The "it" Sally refers to is her decades-long social activism, which, among other things, led her to organize some of the nation's first breast cancer support groups. "I started a group in Westchester, New York," Sally says, "at a time when patient groups were still not well received by doctors." Now she explains that although breast cancer focused her energies, it was the loss of her mother that unleashed her activism. "Within six months of her death, I went back to school to study psychology, and I began doing volunteer work at a psychiatric hospital. Pretty soon I started an organization to involve the community in the hospital's work, and I was speaking before groups. And I had always been terrified of public speaking. I wouldn't have done any of that if my mother had been alive."
Why not? "My mother always wanted me to be something I wasn't," says Sally, talking of her girlhood in Ohio. "She had these social goals for me. She came from a Catholic family, my father was an 'Our Crowd' German Jew, but she wanted me to be an Episcopalian, which I wasn't inclined to be. She wanted me to be a debutante, which I wasn't, to always be with the 'right' people, which I wasn't. And she certainly didn't want me to marry Larry. She'd never heard of his family.
"Her social attitudes were so stupid," Sally says, with a vehemence directed more at herself than her mother, "but they had a lot of power over me. I always felt the burden of knowing I wasn't doing what I should do to please her."
For both Sally and Maggie, the shedding of ill-fitting maternal expectations led not only to new career paths, it led each over time to a more appreciative, more sympathetic understanding of her mother. "Because I don't have to deal with her as such a force in my life," Maggie says of her theatrical southern mother, "I can appreciate her for herself, see her not just through the eyes of a daughter but more realistically, as a character in her own play. I can appreciate and admire her strength and her struggles."
"I feel much more sympathy for my mother now," says Sally. "Once you have the luxury of separating yourself a bit, you understand more. I can see many of the same insecurities in me that were in my mother, and seeing her more clearly, I can think, Well, it was okay for her to feel that way, and so maybe it's okay for me to feel the same way."
The feeling of being answerable only to oneself, and the consequent ability to look at one's mother through fresh eyes, to see her as the center of her life, not the arbiter of one's own, was a process—perhaps the process—that made these adult daughters feel like grown-ups. And that was as true for women who had embraced their mother's expectations as for those who had struggled against them.
Next: The pressure of expectations
We Hear You!