What Does Mother Look Like When The Daughter Is Grown Up?
It’s a moment from the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which I love, and where I first formed my opinion of what mothering of grown up daughters is supposed to look like.
To set the scene, the son John Prentice is an adult, an accomplished man in the 1960s who is a physician and quite handsome (played by Sydney Poitier). He has fallen in love with a young woman named Joanna Drayton (played by Katherine Hepburn’s niece and actress Katherine Houghton), who happens to be white, while Poitier is black.
Joanna and John decide to tell her parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) of their plan to be married by way of heading overseas for John’s work with the World Health Organization. Joanna is convinced that her liberal parents will have no problem with their plan, but John is less certain.
The movie was released in 1967 when interracial marriage was still a very big deal. The couple shocks the Draytons with their news, and John provides a secret ultimatum to the Draytons that if they don’t approve the union, there will be no marriage. And, by the way, their decision has to be made in the one evening while the couple is visiting them for dinner.
To add to the drama, John’s parents (played by Roy Glenn, Sr. and Beah Richards) have no idea of the couple’s plan but are invited by phone to join the Draytons and John for dinner. Once they meet Joanna and understand the situation, they too are shocked and have their own reservations.
During the evening and as tensions rise, there is a conversation between John and his father. They are off in a room engaged in a sidebar that grows heated. Mr. Prentice seems to be chastising his son for making a poor choice and goes on to suggest that his son owes his parents not to make bad choices for all their effort in raising him.
The line I love comes from the son, John. He says to his father, “I owe you nothing. If you carried that bag a million miles you did it because that is what you were supposed to do. You brought me into this world and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me.”
I first watched this movie years ago when I was a child, but that description of parenting stuck. As I’ve aged, and my children have aged, I still believe that mothering is about giving first without expectation of return, and it’s that drive to give which provides great purpose in my life.
MOTHERING IS A GROWTH PROCESS
There is NO sugarcoating that, as my daughter Alexandra and I traveled through her adolescence, we had conflicts and she pushed away. It was DIFFICULT, painful, and totally expected. And, to be fair, my motivations were not always altruistic.
Yes, there were times I felt she SHOULD listen and do as I said. I mean, after all, she was still a teenager and my responsibility. And yes, I wanted her to avoid making mistakes because I didn’t want her to have to deal with the consequences.
And finally, yes, I lived somewhat vicariously through her and expected her to be better than I was at her age, because she IS so wonderful! And I sort of believed by telling her how she needed to change that she would instantly do so and see things my way.
Did I mention it was a difficult time?
I went through a phase as she pulled away where I worried over her far too much, and even missed a few happy moments that could have been celebrated instead of another cause of strife. So, as I speak now of my purposeful and extremely generous mothering, I confess it’s a goal that I’ve not always realized.
KNOW YOUR MOTIVES
Thankfully, thoughts and feelings change, and we’re always on a path of growth. I made some significant realizations about myself and about her as she became an adult. She is wonderful (did I mention that?) which helps, but with time I realized that the suffering I wanted her to avoid was actually about two things going on with me:
- I wanted her not to have to deal with the outcomes of her decisions should they turn out to be errors.
- I wanted to not have to worry or suffer when she had to deal with those choices.
It was the second point that gave me pause and made me step back quite a bit. Once I knew I was working from fear, and that a lot of it was fear for myself of feeling pain, I wanted to pull back on sending that message to her. Why should she be burdened with my baggage?
Alexandra and I have come a long way as we’ve aged. I feel fortunate to be her mother and more importantly to enjoy our relationship.
To be clear, I still falter. Just the other day she pointed out I have a tendency to spin good news with a worried twist. “Enjoy that good news but beware a shoe can drop.” I still lean toward giving cautionary advice, it appears. Alex was kind when she pointed this out, and to my credit I heard her and recognized it as a thing to work on from my end.
THE RELATIONSHIP IS WORTH IT
I have an ongoing ebb and flow of epiphanies about mothering a grown daughter. We talk a lot, which is lovely, and I treasure the woman she has become and adore the daughter she has been.
As we age, there is an opportunity for maturity to flow both ways. We are mother and daughter always, but we are also friends, which comes with added benefits. We can see each other as human and appreciate each other for our strengths and flaws. If I stay true to John’s statement of parenthood in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” this can mean less judgement and more encouragement, which now that my daughter is grown, can even mean many wonderful things in return—all the more wonderful for no longer expecting it.
We're all about inspiration. Please check out one of our favorite Ts here.