Commitment: What is a designated daughter?
D.G. Fulford: The universal symbol for a designated daughter is a woman with two purses over her shoulder, two coats on her lap, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room holding her mother’s hand. We are a secret society of women, instantly recognizable to each other. We define an enormous demographic: baby boomers accompanying an aging parent to the end of the line.
Commitment: Unlike some books that write about the hardships of caring for one's aging mother, you write in a way that shows the joy, purpose and sense of accomplishment that comes from being there when your mother needs you. How were you able to uproot the life you created in Nevada and move back to your hometown of Columbus, Ohio and take over the role left when your father died without feeling resentful or becoming burnt out?
D.G.: That’s easy. My mother is a ton of fun. I hadn’t spent any real time with her – and certainly not time alone with her, without my Dad -- in twenty years. My career is a portable one, so during one trip home, under the bright blue October sky, I decided Columbus, Ohio might be a pretty nice place to be.
Commitment: I love that you began your book with a quote from Walt Disney's Bambi, of how when the Bambi's mother heard the sound of the hunters, she cried, "Bambi!"..."the thicket!"..."and the two of them sprang toward the forest." Why this __quote? How do you see you and your Mom like Bambi and her mother in the forest?
D.G.: This movie taught me the most shocking lesson in life; that it is possible to lose your mother. I was so little when I saw it –like Bambi – and so sorrowful, I took to my bed for four days. Bambi’s moment in the woods with his mother is the moment of truth that we all have to face. They sprang toward the forest together, still seeking safety in each other. Trying to outrun the inevitable. Just like Mom and me.
Commitment: You write that in helping to care for your mother, you found your own strong space. What is the strong space you have found within you because of caring for your mother? What has caring for your mother taught you about yourself?
D.G.: I’ve learned the power and self-respect that comes from knowing I’m in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. There are not too many moments in a life that we find ourselves in such a space and I am grateful to be able to write about mine.
Commitment: After your father died and it was evident your mother needed you, you wrote, "It never felt like a decision. It was the only thing my soul would let me do." Can you explain why your soul felt it so important to return home to be with your mother? What values a nd beliefs about family did you have that gave you the strength to be there when you were needed, rather than trying to escape or place the job on someone else?
D.G.: I had already escaped! I was living in a crazy ghost town running a one-book bookstore! And someday, I may escape again. But I didn’t see coming home as a job, at all. I saw it as an opportunity, the obvious next step I was privileged enough to take.
Commitment: You refer to this time with your mother as "bonus years" or so beautifully put, "the last dip in the pool at the end of a late-summer day." What have these bonus years with your mother given you as a woman, and at the same time, how do you deal with knowing that perhaps this is the "last dip in the pool" for your time together?
D.G.: When my family moved to California in the early 80’s, we were introduced to the real estate term “bonus room.” This was a room with no pre-ordained purpose; the homeowner could make into an office, a playroom, a workout room, whatever.
Even though you were obviously paying for square footage, the term “bonus room” was enticing to me. It seemed like a happy surprise, a gift in a Cracker Jack box. A thing you never were expecting, but were so happy when you got it.
We don’t even like to think of our mothers’ waning years, and when we do, we never imagine that this can be a joyful segment of life. That wonderful last dip that helps you seal the memory of a beautiful day.
Commitment: What was the hardest, most challenging aspect of caring for your mother?
D.G.: The punching bag clown effect of health issues. My mother feels wonderful right now, as strong as ever, but the past year has been filled with more downs than ups. Each episode is its own tsunami of concern, lack of control, fear and anticipatory grief. That’s for me, not my mother! She is forever optimistic while I race from my house to her house, from her house back to mine, one big worried, caffeinated wreck.
Commitment: What advice do you have for other daughters who have taken on this role as their mother's caretaker?
D.G.: There is nothing in me that wants to offer advice. Each mother/daughter combo is its own intricate mechanism and each mother and each daughter is a full, strong woman herself. All I have to give is a friendly reminder. This time is temporary. Know what you have while you have it. Enough said.
Commitment: Even though you and your mother had different styles of, or as you said, "I can run a house, sort of, but not in the proper orderly manner of my parents. I am a lifetime of denim, while my mother is full-blooded Talbots" how did you manage to get along so well? How did you both not let these differences destroy the wonderful friendship you share?
D.G.: As my mother would say, “We just made up our minds.” She has her tics, I have mine, and I think we’ve proven to each other that our styles aren’t going to change. And neither is our substance, which is the part in each of us that knows we can always, always rely on one another. A raggedy pair of jeans means nothing compared to that.
Commitment: You became a grandmother while caring for your own mother, and thus became part of the sandwich generation who often has different generations needing them at the same time. How did you manage meeting the needs of your mother with the desire to help your own daughter and see your grandson?
D.G.: Not well. My daughter and her family –I have two grandsons now ! –live across the country. I am missing a lot and I know it. My daughter is understanding and adores her grandmother. Believe me, my mother and my situation is a gift, but no situation is perfect.
Commitment: You and your mother both published books and went on book tours at the same time. How did you both grow professionally during this time? What did it feel like to have the world of publishing as something you both have in common to discuss? Do you think it important that when possible mothers and daughters find a new joint project to work on together?
D.G.: It was a wonderful thing in many ways. Our life has been a joint experience seen from two perspectives and our book, our written work, was a joint project, as well. My whole career has been about the joy and resonance of sharing family history. As far as joint projects go, I can’t think of a better one.
A question for Phyllis Greene, co-author of “Designated Daughter: The Bonus Years With Mom”: How did you manage to create such a loving bond with your daughter? What advice do you have for mothers who dream of someday having daughters who are so devoted and like your daughter, actually enjoy their mother's company?
Phyllis Greene’s Answer: Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care was published in 1946 and my first child had just been born. Dr. Spock immediately became the guru of the “greatest generation” mothers ; his message and my idea of parenting were a perfect fit.
Treat your children with as much respect as you would a guest in your home, he advised. The times were many when I broke the rules, as did the children/guests.
But, at heart (which is where such rules abide) I believed and believe still that from understanding and acceptance and even politeness come a loving and abiding relationship: a designated daughter and her mother who define these as bonus years, who never forget to say “thank you” for coming, thanks for the gift of yourself , thanks for staying with me.
D.G. Fulford is the bestselling author of several books, including Designated Daughter: The Bonus Years With Mom, written with her mother, Phyllis Greene, and the classic To Our Children’s Children : Preserving Family Histories For Generations To Come, written with her brother, Bob Greene. She is cofounder of TheRememberingSite which makes it easy for anyone to write, archive, share and publish their life story.
Phyllis Greene became a first-time author, at the age of eighty-two, with It Must Have Been Moonglow: Reflections on the First Years of Widowhood. She is the mother of three, the grandmother of eight, and the great grandmother of two children. Fulford and Greene live in Columbus, Ohio.
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