By Maya Bhave
Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What’s that supposed to mean? In my heart it don’t mean a thing. ~ Toni Morrison, Beloved. (p.89)
In the last thirty-five years an increasing number of social scientists have explored the complex and multi-layered field of motherhood. Some point to Adrienne Rich’s formative and groundbreaking classic, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1986) as the starting point of Matricentric research. Andrea O’Reilly, who coined the term Matricentric feminism – that is a mother-centered feminism – argues since the publication of Rich’s work, “the topic of motherhood has developed from an emergent to an established field of scholarly inquiry” (2016, p. 9). In Matricentric Feminism (2016), O’Reilly details the broad expanse of maternal theory, which includes but is not limited to analysis and the intersection of gender formation, feminine personality, and the maternal relational self (Chodorow, 1974); the Postfeminist split subjectivity examining the chasm between old dated views of gender expectations and new broader freedoms for women without kids (O’Brien-Hallstein and O’Reilly, 2012); varied practices and social class variations of mothering (Fox, 2006); the expert-driven and child-focused “new momism” (Douglas and Michaels, 2004); the anxiety and guilt related to maternal ambivalence (Almond, 2010); and racial dimensions of mothering (Collins, 1984, 1991, 2000), bell hooks (1990). Although an impressive, growing field, there is little to no research on how these same topic areas unfold within the boundaries of non-proximate mothering – that is mothering that occurs from a distance when adult children no longer reside in the family of origin’s domicile. Accepting O’Reilly’s stance that there is no “essential or universal meaning of motherhood (2016, p.17), this study explores the varied dimensions and patterns of non-proximate mothering when mothers no longer engage in the intensive daily mothering patterns of having young, active, children living in their home (see work on new Momism by Susan Douglas, 2004). Douglas notes that this new Momism framework brings “to childrearing a combination of selflessness and professionalism,” (p.5). As moms, do we act and think differently when our kids grow up and are no longer living with us? How do we as mothers think about our mothering in new ways as our children grow up? In this article, I examine one aspect of non-proximate mothering identity, which I call matrelinqual identity –referring to the shifting social roles and thought patterns for non-proximate mothers of adult children.
This article will show that mothers strive to build new friendship relationships with their now adult children; give up earlier intense, insertive parenting tactics; and yet still work tirelessly to keep close connections/ties with their children, purposefully and strategically, through social media. In this paper, I document how this major family and life transition affects maternal thinking and the ways in which mothering dynamics change after two decades of intense mothering.
I utilize Sara Ruddick’s (1989) theoretical concept of Maternal thinking and Sharon Hays’ (1986) ideology of Intensive parenting to frame, deconstruct and speak explicitly to these patterns of non-proximate mothering. Ruddick argues that Maternal thinking (referred to as MT hereafter in this document) refers to the intense preoccupation with how our motherly “choices, disappointments, and pleasures” affect our children (p.11) and how in our desire to be “good mothers,” our thinking “arises from, and is tested against, various social practices” (p.13). Mothers, thus, engage in ongoing deep reflection while simultaneously being focused on the preservation, growth (emotional and intellectual), and social acceptability of their children (p.18-19). Ruddick’s analysis shows that women think about strategies of protection/preservation, nurturance, and training on a daily basis (p.23), and conceptualize caring for a child “as a discipline” (p.24). She argues that mothers develop a “maternal competence – a sense that they can and will care for their children” (p.29), and in turn, have a valuable type of psychological power (p.35). Moreover, she argues that MT is in itself a feminist theoretical standpoint. As such, Ruddick argues we need not focus on gender or a particular theory as key in understanding mothers’ lives here, but rather the “work itself [of mothering] and the political conditions in which it is undertaken” (p.133). It is within this feminist framework that my research is embedded.
The women I met certainly had an intense preoccupation with their children, spending countless hours focused on how to get their children ahead academically, socially, and athletically. The women I met also unknowingly utilized Sharon Hays notions of Intensive Parenting, expecting of themselves “professional level skills, and copious amounts of physical, moral, mental and emotional energy” (Hays, p.4). The respondents reproduced this type of parenting as they carefully navigated and manicured their children’s childhoods. Such parenting allowed moms intense, frequent interactions with their children, the ability to create protected environments, and opportunity to be emotionally present. In essence, they were “mommy managers,” scheduling, organizing and strategizing their kids’ existence. Such findings confirm Fox’s (2006) work that shows middle-class moms exerting intensity, involvement and confidence, whilst working-class moms struggle with such variables and thus overall adaptation to motherhood. I ask what happens when such intensive mothering environments are no longer being constructed and a new liminal open space opens up (figuratively and literally for mothers).
