The Culture: Some Things Have Changed
"Remember, His Topics of Conversation Are More Important Than Yours."
Why is it so difficult to be a good daughter to an aging mother now? Partly it is hard because of the changes in the culture that our generation has made. As Victoria Secunda writes in When You and Your Mother Can't Be Friends, "Women who today are in their thirties and forties probably have even less in common with their mothers than any two generations of women in history." That is true of many women in their fifties and older, too, who just missed being classified as members of the "baby boom" generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) but whose lives are considerably more like those of baby boomers than like the lives of women brought up during the 1920s and the Great Depression.
Women of our generation remember some of the reasons we created a gap between ourselves and our parents. Certainly, we haven't forgotten what we wanted for ourselves when we were young. But while we know what we were running toward, it can be hard to recall exactly what we were trying to escape, why we were so anxious to create a larger stage on which to play out our lives—and so unwilling to consider the consequences.
Coming across glimpses of the roles for which we were being prepared in the 1940s and 1950s can be something of a jolt. To remind myself of what those roles were like, I turned to the periodicals middle-class women read when I was growing up: guides for young women such as Glamour; chronicles of life at the top of the social and economic spectrum, as represented by magazines like Town & Country; and those that reflected the broad middle, such as the Saturday Evening Post.
Glamour, August 1960. Glamour's "Ten Best-Dressed College Girls" (a concept that, in itself, indicates what really mattered at the time) were sent to Washington, D.C., to interview the senators from their home states. Each was to ask her senator for a "single piece of advice to a young woman graduating from college today." Senator John F. Kennedy suggested, "Marry a politician—it's an interesting life." Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina proposed, "Be beautiful, be natural, be holy," and Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia advised, "Get married—and you'll never have any problems."
Town & Country, 1950s. A feature story about the all-women Smith College opens this way: "In one form or another Smith College has been honoring men ever since it was opened in 1895. All of its five presidents have been men; its faculty has always had a large male representation; and tradition has ruled that no greater honor could be accorded the senior who wins the annual hoop-rolling contest than that she be the first in her class to marry."
Silly "Girls" and "Women Drivers"
Saturday Evening Post, 1950s cover illustrations. In 1953, a George Hughes cover shows a living room crowded with bridge tables, around which sit mostly portly, gray-haired, middle-aged women wearing hats. At a guess, these women were meant to be about fifty, but only one was slim, blond, and animated; the rest had settled into that sidelined, out-of-play condition known as "matronly." The front door is open, and the hostess's husband stands there, looking horrified at the crowd through which he will have to pass to get into his house.
On a 1956 Steven Dohanos cover, two cars driven by women are halted on a suburban street. The women have backed into each other, crumpling their rear fenders, and are shouting angrily at each other. Women drivers!
Ad for Youngstown Kitchens Jet-Tower Dishwashers, 1950s. The image: Mrs. William A. Green, described as a "prominent Dallas hostess," stands by her dishwasher. She is wearing diamonds and a strapless ball gown. The caption: "To me, the care and cleanliness of tableware is a major responsibility."
It wasn't only magazines that conveyed such messages about the little woman at home. For the past couple of years, women have been forwarding "The Good Wives Guide," an excerpt from a 1960s home economics textbook, to each other via the Internet, with comments like "unbelievable." The subject: how a woman should act when her husband comes home from work. Along with such admonitions as "have dinner ready" ("his favorite dish") are "Touch up your makeup, put a ribbon in your hair. . . . Clear away the clutter. . . . Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives. Gather up school books, toys, papers, etc. And then run a dust cloth over the tables. . . . At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of the washer, dryer or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet. . . .Listen to him. You may have a dozen important things to tell him, but . . . let him talk first, remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours." This good wife is a model of restraint. "Don't complain if he's late home for dinner, or even stays out all night," the text admonishes. "Count this as minor compared to what he might have gone through that day. . . . Don't ask him questions about his actions or question his judgement or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness." Even, we are to assume, when he has stayed out all night.
Some of this is silly, some is pernicious—and none of it could be published in a major national women's magazine or a school textbook today. That is because women of our generation fought to change the way we were seen and portrayed and the way we lived.
We opened a gap—in some ways, a chasm—between our mothers, who were well established within the prevailing system, and ourselves, as we launched our lives and a new era of possibilities and respect for women. But along the way, we learned that, just as being treated as living dolls had its costs, independence came at a price. The greatest expense would be divorce and its effect on our ability to provide a stable environment for our children. Now we find that our attitudes and the lives we struggled to lead can also make it difficult to be good daughters to our aging mothers.
The Sandwich Generation: The Facts
The expression used to describe those who are flanked by growing children and aging parents, "the sandwich generation," does not quite cover the forces that threaten to scatter both bread and filling, causing the sandwich to fall apart. Those forces are largely propelled by changes in work and family dynamics.
