aging, Caring for a parent, mother daughter relationship

Not Becoming My Mother

As I stumble through these years with my mother, I find myself fearing the mystery of my own old age. Who among us knows what it will be like, or how we will deal with it? I try to pick up clues as to how to traverse whatever is thrown my way. What are the differences among those who reach the end with life and joy still in them, and those who are depressed and negative about pretty much everything? Do we have a choice?

Maybe what this experience is about for me, is to practice being the person I hope to be when someone needs to care for me. I want to be the one who makes my caregiver—family or stranger—feel enriched by, not dragged down by, caring for me. I want to be the one who accepts what life throws my way, and finds joy in the midst of it. I want to avoid becoming constipated (which is what I wrote about last week). How does that happen? And when does it start? Is it too late?

I can’t know if it’s too late for tomorrow; but I can influence today. I can practice being the person now that I want to be in 30 years. Karen Maezen Miller, my favorite Zen blog priest, says whatever we practice we will get very good at. In her book, Paradise in Plain Sight, she writes: “Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress. Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.” That explains why Mama is so good at fear, focusing on ailments, guilt, negativity, and low self-esteem. (And love for nature and family, and compassion for people “less fortunate” than she.) She has been practicing for a lifetime, a very long lifetime.

I have finally pulled the air-tight plastic box full of hundreds of letters my father wrote to my mother during WWII off the shelf in the storage room and begun reading them. They provide a riveting picture in my father’s well-chosen words of what it was like for a lover of the natural world to live in 1942 New York City while reluctantly learning the ways of the military. (I’ve only begun to read them, chronologically.) And it tells the one-sided story of my mother in the beginning of their relationship. Although I am reading between the lines, she seems to have been practicing at 26 to be the person she still is now. (And the patterns I saw years later in their relationship were forming even then; but that is another story.)

In her old age, my mother is more the person she has always been. If she has always looked at the dark side, the world is blacker now. When I imagine my self in 30 years, do I want to be more sarcastic? More impatient? Less compassionate? Quicker to anger? More self-centered? Quicker to be hurt by others? Because those are things I am practicing. Or do I want to dream? Listen? Be happy? Live in the moment? Be joyful? Be accepting of and adaptable to what is? And I want to be able always to find things to talk about other than what ails me. Some of those are also things I practice, others not so much.

If I practice being the person I want to be in 30 years, I will also be the person now that I want to be for my mother. Will that change her? No. Will I be who she needs me to be? Probably not. But I can be the person I want me to be. I can breathe through the nonsense, smile through the pain her words stab me with, let go of the frustration about who she is and the wishing she were different. It has nothing to do with me. I can forget the stories I tell myself about our old relationship. It is finished. I can stop trying to understand why she is the way she is and asking myself how I can fix it for her. I can accept her as she is.

The future is mystery. I don’t know what will be thrown my way or how I will deal with it. It doesn’t matter until it gets here. Miller says, “In Zen, we don’t find the answers, we lose the questions. Weed out the confusion that comes from trying to understand. And don’t worry, you’ll always encounter what you need to know when you need to know it. So go ahead and forget this too.”

Rather than “Not Becoming My Mother,” I could title this post “Becoming Myself.”

27 thoughts on “Not Becoming My Mother”

  1. Yes, joy.

    Love the whole concept of getting good at what we practice. Gives me pause, for sure. I think I’ll need to read this one again tomorrow. And the day after that.


  2. My mother died at the age of 53 (I was 19), so I never got to share in her December, but I do have my father and I would say we are in October/Early Novemeber 😉 Your post made me contemplate how I am with him, and if I would have been the same with my mother. I am not always as patient and kind as I would like to be…though I think I might have been with her. It was a different kind of bond, one that I am lucky to share now with my own young daughter. Thank you for sharing your experiences and reminding us that we can only work on ourselves…but that can have wonderful consequences to those we love 😉 Keep up your important, compassionate care and know that it has a ripple effect even when the waters look murkey 🙂


    1. Thank you for writing, Cathy. My father died 20 years ago, and I often wonder what my experience with him would have been had it been him I am caring for. I think it would have been much different, easier. I think I would have been more compassionate and kind. 🙂 However, it would have been more painful to watch him lose his his vitality. My mother is who she has always been, but he most surely would have been diminished, and was becoming so even then.