Because this chapter is part of a larger manuscript, these early years of MT, and numerous examples of intensive and insertive mothering, are not addressed in depth in this singular article, but rather can be found in a larger book manuscript. In that larger work, I am able to fully address the early years of intensive mothering, adaptation to motherhood and mothers’ strong feelings of matrophobia. In this article, however, I focus here on the latter years of the motherhood arc for 23 women (ages 46-65) from across the United States, whose children had grown up and left home. I was interested in how women responded to the lack of such focused, intensive parenting that Hays (1986) had revealed punctuated mothers’ everyday lives – in most cases for roughly 18 years. Thus, this work explores how ones maternal thinking shifts through time (broadly in the long arc of mothering) and in this article more specifically in heightened transitional moments such as when kids leave for college. I am interested in detailing how mother’s thinking shifts or modulates once these deep and concentrated mothering roles and expectations dissipate.
Qualitative data were derived from semi-structured interviews with 23 participants. Mothers were self-selected for the study by responding to a research request ad posted on a local multi-town wide neighborhood online forum in Northern New England. Using a snowball sample, I was then able to secure other respondents beyond this initial group in New England. These early interviews took place in person at my home between January 2019 and February 2020 and typically lasted between 2 ½ to 3 hours. Given the quiet surroundings replete with tea, and homemade baked goods, women were extremely comfortable talking for hours about their children and mothering life histories. These semi-structured interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed verbatim. Unfortunately in February 2020 the Covid 19 pandemic interrupted this in-person format at which point I had to switch to a zoom platform for the remainder of the interviews from May 2020 – May 2021. Although these latter interviews were not in person, I was able to access a large group of women from western states after being connected to a large parent Facebook group at a very large West Coast State University through a friend of a friend. A request for research respondents was placed on this Facebook forum and numerous mothers replied quite quickly to me via email. Although I was disappointed to not be able to meet these women in person, the Zoom platform allowed me to gain access to women from regions of the United States I would not have had the time and resources to visit. In addition, the recording and transcription capabilities of the Zoom platform allowed the research transcripts to be generated quickly at no additional cost to me. I also found that despite the remote format, the respondents were extremely forthcoming and open, and the subsequent data was remarkably similar to that of the in-person interviews.
A total of 23 participants were included in this study. Women’s occupational fields ranged from Education, Healthcare, Financial Management, Farming, Politics, Social work, Law to full-time Homemaker. The participants ranged in age from 46-65. The average age of the mothers was 54. The majority of the mothers were married, one mother was legally separated, one widowed, and three were divorced. The criteria was that the mothers had at least one child in college presently, who had begun college within the last five years. The self-selected respondents were overwhelmingly white (with just one African American respondent) and were drawn from all regions of the United States. Given that at the outset of the interviews I had sent my oldest son off to college three years prior, and by the end of the interviews was just about to send my youngest to college, I felt intimately connected to these women’s emotional stories. My social location as a non-proximate mother gave me both validity and a valuable shared understanding with my respondents.
A combination of Experiential Thematic analysis (Braun and Clark, 2013) and Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) were used to analyze the transcribed data. Experiential thematic analysis allowed me initially to conceptualize how the respondents made broad, sense of their mothering arcs, while later line-by-line Grounded theory analysis allowed me to create focused codes, and intricate memos on details of their lives and various types of MT.
The results of the interview analysis indicate that when children head off to college or university, mothers face a new and unknown social void. As women make the move from being intense, private, micro-level “parent-managers,” they engage in three response patterns: (1) they reclaim space for themselves; (2) reframe their relationships with their children as adult advocates or friends; and (3) retain social tethers with their children, often via forms of social media contact. Such findings shed light, not only the inner workings of mothers’ thinking, but also speak to the broader need for more research on the discrete types of MT, and particularly the shifts for mothers over time in terms of relational boundaries, social interactions and personal sense of self.