Statistics dramatically underscore the differences between us and our mothers and the problems those differences can cause when our mothers age. When many of us were born, in the 1940s, only about 10 percent of women who had young children worked outside their homes.4 With the exception of World War II, when women entered the workplace to fill in for men who were at war, the percentage of women in the workforce remained low during most of our childhoods.
But by 1996, more than 70 percent of the 49.5 million women between thirty-five and sixty-four were in the workforce.5 Nearly half of them were over forty (which means, of course, that most of their mothers were over sixty-five). If all their mothers were alive, then some 16 million working women would be facing some degree of responsibility for an aging mother.
Women earn substantially more than they did in 1950, when the median annual income for a working woman was between $918 and $1,355 ($5,340 and $7,882 in 1995 dollars). Now the median annual income for a woman who works is $16,391.7 This is an improvement, but hardly enough to help an aging mother with her expenses. Yet elderly women are likely to need some financial assistance: women over eighty-five are among the poorest groups in the country.
Time and money (too little of both) are not the only obstacles to being a good daughter. Our careers are often at a critical stage when we reach midlife. While some women are just getting into stride again, perhaps after slowing down while their children were young, others are reaching the peak of their working life. Many other women of our generation are rejoining the work world; in the 1990s, 60 percent of the growth in the labor force has been accounted for by women, most of them between thirty-five and fifty-four. If an elderly mother needs attention, the timing of what may be our last chance to restart a career or achieve real success can conflict with another last chance: to be a good daughter.
It's not just the dual responsibilities that can chafe; it is also the disjunction between our attitudes about work and the way our mothers may feel about our careers. Of the many things we want from our mothers, one of the most important is for them to acknowledge what we do, why we do it, how difficult it can be, how good we are at it?and even, sometimes, why we fail. This is asking a lot, especially when an elderly mother needs someone to take her to a doctor's appointment or stop by and bring her dinner, but her daughter is working too hard to get away.
A busy daughter often can't even find the time to have the long phone conversations that may be a highlight of her mother's day—and an interruption in hers.
Margaret, a lawyer, spends a lot of time fielding phone calls from her mother, Sarah, who calls her at the office at least once a day.
When Margaret's father was alive, his secretary had standing instructions that, whatever he was doing, if his wife or children phoned, the calls should be put right through. But Sarah saw her husband every morning and evening, and their phone conversations were usually quite brief. Now Sarah is alone, and the days seem long and empty. She finds reasons to call Margaret at work and then tries to keep her on the phone. (For a while, a consistent theme was that Sarah had misplaced her glasses and couldn't look up a word in the dictionary, so she needed Margaret to tell her how to spell it.)
"Mom, I'm in a client meeting," Margaret says. Then she hears a long silence on the other end of the phone.
"All right, dear," Sarah answers. "I'll call you later." And she does.
"She's lonely, I'm busy," Margaret says. "What am I going to do? I try to be patient and empathetic, but Mom just doesn't understand why my job takes precedence over her loneliness."
Education, or its absence, can drive another wedge between mothers and daughters. We are the best-educated generation in history: in 1996, more than half of American women between thirty-five and sixty-four had completed at least one year of college, but in 1950 not even 14 percent of women in the same age group (which would make the youngest of them 74 in 1999) had attained that level of education.10 A woman with a college education is likely to have a different perspective on life and a larger scope of possibilities than one who hasn't been formally educated beyond high school. The daughter's education gives her opportunities to work in what was once a man's world, and there she accumulates more experiences that are unfamiliar to her mother, which can widen the gap.
The different ways we and our mothers look at marriage also break the continuity of expectations and attitudes. Women of our generation are apt to value independence over marriage, partly because, unlike most of our mothers, we can't count on spending our lives with one husband. A generation ago, marriage held out the promise of permanent financial security. But with the divorce rate hovering just under 50 percent,11 marriage can feel like—and be—a temporary condition. If we know we may not have a partner who will share the bills, we must be prepared to support ourselves and, often, our children. And we will probably do it with less than half the family income we would have if we were still married: households headed by women had a median income in 1995 of $21,348; the median income of a married couple's household was $47,129.
Not only does a woman who is on her own have more to do and less money to do it with, but she doesn't have a husband who might have helped her mother financially, with advice, or with some male companionship if she is widowed.
Yet despite the changes in our work and marital status, women are still the primary caretakers of both young and elderly family members. A 1990 Newsweek cover story, "The Daughter Track," cited a 1988 U.S. House of Representatives report that found "the average American woman spends 17 years raising children and 18 years helping aging parents." (The child-raising number sounds low?with two children a couple of years apart, twenty years seems like a minimum.) The story continued, "Three-fourths of those caring for the elderly are women, as it has always been. . . . But today they have other jobs as well. More than half the women who care for elderly relatives also work outside the home; nearly 40 percent are still raising children of their own."
