A Mother’s Lessons For Living in Midlife

“I was pregnant with you and sick as a dog. I got home from work, tired and sick to my stomach, and cooked dinner. After dinner I felt so weak that I asked your dad if he could wash the dishes just this once. He said, ‘We never discussed my helping with housework before we got married.’ Then he got up from the table and went to sit in his chair and read. I did the dishes and went to bed. The next evening I cooked dinner after work as usual. While we were eating I told him, ‘I quit my job today.’ He almost fell out of his chair. I smiled and told him, ‘We never discussed my working outside the home before we got married.’ I’ve never worked since.”

My mother told me this story when I was in elementary school, after I’d asked her why she stayed home as a “housewife” instead of going to work like my father did. The lesson I eventually learned from this particular story of hers is one that finally serves me well in midlife: Take action, not crap. I’ve now established boundaries and don’t allow them to be breached. I’m confident enough to walk away from something that’s not working for me. And I always have a backup plan for making things happen. I learned this from watching and listening to my mother from a very young age. Thank you, Mom.


“Always be sure to have your own bank account that your husband doesn’t know about, and get credit cards in your own name, not Mrs. His Name. This is very important!”

I think I was 5 when my mother first told me this. Bank account? Credit cards? How’s that work? She would later take me with her to an imposing, museum-like bank with shimmering chandeliers, heavy velvet ropes, and gleaming dark paneling. There, I watched her go through the process of depositing her own money into her own bank account. Then she opened an account for me, with $100 her brother — a railroad porter — had given her for me as a birthday present. That was a lot of money in the 1960s. More than my little girl mind could comprehend. Throughout the years, I was required to deposit half of all birthday and Christmas gift money, allowances, and payments for babysitting and other jobs into this account. I bought my first house with money from this bank account before I got married. After I was married the account wasn’t a secret I kept from my husband, but it remained my separate account to which he didn’t have access. The bank name has changed multiple times, but I still have this account today.

A mother’s words

I can remember hearing my mother warn her friends about the danger of not having their own money and credit cards. “If you get divorced you won’t be able to do anything if you don’t have your own credit,” she’d tell them over the phone. There is power and freedom in financial independence. Thank you for this critical lesson, Mother. You didn’t expect I’d be divorced and on my own in midlife, but your early modeling of financial literacy had an impact that helped me retire solo at 59.


My mother called her bank account “my hair money.” Not because she used the money she stashed there for visits to a salon. She did her own hair and all of ours too. No beauty shop or barber visits for our family. Mom did everything related to our hair herself, way before YouTube tutorials. She put a price tag on her hair services, and paid herself out of my dad’s paycheck every month. She also priced the daily cleaning, cooking, laundry, and sewing services she provided. She paid herself accordingly out of my father’s paychecks, which he handed over to her because he didn’t want to be bothered with household bills and budgeting. Dad was an industrial engineer for The Standard Oil Co. Mom called herself a “domestic engineer.” Throughout the years Mom used her “hair money” to redecorate our house, buy our first color TV, and buy herself a mink coat and hat, among other things.

My mother first explained her self-pay system to me when I was older…maybe 9 or 10, I think. (Years later, in a moment of anger and resentment after she’d slapped me in the face for some minor act of teen disobedience, I wondered — but didn’t dare ask — if she also calculated a value for the sexual services she provided my father.) The valuable lesson: Always know your worth, and value whatever you do. My mother was ahead of her time with this thinking in the 1960s. I’m proud of you for that, Mom. Thank you.

My mother at 84 in 2016. When my father died two years later at 94, they’d been married for 60 years. She still has her “hair money” account that’s now in CDs.

“Always comb your hair and put on lipstick and earrings before your husband gets home from work. Don’t let him come home and find you in curlers and a housecoat. Your husband will be around working women all day. Don’t let him get tempted.”

Lipstick and earrings

Another elementary school lesson. This one out of place among her other pieces of feminist advice. Take care of yourself and don’t get lazy or start taking things for granted, because another woman can snatch your man. As anachronistic and controversial as this lesson is, it’s one I’ve heeded in my own way over the years, as a “working woman,” wife, mother, partner, and significant other. Unfortunately, though, it didn’t stop temptation and betrayal. Assholery drives itself. But I have learned that taking care of myself in ways that make me feel good is in fact a necessary act of self-love.


“You can’t go to a slumber party. Their house might catch on fire.”

This was my mother’s reply throughout elementary school whenever I asked if I could spend the night over someone else’s house. Our house had never caught on fire. My mother had never been in or personally witnessed a house fire. But her mind always went to worst-case scenarios so, no, she wasn’t going to chance me possibly being burned alive as I slept in some other house.

Source: The New Yorker magazine

This learned fear of possible disaster lurking at every turn has dogged me my entire life. It fuels near-obsessive overthinking and over-the-top contingency planning for every possible “What if.” It negatively impacted choices I made in my job as a mother, while also making me quite good in my earlier job as a crisis communications consultant. When fear is your default setting, you become skilled at preparing for the worst. It can be, and in some instances has been, a useful skill. But it’s also a skill that erodes joy and promotes stress. So in midlife, at nearly 60 years old, I let this lesson from my mother spur me to challenge fear by retiring and traveling around the world by myself. I was afraid and over-prepared for every conceived scenario, but I learned a new lesson: I can be afraid and use my preparedness to lean into joy with the knowledge that I’ve got this. This is something I remember as I’m preparing to move to Portugal and start a new life chapter. Thank you, Mom, for inadvertently leading me to this new lesson.