Adapting To New Liminal Space
One primary thread in the broader manuscript data (not fully addressed here – see aforementioned comments on pg. 3) that must be stated here is that mothers adored their children. Although most of them were expecting to have children, many were surprised at just how much they cherished their brand-new infants and wanted to spend time with them. In response, most women pivoted from full-time work to part-time career paths early on in their children’s lives, with several women even leaving their careers completely upon becoming mothers. Hays (1996) points out that models of intensive parenting focus on “rearing carried out primarily by individual mothers…centered on children’s needs, with methods that are informed by experts, labor-intensive, and costly,” and is most valuable as it is “what children need and deserve” (p.21). Women lived out these tenets of child-driven mothering quite closely, spending hundreds of hours researching the best camps, schools, and social activities; perseverating intensely about their kids’ friend groups; and their overall social and emotional states. Thus, it is not surprising that when the children left home the mothers were faced with a new and vast liminal space of emptiness – one they had not encountered for almost two decades.
For many mothers, this liminal space was immediately seized as an opportunity for self-care; a new freedom allowing them a period of literal quiet, relief from ongoing daily household chores, household planning and scheduling. Their own self-care – their emotional and even intellectual growth – had at times been lost in a long held narrative that their social and mental health was tied to their children. The majority of women I interviewed struggled to list attributes of their own parenting, many replying that they “had never stopped to think about ‘how or why’ they parent in particular ways,” but rather just focused on “what their kids needed.” One respondent said this about her new liminal space:
So that was the first time in like 20 years where I was back being a single person. And it was like, wow! I can do whatever I want! It was like a totally different thing, where I didn’t have to think about somebody else first. It taught me again how to take care of myself first and how to treat myself better. I lost a lot of weight, I was healthy. My A1c went way down. It was awesome, I was able to taper off my antidepressant. (Louise, 62, married).
For many, this new situation allowed them to either return to old hobbies or foster new ones, including dog breeding, scrapbooking, stamping, crocheting, trading cards, gardening, volunteering at a zoo, and in one woman’s case even buying a farm and learning to farm full-time in order to fill her new free time.
For others this opportunity was framed not a something to fill, but rather as a shift from the daily mothering worry and stress. One respondent said:
I just remember thinking, oh my God! Nobody needs me to do anything. And it’s a stunning feeling, and it is literally, 20 years. Because when they’re in the house, even as the adults that they are, I can’t sleep till I know they’re asleep. I want to know when they’re gonna arrive and leave so I can plan around it. And I’m constantly aware of them in that fussy mom sort of way. It’s like, why don’t I just go do my own thing in the same building as them? No, it’s like totally tuned into them. And the sheer fabulousness of being able to do whatever you want. I’m gonna eat what I want, I’m gonna watch a movie with a glass of wine – it was fantastic. And I remember being surprised, because I had dreaded it so much when they were really, truly, both of them gone. I was like, oh my God, this is great! There was a great restfulness. (Jackie, 55, separated).
Many moms spoke about how they could finally let go of their focus on child edification. Thus, they approached these new days or weekends without filling them with kid-focused activities and child-appropriate learning. Kris recalled:
I like gardening, but a lot of it was just you know plain simple things like reading a book I’m doing crochet you know- it was quiet me time. I didn’t necessarily have to go out go to the park and say, “oh look we’re going to go dig up gardens,” or you know at the local mine, “How, do you find garnets, how do you find fossils?.” It was no more of that kind of stuff. Finally, I don’t have to be on, I can just shut down at the end of the day and rejuvenate. (Kris, 63, divorced)
Yet these new state of affairs were not perceived as positively by all. Several respondents talked about this period with dissonance. They felt that this open void felt “pressure full” – that is ripe with expectations to not only fill the time with self-care, but with an expectation to do something “significant,” in society; that is to produce something now that their kids were gone. Wendy, a middle-aged medical Midwest professional, spoke to this most clearly:
Well, I wonder, shouldn’t I be doing something more. And part of that is who I am, meaning I’m a doctor, I work 50-60 hours a week often, and we have this enormous garden… so a lot of working on the land, and I’m always sort of wondering, shouldn’t I be doing something else? Maybe I should write a book or start some sort of important service project, or work on policy changes in healthcare. Shouldn’t I be doing something bigger? Like what if I did just find some way to do a stint with Doctors Without Borders at some point. (Wendy, 53, married).
