Open and Shut Cases

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)

9 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    Thank you so much for sharing this.  I do exactly the same thing. My mom will tell some crazy story about being the only one, after several brawny men had tried, who could get a horse into a trailer by gently wrapping the end of a whip around its back leg so that it feels like a snake.   I should have told her how amazing that was instead of ignoring it.

    Guess we just assume that mothers are supposed to give reassurance, not get it.

    Thankfully, my own daughter is much more considerate of me.  One night at a restaurant with a friend and a group of her friends, I told my daughter, “Boy, Robin sure has really nice friends.”  My 10-year-old daughter said, “Mom, YOU are one of Robin’s really nice friends.”

    Now that I remember how good that felt, I should have told my mom she must have been Annie Oakley in a past life with that trailering feat.

  • Craig Link

    I have a young friend as well. She frequently shares with me she has no time for regrets in her life. I just grit my teeth, breathe deeply, and say nothing.

  • Thank you so much for this article.  My mother has always had a bit of a strange, almost competitive relationship with me, which I’ve never understood.  I’m spending a week with her at the end of next month and, thanks to you, I am going to concentrate on validating HER.  Fascinating.  It never occurred to me that she might be missing that from me.   Thank you for the insight.  Hopefully this will be a turning point for us.

  • It’s a true fact that when we get old kids have the upper hand, and especially daughters.  My kids have finally stopped reminding me of past failures and deficiencies, but I know they are just being kind because of my advanced age.  They won’t really forgive me until they discover that their kids hold them responsible for all their past errors.  My oldest son, who has no children, may never learn this theorem of the generations.   He did tell me, though, on my recent visit to him when I cooked his dinner a couple of times, that I am a better cook than his brother, the professional chef.  I’ll take what I can get.

    The above was not what I really wanted to say though, which was, thank you for writing that.  It really touched a nerve.

  • You are not, in my opinion, being the least simplistic. My mother died six years ago and one of the things for which I am eternally grateful is that I had nothing left to resole with her. She always knew how much I loved her. Now, Dad is quite another matter. But again I am fortunate in that my mother’s passing gave me the opportunity to get to know my father. I have learned how to love and accept him with all his foibles ans prejudices, and in so doing, he has developed the capacity to love me back. I am sure your young friend will some day thank you mightily for this advice.

  • bfa Link

    Thank you, thank you.  You just made me realize that I give this sort of approval to my father, but sometimes withhold it from my mother.  I hadn’t even noticed.  And I’m somewhat ashamed.  But I am lucky to have time to work on it (I hope).

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I do think we’re all harder on our mothers than our fathers.  Of course, when did I notice this?  After I became a mother myself.  Figures.

  • Ruth, have you thought about having this post in the paper where you have a column? Or another paper. This resonates deeply with many of us. I feel lucky to have read this piece of advice, as I am like your friend with young children, and my mother is still alive. I have quite a good relationship with her, but had never thought consciously about her needing my validation. Such a great post!

  • Thank you Ruth for reminding me of this ….”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.”   My Mom is 92 and changing (for the worse) mentally; some days I don’t even recognize her as my Mom. But on other days, she’s all there. I try to love and admire her through it all, frustrating and sad as it may be in the moment. I think when she’s gone, I’ll have no regrets and for this I am grateful.  Thank you, Ruth.

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