Lessons For Living
  • Speak up, take action, don’t take any crap.
  • Make financial independence a priority.
  • Know your worth and value your work.
  • Take care of yourself as an act of self-love.
  • Use fear to lean into joy.

I’m grateful to my mother for many things, even as I’m still trying to come to terms with some painful issues. Relationships are complicated. People are complicated. In some ways I’m turning into my mother in midlife. In other ways I’ve been like her all my life as I learned from her. Thank you, Mother, for all the good parts.

What about you? What lessons have you learned from women who raised you?


All images are my own.

The Hot Goddess

Instagram: retired_rewired_inspired


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33 comments

  1. 💜 I AM Divorced because My One and Only Former Wife Valued Money 💰 🤑 💸 😌 😎 😏 💰 more than Me and Our Marriage EveryOne; took Me a bit of time ⏲️ but I Eventually Realised that Most ‘Grown Up’ Girls 👧 ARE Only Interested in Money 💰 🤑 💸 and Love NEVER!!! Enters The Relationship and Marriage Equation hence I AM happily poor and single “in Midlife”

    …💛💚💙…

    Like

  2. Wow. Wow. Wow. This might be my favorite post of yours yet! You know I love all of that financial independence stuff yes! And wow your mother was sooooooo ahead of her time in so many ways! Such a goddess in many respects. Although, I also know that she most likely wasn’t perfect, just like my mother, and that your relationship with her was not always rosy. This life, this world, is so, so fascinating and unknown, complex and heartbreaking! And also so overwhelmingly awesome. This post is just amazing, seriously, it’s my favorite so far! xoxox

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My mother taught me (unfortunately) that my own feelings/needs/desires were second to others, and that I was not allowed to have boundaries (as she had been taught by her elders). I was also not allowed to show anger. Children had to be silent and happy at all times. But she also taught me the joys of the little things, the tiny freedoms that were below the notice of the men in our lives – that were ours alone to savour and enjoy. Like noticing the warm sun on our skin, a new wildflower in the forest, the coo of a mourning dove. I loved my mother but like you, it was complicated. Thank you for this post, Hot Goddess.

    Deb

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m still laughing about the learned fear of disaster lurking making you a great crisis communication consultant.

    What an amazing post, Natalie! You highlight so many wonderful specific lessons you learned from your mom but even bigger than that, the overall lesson that we get both good and bad things from our moms. And we can still appreciate both AND grow out of the ones that have hampered us.

    Amazing! You are amazing and inspiring! Love it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a beautiful post! Your mom sounds a lot like my mom. Seems they were very wise women and taught their daughters well! Oh how I remember trips to the bank and doing the same with my daughters. If I got nothing else right, I taught my daughters how to manage money! My mom was also a fan of “lipstick” she taught me similar sayings about men, however, you are correct “assholery” definitely drives itself. My first husband was one of those! LOL So glad that you are embracing your new journey with such passion and preparedness. Smart ladies always have a “plan b or c”. Here’s to navigating complicated relationships and retaining our joy! Best Wishes Always! Leigh

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a great blog. You have a very wise mother. So many other women could have used those lessons. Even today, some women don’t understand the importance of having their own money and knowing their own value. You must get some of your independence from her.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wonderful heartfelt post, Natalie. Filled with so many lessons learned, some from positive reinforcement and some from negative reinforcement! Our mothers were very different in some regards, but some of the lessons learned were very similar. Your mother was a woman way ahead of her time in putting her independent streak into action, at least as far as finances were concerned. Truly brilliant philosophy and easier said than done. My parents both believed that, and so does my husband, so I’ve followed that path all my life. There’s another reason for promoting financial independence in women besides failed relationships. There’s also the reality of losing a life partner to an untimely death. And in any case, there’s the critical importance of women having their own identity and sense of self-worth. My parents decided to put the money they’d otherwise use for more insurance for my Dad (because their kids were approaching those expensive college years) into tuition for her to get her teaching courses so she could accept a teaching position. As it turned, my Dad suddenly passed away 4-5 years after that and she was left a widow at age 48. Needless to say, she was beyond devastated, but she had a job she loved that she had to get up for every day. She had a life of her own, a salary, and good benefits. She also learned that women should have accounts (and mortgages) in their own name because if they’re suddenly widowed without that, they can’t easily access anything. She definitely passed that along to me. But she was a risk taker, unlike your Mom.

    Tragically, she died 9 years later. But until then she always put her lipstick on like your Mom and despaired that I didn’t! She would be approving that my husband and I have had our own accounts and credit cards for the past 50+ years!

    The lessons we pass on to our kids when we don’t even realize we’re doing so!

    Thank you for this post. It’s provided lots of food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane, thank you for this thoughtful response. You are so right about learning from both positive and negative experiences. I’m sorry your parents died so young. It sounds as if you are living a life that reflects their many valuable lessons. 💜

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I will be turning 41 this July, so I have less experience than you. But my mom also told me never ever to have a joint account no matter how much you love your husband. Yes, financial freedom is a power that every woman should hold onto tightly. Great post 👌

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I learned to have financial security from watching my mother struggle month after month, year after year. I was determined not to end up in the same situation.

    This is such a great post Natalie, thank you for sharing all your lessons 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. That’s a super inspiring story Natalie about your mom. She reminds me of my own mother, in so many ways who also emphasized the importance of financial independence. Having one’s own “hair money” or “Fuckoff Fund” as my friends and I call, is very important. It’s something that should be taught to girls, especially, from a very young age.

    Liked by 1 person

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