What is troubling is that these women have put so much pressure on themselves to parent in the “right way” – unwittingly affirming Hays’ ideology – and yet with the chance to relinquish that, they in turn add more pressure on themselves. One wonders if such social behavior is the result of the invisibilization and devaluation of non-paid mothering work.
Given the new opening of time and space, two women, Jackie and Tara chose to become what they termed “surrogate moms.” Tara developed extremely close relationships with her own kids’ significant others – texting or calling regularly – stating that they didn’t have great home lives and viewed her as “another mother.” In the case of her daughter’s boyfriend, she continued her friendship with the young man even after that relationship had been severed. As she put it:
He has a very dysfunctional family. Our family was like – he literally calls me Mom. Very, very – not a good living situation. So he wants to have the kind of family that we have, not what he has. And he struggled a lot without my daughter. He was away at school and was absolutely miserable. And I would just talk to him like a mom, how’s school going and all that. And I was filling that void in his life and in a way, I wanted too, as he thought of me like a mom.
Similarly Jackie, decided to help a very close friend who was pregnant with twins, while having five other children at home. Jackie shared:
The twins and I are intensely connected, they’re my little loves. Because they were desperate. They already had five kids. I go there multiple times a week and these twins, they’re the greatest natural antidepressant. They have meant so much to me and I go a few days without seeing them, I’m like, Sarah, I need twin time. And I immediately feel better. Because guess what, I get to be their mom. I get to do that role again and without it, it would have been really hard. They are fantastic. (Jackie, 55, separated)
Beyond filling the void, mothers also started reframing their personal relationships with their children. For the first time, they began to relinquish the utterly tight reins of daily control and started to think about their kids as peers, and even friends.
As the children adjusted to college, the mothers began to see their kids in a new light. For many women this marked a huge turning point – seeing themselves as peer advocates, as opposed to intensive micro-managing parents. Women began to shift from maternal “scaffolding” frameworks – where they created and manufactured all necessary bits and pieces of their child’s lives – to more distant and less controlling parenting models. Most women seemed excited by this prospect, and yet questioned where they were in this volatile shift, with Jennifer animatedly telling me about her son’s upcoming nuptials, but quickly adding but “I am still a mom, I am still a mom,” as if to cement that reality. She clarified that she could no longer mother her older kids, but now needed to be what she referred to as a supportive mother, which meant enjoying them, while not dictating their every move. Her comments revealed a distinction in shifting social roles; from enforcer and organizer to more distant, non-proximate advocate. Kayra echoed similar comments by calling it a transition from parent to “guide on the side.”
Similarly Eva and Carolina described this juncture as being a transition from [head] coach to being on the sidelines. They both noted that their roles were changing from being central to more peripheral, and as such brought great enjoyment. Carolina described how cool it was to watch “petal by petal unfold” as [her two kids] discovered themselves.” In this transition, not only did moms’ roles changes, but children transitioned from being seen as offspring to peers and friends with their parents. The mothers talked about these changes in social dynamics and social roles in hugely positive ways, with only a few women noting bits of unease about the fluidly shifting patterns of having fully adult kids.
Carolina’s story was unique, as her oldest child (26 at the time of our interview) had moved back into his former childhood home, which Carolina had relinquished after her divorce and later gained back in a court order after her alcoholic ex-husband left it in disarray. Carolina split her time between her mother’s house, located near her job during the week, and went to her old, now refurbished house with her grown son on weekends. She called living with her now adult son, the “same but with cocktails.” She relishes this arrangement that she calls “friendship with depth,” noting it is greater than any other friendship, because they “have a long history, from his from his first breath.” She shared:
It’s a lot more equal and it’s also parental in this. It’s a weird relationship that doesn’t have a tag (she laughs) because it’s friends, but it’s much deeper than that. Like what friend have you known from like the first second of your life? Nobody. So that’s what’s neat about it is I’m able to listen to what’s happening and then I’ll also be able to say, man, you know, when you were whatever age, you know, I saw [this] or I’ve always seen this little spark in you about this or that. And so there’s more of a depth, you know, to it just simply because of the sense of knowing.
