One thing about being an older mother is that you are constantly reminded of the truism that age doesn’t really describe the shape of a person’s life. Nor does our place on the family tree, the generation we are assigned to at birth. When my daughter was born I was 44, old enough to be her grandmother. When she went to school, I was old enough to be her teachers’--and her friends parents’--mother. At the same time, my contemporaries had long since forgotten about coping with babies and young children (they were on to the joys of grandchildren). My most meaningful cohort was other women with children my children’s age, but not my age themselves.
In other words, for most of my adult life I have belonged to no generation--or all generations. If anything defined me it was in the trajectory of my life, not where I was in the timeline of my life. Therefore, even though the teachers were half my age, their insights about my child and their expertise about teaching made for a very intimate and respectful relationship. They had acquired an understanding of children in their short lives that I was in need of at that parenting starting point in my long life.
Only now that I am way beyond bonding with other parents of young children and just one more “older woman” have I become aware of the ageism that abounds in our culture and the way our accumulated years divide us. More than once I have been chatting with a young man and catch his eyes floating away over my shoulder. I am rarely asked what I “do,” although I am still doing it. And “dear” has become a put-down in my dictionary.
Having experienced the intergenerational community of those years when the age of my child was more meaningful than my own, I don’t want to lose that in my Second Adulthood, the new stage of life that we--older mothers, empty nesters, childless-by-choice friends, women in the process of starting over--are all defining as we live it. We are demonstrating that self-invention is a life long process. That is a starting point for a bond among women of all generations.
But there are obstacles to finding common ground. One is that we are not in the same place at the same time often enough. That’s fairly easy to remedy. The technological barrier is a little harder to work around. Women my age talk of a culture gaps in the workplace; for example, we older workers are used to stepping into a colleague’s office to touch base.
To a younger woman, the face at the door is an intrusion; e-mail is the way to go. Technology also enables young women to meet and share and protest in ways that we have a hard time keeping up with. If we are going to “sit down over a cup of coffee”--virtual or not--we will have to meet (or tweet) them half-way.
I believe that women young enough to be our daughters (but aren’t) want to connect with us as much as we want to connect with them. I experience it personally in the tense alliance between waves of feminism. We Women’s Movement types complain that the younger ones have abandoned the cause; the younger ones resent what they perceive as our assumption that we defined the cause for all time. The mass marches that we associate with activism have been replaced by on-line mobilization and actions that we have been slow to sign on to.
Yet when we do engage each other over the issues, they want to know what it was like for us; they want to test their ideas out and get knowing--but not condescending--feedback. And they want to know how it is for us now.
At first I was surprised when a young woman would come up to me after a bookstore reading with two copies of my first book, Inventing the Rest of Our Lives -- “one for my mother and one for me,” they would say --but I came to understand that they wanted to read about their own futures. They understand that we are opening up possibilities that they can look forward to taking advantage of when they get there. Together we can be nourished by a community of women, which has no age requirements for entry.
Don't miss Suzanne Braun Levine's new book, How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood.