Wishing You a Happy Birthday

My mother would have been 85 today.  But she didn’t come anywhere near to that age, dying of accelerated Parkinson’s disease on the last day of 1997.

I’m wondering now what a daughter can say about her mother’s life.  What do I know, really?  Everything, nothing, too little, too much.  She insisted she was happy, but I never believed her.  “I’ve had a very happy life,” she told me when she was in her sixties — a decade I’m about to enter myself.  “I’ve loved being a homemaker.  I’ve had a happy marriage.  I loved having children.”

We disagreed about this — as we disagreed about most important things, like values, politics, religion, feminism, women in the workplace.  She saw my beliefs as being a rejection of her and my father.  At some level, she knew that, more than anything, I was afraid of being like her: of being dependent and clinging, frequently depressed, of never finding work I loved or a life outside the home.  I saw in her everything I didn’t want to be, which is a terrible thing to say.  But it was true.

Still, it’s far more complicated than that.  She was also sensitive, caring, smart, funny and irreverent.  She could be incredibly charming.  She made and nurtured close friendships.   She tried hard to be a good person, a good Christian.  She was many things I admired.

More than anything, I think, she was part of a generation who lived in a difficult and impossible time for women.  They lived through their husbands and children, they cooked and cleaned up, they were never taken seriously as human beings, they drank, they got depressed, they became — oh, what the hell, why not say it? — toxic to themselves and everyone they loved.  They wanted to draw us closer, but they succeeded in driving us away.

I know this isn’t true of all women of my mother’s generation.  But I’ve seen it in too many women of her age.  When society changed, when their daughters became feminists and their sons married women with careers, they were furious and hurt, because they had been betrayed.   I also know my own generation wasn’t blameless in the way we acted — or at least, I wasn’t.  I could have been kinder.

After Mother died, my sister said she viewed Mother as freed, finally, from the despair and desperate struggles and haunting disappointments of her life.  I don’t believe in an afterlife, as my sister does, but I hope that she’s right.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about what men just don’t get about women

26 comments… add one
  • There has been a lot of writing about happiness lately in the blog world.  It seems to me that happiness is an internal attribute.  If she said she was happy, then, by her definition, she was.   You and your sister would not have been happy to be her or to be like her.
    My mother and her husband fought like tigers.  My sister used to say, “I hope he dies first so she can have some peace.”  He did die first and she was desolate.  She outlived him by almost 15 years and she never really stopped missing him.

  • Heart wrenching and beautiful post, Ruth. My Mother, age 92, still talks of  getting out there in the classroom to teach or conduc choirs, and just yesterday wanted me to go out and buy her a kit to make a dollhouse;  “something to keep my hands busy”. There is no way she can do anything anymore and it’s so sad to see her want “to do” and to create and to dream when none of it can come true for her.

  • Cindy A Link

    My mother will forever despise me for ruining her life. When my dad said he was just going to have to kill her, I told him he was talking like a nut and, if he couldn’t live with her any more, he should get a divorce, like civilized people do.  And he did divorce her, immediately. My mom said, “You should have let him kill me. I will be miserable now for the rest of my life.”   And she pretty much has been!

    I think she could have been great friends with your mother, Ruth.

  • Your post reminded me that this month is the third anniversary of my mom’s passing.  Last month, Oct. 4, would have been her 100th birthday. My mom was different from yours in that she had a career in the 1930s, and, after I was born, in 1947, continued working.  I suffered from her absence and so decided not to pursue a career.  Instead I was home with my children.  Both my girls wanted careers. The eldest one made choices early on that put high-powered career before relationships and now finds herself alone at 37 with most of her friends married and in lower-key jobs that allow time for a family.  And, so the cycle continues.

  • My father passed away last year and I find myself really identifying with the way you tell of your complex relationship. The only daughter among boys, I found myself caught in a push and pull with my father that continues even now. I do miss him, even the complications.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Thank you all for your comments.