Kris’s son is also living back at home, working on a graduate degree through a local church. Yet, in her case, the shift in their relationship feels difficult as she implies he sometimes takes advantage of her mothering flexibility and kindness.
Yeah so I had changed my lifestyle to being a single empty nester and now my nest is fat. Somebody’s back and [I’m] trying to develop that relationship of how do you have an adult child in your home when you’ve already pushed them out the door ?
She recounted the initial days after he came home (during Covid), when she was thankful he was cleaning up the house, rototilling and planting the garden, but as time went on felt resentful of his frivolous spending on video games and reclusive retreating to his bedroom, particularly given her own health struggles and forced reduced work hours due to a debilitating car accident resulting in serious injuries. She felt stressed with his lack of career plan and also frustrated that she didn’t feel overly close to him emotionally.
He’s kind of got his own life and I’m not part of it and it’s sort of like, well it’s tough, you’re living in my house rent free. I’ll make him dinner, but a lot of times it’s like I made dinner, “When are you coming home?” “Oh I’ll be home at six.” Well now it’s nine o’clock and [he’s] still not home. He wasn’t working so I got really frustrated with [his] spending money. It’s my money not your money.
For Kris, gone are the days when she scheduled his world and he immediately responded. She does, however, admit that this new advocate/non-intensive mothering role allows her to be less controlling, while still supportive. She shared how she now lets him make his own mistakes, not “rescuing” him, as she had done so many times at his various high schools, intervening with teachers on his behalf, given his learning disability.
Many moms in this study defined being a good mom as someone who “raised good human beings.” Choosing to become “friends” with their kids – who they saw as interesting, wonderful human beings – confirmed for these moms that they had been successful in their social roles. In turn, knowing their kids wanted to be their friend, gave them an immense amount of satisfaction, pride and joy. When asked how they would define their kids’ success, many spoke to this new dynamic of friendship, not to academic accolades, job salaries, or occupational status. Nancy really embodied this viewpoint using the metaphor of her three kids (Dan, Tim and Emma) as bookends:
It’s awesome. I now get to develop a relationship with this guy that is just a cool human being. Yeah, he can be a friend. I mean, it’s like Dan was between the book ends and I had the experiences of Tim – he survived college and I survived [him] going to college and I get this incredible bonus of a relationship with a new person. Yeah, same person, but it was different. And [now]I have Emma. I get to continue the parenting. Experience it with a whole new generation almost of a person.
She notes though that now they are all friends the relationships have to be more intentional.
There’s a mindfulness of the relationship. It’s there’s no autopilot anymore with any of my adult children. Because I’m not picking up their dirty underwear. I’m not packing their lunch and not picking them up the end of the school day. So that is the intensity of it. The purposefulness when we’re together (describing when they all meet up together now to visit). We’re really paying attention to each other. There’s a feeling of I know this time together is going to end fairly soon. Therefore, I want to make the most of it. And that’s just really enjoyable of the focus during that time we’re together.
She finished adding, “I look at my three kids, and if they were total strangers they are people that I would want to be friends. I cannot tell you how good that makes me feel. I did my job and I think I did it well.” Others echoed Nancy’s sentiments calling their kids cool, fun, and deep. Such findings show that Ruddick’s concept of social acceptability (p. 104) holds true in a new, nuanced way for mothers later in life. For these moms, there is a distinct satisfaction knowing that if they are friends with their own children then their kids have become fully approved and accepted by the most important critic – the mothers themselves.
Others, like Kayra; however, noted that these new social friendship role dimensions meant the necessity of relinquishing certain types of interactions and responses. Kayra, who used to work in marketing and now in education, noted that she had to ebb her motherly commentary and step in only when needed or wanted. As she put it “I have to take off my teacher hat – it’s not taking it completely off but having to pull way back on that and do more listening and raising the friend level.”
The final component of matrelinqual identity involves the dissonance mothers feel as they don’t want to relinquish too much control or oversight of their kids, yet struggle to handle these desires, given their kids are now adults and not as easily controlled. The mothers actively work to keep close connections to their children, despite different locales of residence. Such emotional labor was often hidden to the kids, yet purposefully, and carefully crafted, by the moms. Moms worked to hide their motherly efforts, so as to not upset, irritate or cause dissonance with their children. Such actions spoke to the broader desire to be on close, friendship terms with their kids, as opposed to being seen as intrusive, annoying, non-relatable or non-likeable parental figures.
