It’s funny to think of how life used to be when you were very young. Remember? Your friends all had to be precisely your own age or grade. It’s only when you break out of high school and college that you develop the freedom to have friends of all ages — younger and older.
I love my older friends who give me examples of how I want to live my life as I grow older. I still miss my friend Alana, who died last month, for her curiosity and avid enthusiasm about the world. Even though she wasn’t old enough to have been my mother, she still served the same purpose a good mother would — by loving me, approving of me, being delighted when I called or when we got together. I miss that terribly.
Today, I had coffee with a friend who’s about 20 years younger than I. She’s still in the thick of child-rearing, of trying to balance work and family life and keep her sanity intact. I can remember, too well, how hard that was.
At the age she is, not only do you have young children and a fairly young marriage to tend to — you also have your own parents and your changing relationship with them, as all of you age and grapple with different challenges in your lives. How thin can you stretch yourself? Can you be Gumby for 25 or 30 years?
But — as the older friend in this relationship — I found myself offering a little heartfelt advice about something I now realize I did very wrong when I was about her age. As she described a difficult interaction with her mother, I told her something I wish I had realized years ago when my own mother was alive.
“You don’t know,” I told her, “how much your mother wants your approval. It would mean so much to her for you to give it.”
I could say that, with a sharp and heavy pain in my chest, because I didn’t give that approval to my own mother when I could have, should have. I can remember the stories she would tell me of occasional successes and compliments she had gotten. I know — now, too late — that she wanted desperately for me to nod and affirm what had happened, to tell her I was proud of her and how she’d deserved the compliment or success she’d gotten.
The harder truth is, I probably realized how much she wanted my approval. But I refused to give it, withheld it, nodded and looked blank, left it there in the air as if it were too insubstantial to comment on.
There are all kinds of reasons why I did this. I was younger and overwhelmed and my mother and I had a tremendously difficult relationship. I was angry about so much that had happened during my childhood and early years. I could go on and on, rationalizing what I did or failed to do. But that doesn’t excuse it. I had the chance to make someone feel better and feel more loved and appreciated, someone who would have basked in my approval, merely by uttering a couple of short sentences — and I didn’t do it.
So to you, my friends of all ages: If your mother is still alive, she probably desperately wants and needs your approval. You can give it or withhold it (or tell me that I’m being simplistic here, which I probably am). You can open your heart, just a crack, or keep it shut. At this point in your life and hers, you still have a choice.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)