    Anne, I do believe my mother was deeply unhappy, in spite of her protests.  But you’re right; you can never fully comprehend another human being.

    Kate, your comment makes me want to weep.  Cindy, yours made me laugh.

    And Alexandra, your remark makes me realize — again — how complicated this whole mother-daughter relationship is.

  • Craig Link

    Ruth, You know I always like these familial tales.
    I just wish my mom had a chance to be her own person and not the housewife role she bridled at for all her adult life. I would like to have seen what she could have been

  • Steve Link

    Consider yourself hugged.  I needed a hug after reading this post.

    Pop maintained that happiness was a choice, a proposition with which I came belatedly to agree.  I’d not thought of it before this post, but that truth also leads me to conclude that unhappiness is also a choice.

    Beth and I were out country dancin’ at Club 21  in Uhland one night (a terrific small town Texas honkey tonk), and we were amused at the whiskey-drinkin’, cigarette smokin’ wedding party that was there that evening.  Who would want THAT for their wedding party?  Beth later met the bride in the ladies room, and the bride was effusive–it was the wedding she’d always dreamed of.  She was deliriously happy.  On the way home, Beth and I talked about the reality that our dreams are not the dreams of others, nor is our happiness (or unhappiness).  

  • My grandmother would have turned 100 this November (she just passed away in the spring). She was a teacher before she married then was happy to be a mother, wife, and homemaker. She was never unhappy with her life that I know of. Like Alexandra’s situation, I too see an ongoing cycle. My grandmother was a homemaker. My mother was a career woman. I started out in a career and hated it. I left to stay home with my kids and be a writer. I believe I’ve found the right balance – but it’s only the right one for me. I guess we all have to find our own way. Mother-daughter relationships are hugely complicated.

  • Ruth, this is a beautifully written tribute to your mother! Although my mother was in a different generation than yours, I definitely see some parallels with mine (this might be because her parents were older and frankly kind of old-fashioned even for their time). When I was a child, I announced that I would never be like her, and I know it hurt her a lot. Now I wish I hadn’t said it, but I also know that I would not be happy spending 25 years as a homemaker. I want to have children someday (yes, this means she’ll finally be a grandmother), but I don’t my entire identity to be based on motherhood and wifedom.

  • Narguesse MacK Link

    My grandmother was a sweet,  gentle soul, married to a difficult, brilliant inventor/drunk.  She never complained but quietly said to my  mother (her daughter-in-law) on what would have been her Golden Wedding Anniversary, “How should I celebrate 50 years of being married to the wrong man”.

  • Oh mothers! I have a love-hate relationship with mine too. I see a lot of those dependent behaviors in her. I guess that was a hard generation to be a woman in (just look at Betty Draper on Mad Men), but my 80-year-old mother yearns for the 1950s. She says it was a nicer world back then and she liked being taken care of by a man. She says she is an under-achiever and she’s okay with that. 

    She doesn’t feel angry at me or my sister for being the things she’s not. She admires us for being strong and self-sufficient, maybe partially because that means we’ll take care of her!

    Thought-provoking post, Ruth. Thanks for sharing.  

  • I’m struggling with this right now as I am trying to write something that’s basically about my mother when she was in her early 40s and it was the early 1970s and my father left her/us high and dry on an old broken down farm. Best thing that ever happened to her but it took about a decade for that to come about. She became a freshman at Cornell at age 45 and had her MFA six years later. Spent the rest of her working life as a college professor. All that said, she was never happy with it — too little, too late was her thinking.

  • When I was younger, I could see all of my mother’s “faults.” As I get older, and a little wiser, I hope, my mother becomes more and more perfect in my eyes.

  • Ruth-
    Excellent memory/essay. I don’t think any of us had the mother we thought we needed. I know I didn’t. Its not that we disagreed on major topics because we didn’t. I feel my own mother essay coming on. yipes!