E-mothering as a form of Maternal Thinking
One crucial finding here is that the mechanism, and desire for intensive parenting control does not dissipate as kids leave the nest, but rather it shows up in new ways, specifically through “e-mothering,” a term not found in the literature, but one developed here solely from these data. This new form of mothering and MT is shaped by intentionality, evolving social roles, and masked emotions. The key piece of technology within e-mothering was a cellphone or ipad. Moms were able to keep in touch, check up on their kids and continue relationships via this technological bond, which was obviously nonexistent in their own social histories. Renee reminisced about haranguing her parents for a phone in her own room as a teenager – which she never got – and contrasts this to her own son who calls “a lot” to ask simple questions like what type of oil to put in his car, where can he pick up certain items or if she can find his missing personal items. For Renee’s son, the phone becomes an immediate source of help, parental guidance and comfort.
Due to the physical non-proximate locations of their children, many moms engaged in frequent texts or facetime calls and expected quick responses, with most moms texting once a day, some even several times a day. Tara told me:
When she went to college, it was setting her all up in her dorm and it was wonderful, and she would text me Good Night and Good Morning, and when she missed a day and didn’t text me Good Morning, I would get frantic, like what’s wrong? I wanted to know that she still thought about me as much as I thought about her.
Some moms, like Kris, weren’t used to the modern parameters of texting and became frustrated calling her daughter but getting no reply. She found, however, that if she texted the daughter would respond immediately. Kris shook her head, commenting, “I know you have your phone on, so why aren’t you answering it.”
Others, like Nancy have much more frequent and constant interaction with their children. She interacts with her daughter multiple times per day, each of them sending texts, memes, and recipes. She recounted their casual, but important informal interactions:
[She] face times with me a lot, and sometimes we’re just – we call it parallel play. She just wants to FaceTime, and she’s cooking dinner. I’m working in the office. We’re not really doing a whole lot, we’re doing separate things and just kind of casually talking as we’re doing it.
Most moms stated that they reached out equally via technology in comparison to their kids, yet their intentions were varied. Most kids reached out when they needed help, advice or support, especially in the early college years, asking for advice about classes, roommates and college life. Moms were not surprisingly less likely to need help or advice from their kids, rather the “reach outs” were a form of maternal comfort for them. These check-ins, gave them a sense of control and access to important knowledge from afar. As Amy put it “there are lapses of time, where she’s just busy and I’m not hearing from her, eventually I get to the point where I just need a little something. I need to make sure she’s doing well. I need to hear her voice.” Some would send funny memes, pictures of home and their local town or just a “thinking of you” text. Such “check-ins” were really initial ways of reaching out, anticipating that such “light” texts would illicit deeper, more meaningful replies, and thus were a form of maternal comfort. Renee talked about this ability to check in easily as a unique dynamic for her maturing son, as she and her husband could quickly connect, and subsequently continue to protect and care for him.
We can go in and take him out to brunch and bring him back to his apartment. We can text him and say, “hey, we’re coming in, we’re going to Trader Joe’s. You need anything? You wanna come?” “Oh, yeah, I’d like to come, do you mind? Would you swing by and pick me up?” I can see him if I want to. Like physically give him a hug, bring him his swim towel that he forgot…So we call it, Adulting Lite, because he’s not going to starve, because Mom and Dad are close and can take him to Trader Joe’s.
Parents wanted to know their kids were safe, healthy and emotionally stable. Tara was a mom who talked to her kids every day by text, and if they didn’t respond, she too felt anxious. Subsequently, she, and others like Amy, found ways of showing up at their daughters’ local campuses that “might just be helpful.” Such social behaviors were couched in a language of need for the child, but really were ways to help the needs of mothers. Tara shared:
[There are] things that I did to help stay in her life, she has to follow a certain diet, so I would buy food and bring it by, or if I knew she had a break in the day, I’d say, “Hey do you want to go and grab lunch?” So I would really actively make myself a part of her life even though – and she was receptive to it, it wasn’t like, “moo-om!” But I saw myself really trying to see her often.