      Best wishes with your father. It is good work we do, and very hard. Forgive yourself when you fall short of who you want to be. Tomorrow is another opportunity.


    1. Thank you for this, Karen. Although I hadn’t thought of it, it rings true. As I care for my 1-year-old grandson and my 99-year-old mother, I am learning much about myself: who I am, and what needs to rise up.

      Your words are such an inspiration to me. I hope I don’t misuse them. Thank you for reading my post.


  3. Spending 18 years of my daily life in a cubicle,
    I have practiced being keenly aware of voices nearby, but choosing not to eavesdrop—how might that benefit me and my caregiver in old age?
    I have practiced responding with kindness when faced with nonsensical (aka stupid) bureaucrats and bureaucracy–how might that benefit me and my caregiver in old age?
    I have practiced self defense, albeit, at my own expense–how might that benefit me and my caregiver in old age?
    And I have practiced loving my sons, and those they love(d)–day in and day out, for better and for worse. No question how that will benefit me in my old age.

    As always, dear Gretchen, thank you for writing.


    1. Those sound like excellent practices! If I understand the Zen, the questions don’t matter. Just know that the result of practicing positive traits will be there when you need them. Thank you so much for sharing.

      I know I have known who kpl is, but the initials are escaping me right now :-/


  4. Somewhere growing up, I saw that it was my job to learn to love my mother and father, austrian immigrants, catholic then baptist, struggling and strict. And I learned it though I moved quite far away to do it. Didnt make me popular with the siblings, but I have it forever.


  5. Love the learning from y’all! Reading the yoga sutras of Patanjali, it becomes simple and direct…if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate toward thise who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our mind will be very tranquil. 1.33.


  6. For me, breaking the pattern of being like my mother has been a long arduous journey but it has been paying off. My mother died young – 52 – so I never had to take care of her but I did have to take care of me and my children by being who I really am and not who she was. She couldn’t break the negative mother-daughter relationship but I have.


  7. You are making your own self wiser, nurturing wisdom in your everyday thoughts and awarenesses. The letters must add a very interesting piece to your puzzle. I love you, friend.


    1. The letters are certainly a new layer of the story. My sister and I are trying to figure out a way to get Mama to tell more of her story of that time. She has been reluctant to talk about it; and, sadly, didn’t want the letters read to her when I offered a couple of years ago. Love to you, too.


  8. Thanks for these beautiful and wise words. You are certainly practicing awareness and reflection and that practice seems like an essential part of the mix for any future. Thanks for sharing your journey!!


  9. Working at making yourself better is a difficult thing to do. I try to do it myself, but generally I fail at it. Then I think, shouldn’t I work at accepting who I am am now. As the various parts of my life change, I will adapt to them and I will become a different person. I am certainly different than I was at 18, 26, 35 or even 50. Will I be a different person in the future. Yes. Will I be better? Well I guess that depends on your definition of better. As long as we are accepting of what we are at the moment, I think we have to be happy with that.


    1. We do, of course, need to accept what we can’t change. But it would be sad to be stuck with that which we can, and want to, change; wouldn’t it? I wish I were a better conversationalist, more ambitious, had a passion for volunteerism. I accept that I am none of that. But I have the tools to at least pretend patience, and maybe I will come to actually be patient if I practice faking it. I can learn to listen to what is behind my mother’s words, and not react to what comes out of her mouth. And I will forgive myself when I fall short, and let it go.


  10. Yes, practice does ingrain the thoughts, behaviors, fears, and all the other negative stuff. Practice also ingrains happiness, gratefulness, joy, perseverance, and patience — if we practice them so much they come up automatically as our default setting.


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