  • Sheryl Link

    Oh, Ruth, this is so touching and complicated. We all struggle in one way or another with our mothers, don’t we? Mine was sort of the opposite sort of struggle – my mother broke free of an unhappy marriage (when women were not doing that very often) and was a career woman (also somewhat rare) and furiously pursued her own independence when she left my father. But in doing that, she also left her children feeling abandoned and yearning for a more “traditional” mother who would be there for the times they needed her. So, perhaps we all miss the one thing our mothers aren’t capable of giving us, after all.

  • This was a really touching post. Brought tears to my eyes. Mother-daughter relationships are indeed, complicated! I find myself wondering about the choices I’ve made and how my daughters will view them someday.

  • Complex, moving, conflicted — like so many relationships that shape us. It will be interesting, I imagine, what you write as the years pass, what you remember, what seems crucial as time goes on. It’s an interesting and often emotional journey to write it all down.

  • I wanted to comment, but this hits too close to home in about a million different ways. So, I’ll just say this … I love that you often say things outright that many people think but will not voice.

  • Amen to Roxanne’s comment.

  • Thought-provoking, beautifully written essay, Ruth. It certainly resonates with me. My mother has never been happy. She’s always blamed it on others but the missing piece is buried somehwere deep within her. As a young girl, I can remember her saying “There must be a heaven because I know there’s a hell. It’s right here on earth.” Having said that, she’s also a charming, delightful, hard-working woman. She’ll never understand why I took control of my life by leaving an unhappy marriage to find peace and fulfillment. Or maybe the problem is that she wishes she would have had enough nerve to do the same thing.

  • This is beautifully written and really made me think. My mother is very different from yours, though there is a lot we disagree on, and you’re right, I could probably be nicer. It’s so difficult, though, when you see in your parent everything you don’t want to become. How can you reconcile that? Before it’s too late?

  • This essay about your mom is so honest and painful and sweet and complicated all at the same time. Thank you for writing about it with so much honesty and openness. I know very well the struggles you had with her, as do a lot of the people who have commented here. Your mom was so lucky to have you as a daughter, Ruth.

  • I also wanted to say that I love the re-design of your Website. It’s just so excellent.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Craig, I don’t think you and I will ever get over our mothers.  But maybe nobody does.

    Steve, I don’t fully agree that happiness is a choice.  Some people are simply born depressed and can’t help it; it’s their body chemistry.

    Brette, I think the point you make is very important: That we all need to make very individual choices.

    Susan, I always knew I could never be a housewife, either.  I felt fortunate that has always been clear to me.

    Narguesse, that’s one of the most depressing stories I’ve ever heard.  Fifty years in a bad marriage!  I want to shoot myself just thinking about it.

    Nancy, my idea of hell is returning to the 1950s.

    Rachel, I’d love to read what you write about this.

    Kristen, it sounds as if you basically had a decent relationship with your mother.  I just didn’t with mine.

    Judy, no, we never have the perfect parent.  Look forward to your mother essay.

    Sheryl, I find it haunting how often we design our lives as mothers to make up for our own mothers.  And proceed on to make different mistakes.

    Christine, I understand.  Everything changes when you become a mother yourself and realize how flawed you are and how large you’ll loom in your kids’ lives.

    Thanks, Meredith and Roxanne and Vera.

    Donna, sounds as if we had very similar mothers.

    Stephanie, the sad truth is that you can’t always reconcile with someone.  It’s so painful to contemplate that you, like me, see what you don’t want to be in your own mother.  I don’t think you can ever get past that — or at least, I couldn’t.

    Jennifer, thank you so much.



  • This resonates with me, not for my own mother, but my father’s mother. She was never happy that I could tell, forever desperate to control the people around her with guilt and nagging. I don’t think she ever realised that she was pushing people further away with her actions. But she did at least seem genuinely happy to see me when I flew back to see her after her lung cancer diagnosis.

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