The final aspect of e-mothering, beyond intentionality and the shift in social roles was the ability for moms to mask their emotions via technological mediums. Tara said:
This is the one reason I like texting…because you can control it. She doesn’t see my face, she doesn’t hear my voice. And so I can be sitting there with tears streaming down my face, texting have a great day, I love you. That’s how I hide it. I didn’t do that as much her first year, and she would know I was sad. And then I realized, I have to not do this, because she can’t be worried about me. She’s got to focus on herself and to just know that we’re here, and we’re fine, and we’re mom and dad at home, and there’s nothing to worry about at home. Because that’s my job.
Tara relayed to me that she feels the need to cover up her emotions, because her daughter told her “if I’m mad or sad and she knows about it, that is overwhelming to her.” So, Tara being a very purposeful, thoughtful mom chooses to hide her feelings, stating that she often bawls to her husband, but can’t do that with her own child. Such reactions are more evidence that moms are engaged in intensive parenting long after our kids leave the house, and that our social actions are at times, less about what we want, but more about what our kids “need.” Again, we see women being purposeful, child-focused and intensely concerned about their protective well-being, with little focus on their own internal well-being. Such findings raise questions about how women’s emotions will fare in the long run, five, ten and 15 years after their kids have left home.
For some moms, like Amanda, it wasn’t just e-mothering that allowed for emotional masking, but it also enabled her to hide her own intensive, parental scaffolding. Amanda defines her role as mother as being an architect – an overseer to structure, encourage, and plan for her daughter. Non-proximate mothering in her case ends up being a hidden gift that allows for her daughter to learn those critical and analytical life skills a bit on her own. Amanda shared, however, how hard it was to let go of that intensive role completely, particularly given her daughter’s unsettledness during her first year and her new desire to transfer.
When it’s not seeming like it’s working out, I’m intermittently refraining and sometimes not. From going on line and looking for things [new colleges] – “What about this? What about that?” Yeah or internships, any of that kind of that. Kind of researching, problem solving, looking at the faculty. And the nice thing about the separation is that she doesn’t have to know about that. I can refrain from sharing with her. I can just deal with it myself and let that resolve for myself, but not share it back with her, which I think is important. She does need to figure it out.
Such data shows that women don’t give up MT easily or quickly. Even when they appear to not be “engaging” in it, they often are still working tirelessly behind the scenes, even if their kids do not know the full details of that. As such, mothers purposefully continued MT, even from a distance. It is not clear (given that the children were not interviewed) if kids knew that Moms worked so feverishly to still oversee their children’s decisions, actions and trajectories.
Finally, e-mothering allowed the women the ability to retain what many of them called
“tiny tethers,” which came out of our discussions on kids “leaving, or not leaving the nest.” Leah spoke to this most succinctly:
It’s not like a marionette where you’re cutting the strings off. You’re still connected to them. They’re your family, they’re your kids and you’re connected and there’s a next phase and what’s that phase gonna look like. What’s it gonna look like when they get married and have kids or when they’re just single on their own, when they’re not in college. The relationship changes, I think. So I guess it’s not so much what they need from me, it’s what do they need from me now. It’s like, yes, go and do your thing, but don’t forget about me. I’m still here and I want to know what’s up. Wings don’t fly in one direction, you can come back. You can circle around, you can stop places, if we want to use that metaphor. It’s not like they’re gone forever.”
Marlise also spoke to this same image, incorporating not only the linkage imagery but her new role in this new phase of mothering.
I’m keeping a little tether on them! I’m just gonna keep a long string on their little bird –
I don’t want them to fly away, like, forever…..because I love them as people now. I love hanging out with them. My daughter is like my friend now. I have fun with her. I think I meant to say that I want to keep them on a teeny, tiny tether. Let them be free, let them fly away like a bird, but keep them on a teeny tiny tether, to make sure that I have a way to bring them back if I ever feel that I need to.”
She later emailed me a clarification after our interview:
I didn’t like the definitions of the word tether that I found in the dictionary when I just googled it: To limit their range of movement so that they can’t move beyond a certain distance. To restrict. To hold back… I see a tether more of a link than a restriction. Something that will always connect us . Hold us together. I think of a tether as that cord that is what is connected to the astronaut floating around out in space, and the tether is the line that links him/her/they to the spaceship for oxygen. Some sort of connection to life and safety.
