FORTY. Huzzah! Let’s do it:
There’s an age by which a woman is supposed to have come into her own, to know a thing or two.
Who decides this magic number that marks a woman’s arrival? She does, silly.
In my observation, though, women don’t always seize this inherent power.
A friend of mine — a woman who has been like a cross between older sister and a cool young aunt since I was in my mid-20s and she a newly minted 40-something — has a theory about all of this. Like me, this friend is a writer. Like me, she is also a Southerner. Her theory is this: Women, and Southern women in particular, and Southern women writers most especially, can’t fully come into their own until their mothers die.
I’ve considered this suggestion carefully, first thinking about famous Southern women writers whose clear voices earned them places in history. Zora Neale Hurston’s mother died when the writer was nine. Flannery O’Connor was outlived by her mother. Eudora Welty was well-established as a writer at the time of her mother’s death in 1966. But Pulitzer Prize-winning The Optimist’s Daughter, first published in 1969 as a long story and later in book form, was written after her mother died.
Closer to home (and reality), I’ve thought about my feisty friends, ordinary women who are close to my age, whose mothers are very much alive and vibrant and proud to have fiercely independent daughters. Have these women, my friends (all of them over 40), come into their own, with their mothers as happy witnesses? It would seem so, yes.
And, of course, I’ve thought about my daughter, the child who has exhibited her father’s independent, nonconformist traits since she was a toddler but who also has always looked to me, her mother, for both cues and affirmation. She leaves for college in less than a year, and I’ve been tallying all the things she’ll need when she goes — not the towels and posters for her dorm room wall, but the intangible things that can’t be sent by FedEx.
What experiences will give her the confidence she needs to strike out on her own, to find her voice and use it? Have I given those to her? Is there still time? Can she even come into herself while I am still here, in her life?
Long ago, when I worked for the County Mayor, he came to ask me for help with a speech, something he almost never did. He’d been invited to speak to parents at an all-girls school about raising girls. But all of his children were boys. My daughter was a toddler at the time, and the only thing I could think of at the time was that girls, in my limited experience, were easier to potty-train than boys.
I called a friend, mother of four grown girls, the youngest of whom was my occasional babysitter and who called me her Memphis godmother. “The most important thing for a girl,” my friend offered, “is having at least one adult woman friend who is not her mother. Otherwise, she’ll get lost in her mother’s echo chamber and never find her own voice.”
Since my own mother died when my daughter was barely walking, I’ve navigated motherhood with the help of these women friends, and so many others. I’ve also had my own memories from childhood and from hearing my mother talk about the things she did to help my sister and me step into ourselves. She was not always successful in that regard, my mother, but she did try.
And, of course, I’ve lucked into the spectacular benefit of working with a team of family therapists during these critical years when my teenage children have been doing the necessary work of forming their own identities, separate from the parents’ personas.
What I’ve learned, from these wise and experienced colleagues, is that healthy attachment between parent and child — and specifically between mother and daughter — requires holding on when holding on is beneficial and letting go when letting go is beneficial. If the mother is in a good place herself, then the daughter likely will be, too.
(Anyone who’s found a secret to doing that flawlessly and easily should definitely write a book about it.)
And it occurs to me, considering all I know from my own experiences and all I’ve learned from the good counsel of friends and colleagues, that what’s actually important, looking ahead and thinking about my daughter, isn’t how or when a woman comes into her own voice, but that she does so at all, in hopes of leading the way forward.
This post is 40/56 in a self-directed challenge to write (or at least post) something (SOMETHING) every day – a birthday gift to me from me, because writing gives me a place to put the clutter that lives in my head.