Rose Dobrof, a founder of the Brookdale Center on Aging of Hunter College in New York, writes, "Every study of caregiving relatives has yielded the finding that the role of the care-giver remains a role for women. The reasons for this are easy to understand, even if the role is not always easy to play. Women were the homemakers . . . the ones who were responsible for the maintenance of family relationships, for the performance of affective, as distinguished from instrumental, tasks in the family. They were the nurturers, the tenders of the ill, the comforters of the unhappy."
Social worker Eleanor Mallach Bromberg agrees. She writes, "The literature supports the view that in average family situations, the child to whom a parent turns in a crisis is a middle-aged woman, either a daughter or another relative, on whom the person counts and who expects to be counted upon in times of illness and other stress."15 The Administration on Aging has done the math, and they have found that "the great majority of caregivers are women (75 percent)—a quarter of whom care for both older parents and children. Half of all caregivers also work outside the home."
What does "caregiving" mean? Nearly 80 percent of caregivers help with transportation; almost as many shop for groceries and do household chores. Sixty percent prepare meals, and more than half make financial arrangements and supervise other service providers.
Eventually, something is likely to crack when the pressure becomes too great; often, the fissures are seen at the office. Newsweek learned from the American Association of Retired Persons that "In recent years, about 14 percent of caregivers to the elderly have switched from full- to part-time jobs and 12 percent have left the work force." An additional 28 percent have considered quitting their jobs, according to other studies. In a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey of seven thousand federal workers, "Nearly half said they cared for dependent adults. Of those three-quarters had missed some work." And for caregivers of those with Alzheimer's disease and primary caretakers to any aging person, as many as 61 percent take time off work and arrive at work late or leave early. Some 16 percent have stopped working entirely.
Tana, a legal secretary, has a teenage daughter and an eighty-seven-year-old, recently widowed mother, Marilyn. Tana's boss understands when she has to go to her daughter's school for a report or even to a school field day; he has children, too. But when Tana's mother calls to announce "an emergency," and Tana has to get in her car and drive half an hour to her house, her boss has been less sympathetic.
"My mother gets palpitations and then she panics. She calls and she's gasping for breath. What am I going to do? Tell her to get over it? So I leave the office and try to help her calm down. There isn't anyone else who can do it," Tana says. "And when I'm irritated at her because it isn't an emergency, I think to myself, What if I were almost ninety, the man I'd been married to for more than sixty years was gone, and I was alone with nothing to do and no one to do it with? Wouldn't I hope my daughter could find a way to be available when I needed her?"
Tana has talked to her boss about her mother. Luckily, she has worked for him for more than ten years, he values and respects her, and he's willing to accommodate her situation. Many women aren't as fortunate.
The statistics and the stories all contradict a theme I have heard repeatedly, that Americans "discard" our elderly. Many daughters are willing to uproot their lives substantially to help their parents, rather than considering their own needs first.
Carolyn ran her own catering business from her home until she gave it up to care for an aging mother. Carolyn lived in a Midwestern city; her parents lived in Boston. When Carolyn's father became ill and was bedridden, his care became too difficult to handle alone for her eighty-two-year-old mother, who was partly disabled with arthritis. Carolyn closed her business, moved to Boston, and took a part-time job in a florist shop so she could help her mother care for her father. Two years later, when he died, Carolyn was confronted with the next set of problems: helping her mother sell her house and finding a place for her to live. When that is resolved, maybe Carolyn will be able to open her business again, but she has decided to stay in Boston to be near her mother, so she will have to find a new set of clients.
The practical aspects of the mother-daughter situation are likely to be even worse for the women coming along. They are having babies later, and soon it will not be uncommon for a woman of forty-five to have two children under ten, a full-time job, and a widowed mother in her late seventies. If a woman who is divorced remarries (as two-thirds of divorc?es between thirty-five and fifty-four will), she may inherit another set of children.
And consider this: now that we are living longer and are healthier longer, a sixty-year-old woman may have a job (as nearly 40 percent of women in their early sixties currently do), a sixty-five-year-old husband who wants to retire and travel, and an eighty-five-year-old widowed mother. There is a good chance that she also has a divorced daughter who works and needs help in bringing up a young child.
Work and financial independence, divorce and social independence, and geographic and social mobility create deep divisions between our lives and attitudes and those of women in our mothers' generation. These pressures from the culture—a culture we changed ourselves—produce formidable obstacles to being a good daughter to an aging mother.
And that is before we get to the long and complicated emotional history each mother and daughter share.
- paperback: 289 pages
- Publisher: Warner Books
- ISBN-10: 0446523593
- ISBN-13: 9780446523592