Marlise’s notion of protectionism is related to the fact that she knows about, and can control her proximate environment, but once they leave, what she calls her “cocoon,” of “her beautiful town, beautiful state and beautiful community,” then “it scares [her].” E-mothering becomes a way for mothers to keep close ties with their children, even from a distance, and in essence feel like they know their children’s lives intimately. In some ways there is an element of dualism within e-mothering – a sense of being here and there simultaneously that embodies a complex sense of power and control for these moms.
Speaking of power dynamics, Ruddick argues that mothers have complex relationships with power, often feeing powerless in many instances in their motherhood arc (p.35). Yet, interestingly, if we examine e-mothering from the theoretical framework of MT, we see that in fact e-mothering is a unique way for mothers to not give up power, but rather is a transformation of power in which maternal power shifts from an overt dynamic to a covert one. Mothers are able to retain what they see as oversight, but in subtle, hidden ways. Such actions are antithetical to the abdication of maternal authority that Ruddick states happens for some mothers (p.111). In addition, these research findings speak to the complexity of maternal thinking, the dynamics women have with their adult children, and the agency that these mothers retain long after their children have left home. Thus, e-mothering can be understood as a unique form of disguised protectionism and preservation for the mother, in contrast to the traditional protectionism framework that Ruddick argued mothers use over their children (p 72 – 73).
Finally these data show that early on in mothering and MT, we define and scaffold our motherhood, yet later in non-proximate mothering, our kids define what is acceptable and ok within our motherhood. Kayra explained this most succinctly:
Well, I think, letting go of the identity of motherhood, as I knew it. And shifting gears into the motherhood role that they need. They need me to be. And it’s, it’s, you know, on their timetable. And, you know, I’m very thankful that my mom is 93 and still alive and healthy, you know, and the fact that, you know, I still have days where I need my mom. I just have a bad day and I can still go sit with her and I can just put my head on her lap, like, “man, they are just going to kick my butt today at work,”… you know just the comfort of knowing my mom and though I don’t necessarily see her every day or talk to her every day. I still think I’m sort of a safety net for my kids, which is okay.
Kayra’s comments reveal that what Kayra wants for her kids, is exactly what she still wants and gets from her own elderly mother – a loving, safe, supportive person who will be there on her own terms, as an adult child. No matter how old we get, or how far away a parent might be, we still just want to be loved, held, and protected. As my work on mothering and child loss shows, our kids are still our focus, even if they aren’t physically nearby (Bhave, 2017). And as Tara summed up beautifully at the end of our interview, “we are lucky to have raised kids that we’re gonna miss.”
Although this study brings valuable insight into maternal thinking and change, it has limitations. The primary limitation is that the overwhelming majority of the respondents were White. Much more research needs to be done on non-white mothers regarding MT and non-proximate mothering, allowing for a more complete understanding of MT across racial dimensions and social groups. Similarly, work needs to be done on how working-class mothers react to these same liminal spaces. Their reactions, beliefs and narratives are paramount in having a fuller analysis of mothers, identity and change. Despite these limitations; however, this work adds new depth, richness and value to the growing literature on matricentric feminism.
Mothers deeply value their children, and feel intense dissonance about their kids growing into adults. They have so heavily invested in intensive parenting for almost two decades that they feel uncertainty about how to react when such children are grown and gone. As a response to this loss, they construct nuanced social ties through friendship and social media connections to retain their relationships. Such findings add depth and breadth to O’Reilly’s notion that MT “is thus never-ending and difficult to “turn off,” (2016, p. 27). This work shows that MT continues throughout one’s motherhood arc to include issues of protectionism, social acceptability and growth, but continues on, in newly socially constructed ways, and reveals MT as a form of dynamic, ongoing, and often unseen, emotional labor. This research contributes to the growing matricentric literature on motherhood and women’s lives, revealing that MT is incredibly lasting, and has vast depth and breadth in women’s lives. MT permeates, and influences mothers’ actions, beliefs and life history narratives. It is a theoretical framework that deeply shapes their mothering journeys, and should be investigated much more fully across racial and class mothering groups.
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