Why can’t we hurry up and find absolute truth at 21?Sheehy, Gail. Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. New York, Dutton, 1974.
The notion of a true self embodying all real goodness is a romantic fiction… The strategies for living that we develop, some causing us to be tender and loving and others egging us on to be competitive and cruel, form parts integral to our distinctive character by the end of childhood.
To “know thyself” in the full sense, one must eventually allow acquaintance with all these parts.
It’s been easy for me to recognize the clues about motherhood left sprinkled in my mother’s wake.
My mother talked about child development when my sister and I were growing up, though we often groaned to hear about it at the time. As my own children marched through infancy, toddlerhood, fourth-grade math, and puberty, a mix of memories and tangible artifacts (games, toys, books) have helped guide me along.
My sister and I have often compared notes about how our mother’s legacy has been a better guidebook than any we would have found on a library shelf.
In the last decade of writing, my mother has been present, sometimes more overtly than others, in everything I’ve penned about food, cooking, parenting, and – of course – writing. As I’ve dug through the physical objects she left behind (books, mostly), I’ve come to see different aspects and facets that weren’t accessible to me when she was alive.
Now, as the younger of my two children packs for college, I am coming to recognize something new:
My mother left a breadcrumb trail so I could find the way back to myself when my children reached adulthood. And one of the crumbs was a book that I had dismissed, but shouldn’t have.
When I was in 4th grade, in 1975, my mother started having a self-described “mid-life crisis” that lasted several years. She sought help through counseling and reading, and one of the books she read was the wildly popular bestseller, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life., by Gail Sheehy.
Sheehy, who was exactly my mother’s age (and who, coincidentally, also found her way to writing through a job in retail), studied under Margaret Mead at Columbia and became curious about what she dubbed “the arithmetic” of life.
That curiosity led to her writing Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, a book that might be described as “for adults” version of Dr. Spock’s book on child-rearing.
Using, among other resources, Eric Erikson‘s model of human development (this reference should ring a bell, for frequent readers/visitors here…), Sheehy hoped to provide a guide to help people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s find continued purpose and meaning as they got older (and better, and wiser).
Did budding-adolescent me groan, wince, and shudder at my mother’s embrace of this pop psychology trend? Of course. That reaction was/is part and parcel of the mother-daughter relationship when daughters hit puberty and push toward their own independent identity.
How do I know that? From my mother, of course. We talked about it years later, when I was in my 20s.
I had recently graduated from college and came home to Memphis, temporarily, for a job. I lived with my mother in a rented condominium that had a tiny kitchen in which we somehow managed to cook together and enjoy one another’s company in a new and different way. (Several years ago, when my own daughter started to explore cooking, I wrote about that time in my life, so I won’t belabor it here.)
Reflecting on that same story now, as my son is home from college for a week and my daughter inches closer to launching forward, I am rediscovering my mother and the wisdom she shared.
Part of that rediscovery is connected to the work I’ve been doing for the past six years at Kindred Place, the job I got by accident when the path I’d planned and laid out for myself fell apart unexpectedly.
More on that, tomorrow.
See you then?
Sheehy wrote, in an October 1991 Vanity Fair piece:
“The nervousness and uncertainty one discovers just beneath the surface among even the most attractive and successful women edging toward fifty are a testament to the power of the taboo that still surrounds this mysterious ‘change of life.'”
When she died unexpectedly, in August 2020 from complications of rapid onset pneumonia, Sheehy was working on a new book about Millennials.
“They are struggling with the rupture in gender roles and a crisis in mental health. But this generation of 20- and 30-somethings is also inventing radically new passages.”
There is nothing new. There is only rediscovery that leads to slow, incremental change and adaptation, over time.
About this series:
For the month of August, as a birthday present to myself, I’m doing another daily writing challenge. This year, not unlike last year, it’s all about RE-committing to writing. So far that includes: Reengage, Reconsider, Reassess, Review, Redefine, Relish, Relay, Reinvent, Reevaluate, Reroute, and Restore.