s life after we grow up and leave home is a sidebar to our more interesting-to-us life, at least until her life makes the shift to requiring us to take care of her, to take notice of her.  Or until we realize that every essence of our being is infused with every essence of her being.  Learning about her, we learn about us.

When I was told that my mother had been brutally stabbed by her second husband before he killed himself, I was a young girl.  Too young to fathom this fact.  And so I did not.  Occasionally I would tell the sensational story to garner a reaction from a new friend.  It was a scintillating factoid that I thought made me interesting.  For the most part, I did not think my family was very interesting.  We did not fight.  There were only three of us.  We diligently pursued our activities and goals, with little demonstrative emotion.  This isolated nugget of sensation – that we never talked about – seemed so unbelievable and out of character that eventually I questioned its truth.  Did this really happen to my mother or am I making it up?  What did she do with the fear and emotion?  How has this event shaped her life, my life?

As my mother turns 91 this year, living…surviving another year, I am reflecting on her life and the end of her life.  I feel urgency to know what I can of her before her mind fades, before she dies.  How much more time do I have with her?  For her 90th birthday a year ago, I made the pilgrimage home to visit with her.  I set up the visit to have time with her, to ask her the questions I have never asked.  So much is unspoken.

  • Are you happy?
  • You are so successful, why did you end up with men who were self-centered and abusive?
  • How did you fall in love with Dad?
  • Is there anything you want to say to me?
  • What do you hope to be remembered for?
  • Would you do anything differently?
  • What advice to you have for your granddaughter?
  • What does it feel like to be at the end of your life?
  • Are you ready to die, afraid to die?
  • Do you believe in God?

I mustered up my courage to ask the questions and vowed to keep probing instead of sinking into docile silence with the first answer I got.

My mother was born in 1922.  Her father, a physicist, dropped dead suddenly of an aneurism when she was just 7.  She told me how every morning she went to her father’s room to say good-morning.  Clearly there was a special bond between him and her.  On the morning after he died, she was not allowed into his room.  She never saw him again and grieving was not tolerated.  What a devastating loss for her!  Her mother was a no-nonsense, undemonstrative woman who then had to hold the family together in the Depression.  She took on boarders, taught school, and did not have a lot of time for my mom.  My mother was painfully shy, sad and lonely, and was homeschooled because school was socially challenging.  Although she was drawn to art and more introspective and creative activities, she was encouraged to pursue science and academia.  She was good at school so she just kept going to school.  Kept going until she received her Ph.D. in 1950 – an unusual accomplishment for a woman in 1950.  But it was a more passive accomplishment than I realized.  She didn’t know what else to do with herself, so she kept going to school.  Her first husband was a fellow graduate student.  I am not sure what broke apart that marriage other than youth.  Her second husband had a history of drug addiction and mental illness.  My mother was discouraged from marrying him, but she went forward with it anyway.  My father once said to me, as I was embarking on my own marriage, as if to explain the mystery of attraction to himself, “You can’t help who you fall in love with.”  What a destructive act of self-sabotage on her part.  It did not end well.  I don’t know much more than that.  There is still a shroud of “don’t talk about that” in our house.  It took several years of therapy for her to recover from the violent attack, from the violent betrayal.  She moved to Washington and met my father.  He thought she was beautiful.  She loved being loved.  They married in 1961 and I was born in 1962.  She was desperate for a baby, for the family she did not have.  The story of my birth is told by my parents as if it was a miracle.  I was delivered by emergency C-section (her life-giving scar always fascinated me).  We both almost died.  Post miracle, she was felled by post-partum depression, rejecting the baby she so desperately wanted.

How did she recover from this post-partum depression?  What impact did her rejection of me have on me?  How did her trauma carry over to me?  My main sense of her as a mother is that she was very devoted to me.  She adjusted her work schedule to be home for me.  She spent a lot of time with me: reading together; teaching me how to cook, sew, do algebra; going to the ballet together.  She thought I was wonderful and gave me a lot of freedom to explore my interests.  Indeed, I could do no wrong.  I remember very few instances when she got angry with me or set limits for me.  But there were significant ways in which she was absent.  She was not physically demonstrative.  Very little hugging happened in my childhood.  The only times I remember my mother touching me were when I was ill.  I managed to be ill a lot.  All sorts of maladies kept my mother hovering over me, from hypoglycemia to migraines.  These illnesses kept me home, were an excuse for me to avoid.  Avoid parties that made me shy, avoid deadlines that seemed insurmountable to my perfectionism, avoid living in all its messy imperfection.  When I was sick, I was allowed to move into her bed where she would lie next to me, reading out loud or watching bad tv sitcoms and game shows endlessly.  In her desire to love and nurture, she neglected (or was unable) to model what a powerful and effective woman was.  Bereft of her father, abused and abandoned by her second husband, she did not know how to stand up to my father when he was boring, compulsive, remote, abusively inflexible and insistent to her, to me.  She and I stuck together, forming a strong mother-daughter bond built on a love of all things female (Jane Austen, Mary Tyler Moore, tea sandwiches at The Birdcage) and a suspicion of all things male (money, sports, confrontation).  But her desire to give me freedom meant that she was absent as a parent in many key ways.  She was unable to help me negotiate an effective father-daughter bond where I could articulate who I was, what I thought, and say no in a constructive way.  My inability to establish a sense of self with boundaries meant a string of intimate relationships where I lost my sense of self and had to end them, and hide at home, in order to regain my sense of self.

The summer after high school graduation before I went to college, my mother assured me that she was prepared for my departure.  Her composure at such a life-changing transition was so strange to me and not what I wanted to hear.  I wanted to hear that she loved me and would miss me.  Some kind of honest and emotional dialogue.  It was not to be.  When my parents dropped me off at school, my mother broke down sobbing uncontrollably.  I had never seen her cry before.  I had never seen her cry before!  How strange is that?  My beautiful, successful, brilliant scientist mom broke down.  It was my fault.  I never really recovered and spent college dealing with my inability to separate successfully and feel confident in my self.

After college, I never went home again.  The only way I could separate and create a sense of an independent self was to leave.

Simultaneously, my mother had a recurring benign growth in her throat.  This growth prevented her from breathing.  The surgery required to remove the blockage from her airway, damaged her vocal chords, preventing her from speaking.  As I was finding my voice, my self, she was losing hers.  How I wish I had an audio recording of my mother’s voice before the surgeries!  Ever so gradually, over the next 30 years, my father and I spoke for my mother, over my mother, depriving her of chances to speak her truth.  As she stopped speaking, she stopped remembering.  Speaking one’s truth, speaking one’s stories grounds us, establishing who we are.

Now, in her 90’s, faded and fading, she sits and reads or watches tv.  My father meticulously cares for her physical being, desperate that she not die and leave him alone.  But her self is locked inside the shell of her body, less and less able to express itself.

On the rare occasions when I visit her, because I am busy busy busy with my more interesting-to-me life, she lights up with complete joy at seeing me.  Even though she can no longer walk easily, she travels back in time to her role as an active mom – forgetting her walker in her eager enthusiasm to cook for me or care for me in some way.

In answer to my timid questioning, she whispers her regret about her life and her advice to my daughter, her granddaughter.  They are the same:  “Be more sociable.”  She whispers that God is unknowable, “too mysterious,” and last but not least, “I am so lucky to have you.”

I love you Mom.  Happy Mother’s Day.

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