Tuesday, November 9, 2010

OMG! I'm Turning Into My Mother (And Other Surprises of Midlife)

It may have been that fleeting glimpse in the mirror that alerted you or a phrase from your own childhood that escaped your lips while you were reprimanding your teenager. It may have been a gesture, a phrase, a habit you suddenly noticed.  Whatever the signal, it seems to be an unrefutable fact: you're turning into your mother!

Is that a positive or a negative for you? Or a little of both?

For my friend Ginny, it's a shock primarily because she can't quite believe she's actually middle-aged. "I remember my mother at this age very clearly," she told me recently.  "How did this all happen so quickly? I really do look like my mother did at this age and it's a mixed blessing -- both appealing and appalling. I think my mother is a lovely older woman and so I'm pleased to resemble her. But it also means I'm getting older and I just don't feel that old inside!"

Barbara finds her similarities a bit unsettling. "I have always disliked my mother's imperious attitude toward people who help her at stores or banks," she says. "Then the other day, I was horrified to find myself in a bit of a snit at the bank, waving my hand dismissively at a young teller who was only trying to help. I don't want to be like that!"

I'm reminded of my mother whenever I look in the mirror. We didn't resemble each other at all in our respective young adulthoods, but now I see her clearly in my face and my peculiar body shape (flat in back, round in front with short, muscular legs). And I'm suddenly aware of her in some habits. The other night I awoke at 2 a.m. and noticed that, once again, I had my left leg resting on top of the covers. And I remembered how we used to tease my mother for always sleeping with her left leg on top of the covers.

For some of us, like Barbara, recognizing an undesirable parental trait in ourselves can be a valuable wake-up call for change.

And some of us, like Ginny, may take some time to adjust to being and looking middle-aged when we still feel 18 inside.

While reaching an age when we look like or act like a parent we so clearly remember at that stage can be a shock, it can also be a blessing.

Some of the positive surprises we may encounter -- besides that face in the mirror -- are some signals of growth, qualities we may have treasured in our parents and are beginning to see in ourselves as we age.

We may see ourselves developing the patience of midlife and beyond.  There may be times when you wonder how your mother ever tolerated your adolescent notions and smile as you see yourself dealing with some of your teen's excesses with equal patience.  My friend Sally, a former Sixties Berkeley radical, spent many weekends trying to get her parents to accept her newly acquired insights. Later, she was amazed at her own patience when her teenage stepson trolled through the groceries she brought home, haranguing her on her insensitivity to farm-worker issues if she happened to buy grapes or the wrong kind of lettuce. "When I found myself listening to all his ranting without screaming or throttling him or without cutting him off, I thought that here was a way to honor the memory of my parents and their infinite patience with me," Sally says with a smile.

We may see ourselves becoming kinder people as we age.  I've always thought that junior high school is the greatest argument against  reincarnation. It's hard to top the misery of 7th grade and the raw cruelty of young adolescents.  Measured against middle school, every milestone of life feels kinder, but as we age and experience some rough spots in our own lives, we tend to become more tolerant and empathic towards others.  I noticed this quite dramatically among some of my high school classmates.  At an early high school reunion -- was it our 10th? Our 15th? -- I was heartbroken when most of those attending made fun of and ostracized our old class misfit: a shy, morbidly obese young woman who was the butt of too many jokes and too much exclusion in her high school years.  By our 40th reunion, many of the same classmates showed compassion, concern and real kindness toward this unfortunate woman whose health was in decline. The up side of living through our own hard times, heartbreaks and health challenges as the years go by is that we can develop greater compassion and kindness toward others.

We become more generous with others as generativity kicks in.  When I was younger, I used to shake my head at people, some only slightly older than I, who would step back from the spotlight and cheer others on.  I couldn't imagine such a scenario for myself as I kept striving for career success and recognition.  My friends who were parents got a big head start on this, but, even for those of us who don't have children, there comes a time when encouraging and mentoring younger people is a true pleasure. Seeing my friend Sharon's beautiful daughter Carrie perform, I am thrilled -- and happy to add to the applause and cheering for her at curtain calls.  There have been some applicants for Northwestern University, whom I've interviewed in years past and whom I've loved encouraging and cheering on in their endeavors, whether or not they chose to attend Northwestern.  It isn't a matter of wishing I could dance like Carrie or had the wondrous talents of some of the interviewees.  It's all about them. I'm just happy see new generations of bright, talented young people grow up. Who would have guessed?

We grow wiser in midlife and beyond.  We learn to pick our battles, to let some things go.  We learn to measure our reactions, hold our tongues. We learn when speaking up is cruel and when it's kind and how to quickly tell the difference. We learn to look past the superficial attributes or less than ideal qualities of others and come to value them more as people who, like us, are a unique, complex mix of talents, faults and insights. We learn the value of listening with our hearts and of keeping an open mind.

While we may look in the mirror and experience an "OMG!" moment when we see the undeniable passage of time, growing on to the phase of life we remember so well in our parents can be an unexpectedly rewarding experience.

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