by Susan Pohlman
Riviera Communications Group, September 2020; 232 pp.; $14.71Buy Book
Midlife is a pendulum of varying emotions. For a woman and mother, it might mean letting go of different parts of her identity and reconciling all the slivers of her former self, mourning her youth, noticing the difference between mothering young children versus grown adults, and navigating the uncertain terrain of how to be whole again as an empty nester. Susan Pohlman explores these themes with honesty in her memoir, A Time to Seek: Meaning, Purpose and Spirituality at Midlife. In the opening prologue, she reveals, “Midlife begins quietly; there is no celebratory rite of passage or ritual to mark its onset.” Women are largely left to deal with the grief of this passing privately. Pohlman emphasizes, “We are often left to figure out this transition by ourselves. For many of us, it can be a lonely and confusing time as long buried or newfound yearning claw their way into our consciousness, often disturbing carefully constructed lives.”
Pohlman decides to climb out of this particular place in midlife by turning toward traveling and motherhood. Her husband, Tim, during one particular Christmas, surprises her with a ticket to Florence, Italy, to accompany and settle their college-aged daughter, Katie, into a semester abroad program. Of course, this gift doesn’t garner the same positive reaction in her daughter. Pohlman explains:
I caught Katie’s eye. In an instant, I knew that the big smile pasted across her face was about as genuine as that of a first runner-up in a beauty pageant. Though she didn’t want to hurt my feelings, it was clear she wasn’t sure how to take this unlikely turn of events, and I could hardly blame her. . . I would assure her that I would remain invisible and not cramp her style.
Despite her daughter’s trepidation, Pohlman needs this trip. She’s mourning the loss of her uterus in a “surprise-attack” hysterectomy, and this unforeseen medical issue put her out of the running for a coveted school administrative position. Her moods are a mess, and she begins noticing another feeling that she didn’t expect:
Katie was happy and thriving on her campus in California, but I missed her desperately. Even when we think we are ready to send our kids off to college, it’s hard to see an empty bedroom.
And I was jealous. What kind of mother admits that part of the angst of dropping my daughter off at school was the sudden realization that I wanted to be her? I wanted to be starting again.
This confession of a woman and mother in midlife is rife with candor. Pohlman isn’t likely the only mother to have this thought. What mother doesn’t want to feel youthful again or revisit days that lacked responsibility and possessed a freedom to just be? The other feeling that accompanies Pohlman is ambivalence. As much as she needs to feed her identity, she is also cognizant of her daughter’s reaction. Before she leaves for Florence, she asks herself, “What if Katie holds this against me?” She repeats to herself over and over again: “Maybe I shouldn’t go.”
It’s this back-and-forth internal dialogue that makes Pohlman’s mothering and pursuit to feed her own identity relatable. What mother hasn’t thought about doing something for herself—a trip to another continent, a spa date, an afternoon to read a book, or to indulge in a movie—with all the feelings of guilt that also accompany these solo endeavors? Mothers, whether raising young children or college-age kids, are aware of this tug-and-pull of self versus putting their children first. This conundrum doesn’t fade despite the age of your children.
It does lead to more questions, though, for the midlife mother trying to regain her footing. Pohlman battles feeling invisible in Florence, with the driver who hadn’t seen her, and she replays the first time a college kid called her “ma’am.” She realizes, “Even on a good day, we had become just somebody’s mom, adrift at sea in a middle-aged ocean. Though I was beginning to accept my new invisibility status, it still hurt.” Early on in her travels, she also recognized she was choosing to be invisible, and there were opportunities for transformation if she decided to move in this direction. As she sat in Florence listening to a young musician play the organ, she experienced a revelation. “Here, in this unlikely place, began the change in my thoughts about middle-aged invisibility. . . This was my jumping off point for my search for purpose in the next chapter of my life.”
This epiphany is important because it determines how Pohlman begins a new mothering relationship with her daughter. She eagerly helps her daughter unpack her belongings in her overseas apartment and listens as Katie confesses, “Mom, what if I can’t do this?” Pohlman reassures her daughter that she can always come home. This exchange offers yet another moment for Pohlman to reflect on this particular place in motherhood. “Standing before her armoire, as her hands arranged and rearranged her things, I didn’t see her as my child, but as a young woman called to teach the world a few lessons of her own.”
As she watches her daughter gain her footing, Pohlman contemplates her mortality when she visits various tourist sites across Florence. “These last few years I have become increasingly beset with the subject of death. I have already begun to mourn the passing of my parents, my husband, my siblings and friends — and they are as alive as I am.” This is a common contemplation in midlife, reckoning with our mortality and watching our children grow into the place we once were. But Pohlman embraces this role of passing the torch and poignantly says, “One of the blessings of having daughters and nieces and daughters-in-law is passing on that kinship. Watching a daughter become a woman discovering her adult strength and femininity creates another bond between us, rather than weaken the one we have now.” This shift in thinking arrives in the final days of her trip.
Mom and daughter get together in an Italian cafe to say their goodbyes. Katie confesses that she’s feeling apprehensive for Pohlman to leave. But a mother knows that this is the only way her daughter will fill in her gaps. “She needed to develop her own definitions of who she was and what type of woman she wanted to become. It was time to walk alone.”
And that’s what all mothers have to eventually do. They have to let go. It’s the biggest cliché, the tension between holding on and letting go, but it also rings the truest. But even Pohlman admits, “The bond between parent and child never wanes. Sure, there is a loosening of the strings. . . However, I don’t know a single parent who lets go entirely.” And maybe that’s the point.