9 Gifts For Mother’s Day: A Young Adult’s Field Guide To Middle-Aged Moms

As you ponder what to get her for Mother’s Day this year, consider giving her something she’d really value: insight and understanding into who she is at this point in her life.

Dear Young Adult:

If you’re pondering what to get Mom for Mother’s Day and you’re old enough to have some kind of income with which to procure a gift, it’s likely your mom is in or is approaching middle age. You’ve probably taken the tried and true approach in years past to make the day special for her. A bottle of perfume wrapped in fancy paper. Taking her to brunch at a nice restaurant. A pair of earrings or a gift certificate for a massage.

Chances are she thanked you and ooh’ed and ahh’ed over your kindness, but I’ll bet she still felt a bit empty inside. That’s not because your gift wasn’t thoughtful, or that she doesn’t love you. But there’s a certain dissatisfaction that tends to hit women, particularly moms, at midlife.

As a young adult, you understand more fully the nuances of life that may have escaped you as a child, how even really great experiences contain moments of difficulty. Motherhood is like that. There are countless wonderful happenings and a shit-ton of really hard work. A mother plans and arranges, scrounges and works, her head down, her eyes focused on the task at hand—raising you—and then one day, seemingly out of the blue, poof! all the effort she’s been exerting is no longer needed.

Just as you’re off enjoying your newfound freedom at college or in your budding, fabulous career, having novel and soul-dilating experiences, Mom may be at home wondering what the hell just happened. How has she ended up where she is? The transition from being mom with at-home children to the empty-nest phase can be difficult. So much of a woman’s identity is often wrapped up in her role as a parent.

I know, I raised three children who are now thriving young adults. Navigating that transition from mom to individual often takes everything a woman has, but it can be smoothed with a little help from you. After all, your mom spent years helping you find your footing in this world. Wouldn’t you like to repay the favor by helping her as she moves into what may be the richest and most satisfying stage of her life?

As you ponder what to get her for Mother’s Day this year, consider giving her something she’d really value: insight and understanding into who she is at this point in her life.

The following gift suggestions may demonstrate your love in a new and heartfelt way.

1. Ask Her to Tell You About Her Life Before Children. What dreams did she hold close? What travels or adventures did she engage? Use this holiday to suggest she re-connect with that self who may have gotten lost in the shuffle. Was she a musician? Dust off her violin. An artist? Buy her a sketchpad and sharpen some pencils. A poet? Get her a rhyming dictionary. Being creative is a core way to reconnect with one’s authentic self. Sometimes we all need a little nudge in that direction. Moms are no different.

2. Make A Creation Wall With Her. Ask her about all the things she’s excited about trying in life now that she doesn’t have to spend her time caring for you. Then together, go online and find photos that represent those activities. A plane ticket to Nepal. A cross-country road trip. A vegetable garden busting with organic treasures. You can use these images in two ways: a) Make a poster board to hang on the fridge, in her office, or in her bedroom with the images reminding her of all she can now start planning for, the wonderful delights she can look forward to. Or my favorite: b) Make the images rotate as the screensaver on her computer. That way, the experiences she’d like to have in life will be in front of her regularly, reminding her to start planning and making those dreams a reality.

3. Sign Her up for a Class. Stained-glass making. Thai cooking. Welding. Cantonese. Operating a flight simulator. Learning new skills and joining in fresh experiences fires our neurotransmitters and increases our neuroplasticity. Nothing makes us feel more alive than challenging ourselves, and then rising to meet the challenge. But in the years spent raising you, Mom may have gotten out of practice with these encounters. Inspire her to keep growing. Tell her you believe in her.

4. Remember That Joy is Not Proportionate to How Much You Spend. Economist Tibor Scitovsky studied the relationship between happiness and consumerism. He argued that buying lots of inexpensive “pleasures”—fresh flowers, a piece of dark chocolate, a special meal—evoke deep appreciation and are intensely satisfying. These experiential indulgences are a far better investment in one’s quality of life than spending on serious, expensive things like a high-end car or pricey jewelry. Help Mom enjoy the little details in life that provide her with pleasure. You can give her, say, $20 a month with the caveat that she use it to buy herself fresh flowers on a regular basis. Or a bottle of her favorite wine. Teach her to pamper herself.

5. Encourage Her Friendships. “Women tend to use their associations and relationships with others to gain identity and self-esteem,” I learned from Christiane Northrup, MD, author of The Wisdom of Menopause when researching my book about women, risk taking, and motorcycles. Now that home and hearth are no longer the center of Mom’s universe, she may need a prod to recognize and foster an appreciation for her circle of friends. Suggest a weekly outing with girlfriends from high school or college. Sign her up for a book club with a friend, or buy her tickets to a play or musical event to which she’s required to invite someone outside the family. The more she tends her own circle of friends, the happier she’ll be.

6. Encourage Dreams of Returning to School or Starting a Business. Research shows that after years of tending the family, women at midlife begin to direct their energies toward the world outside, perhaps for the first time. It’s ironic that this happens at about the same time that men start looking to spend more time at home in their man cave. Remind her that this phase of life can be as rich as she chooses. “As the vision-obscuring veil created by the hormones of reproduction begins to lift, a woman’s youthful fire and spirit are often rekindled, together with long-sublimated desires and creative drives. Midlife fuels those drives with a volcanic energy that demands an outlet,” writes Northrup. Encourage Mom to connect with this creative fire within.

7. Persuade Her to Explore Things She Hasn’t Tried in Decades. The brain chemicals that turn women into wonderful nurturers and doting caregivers during the childbearing years drop off in midlife, leaving women with the same basic hormonal makeup they had at about age 11. What had she been interested in back then? See if you can get her to resurrect that passion.

8. Let Her Know That It’s OK to Get a Bit Crazy. I started riding a Harley at age 48 and shocked everyone in my social circle. But it opened a whole new world to me. Thank goodness my kids thought my new hobby was badass rather than embarrassing. They inspired rather than dissuaded me, and their support made a world of difference. Does she want to try pole dancing? Great. Standup comedy? Why not. You don’t get to decide what is appropriate for her, just like she can no longer dictate what is appropriate for you. This is her chance to live. Persuade her to give it a shot.

9. Know That By Encouraging Her to Pursue Her Own Interests, You Free Yourself Up to Pursue Yours. People of all stripes are more engaged in life and less likely to demand from others the pleasure they desire when they have created their own conduit to joy. Live your life fully and let her know you expect her to do the same. Far too many parents try to live vicariously through the lives of their children. Let her know that you believe the abundant life she’s about to claim is much more fascinating than anything you could provide. Tell her you believe she’s capable and ready to craft a life experience that will fulfill and thrill her.

Now, just stand back and watch her blossom.

Bernadette Murphy is the author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life, to be published in May 2016. She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com.

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