On Christmas Eve, 2012, I became older than my mother. She died at 44 years, 6 weeks and 4 days. I spent that uneventfully pleasant day with my two small children, until I managed to back the car into my neighbor's metal fence pole. It was an idiotic feat, considering that I'm supposed to be the grown-up now.
I'd anticipated the day for months, but it was not what I'd expected. I'm not even sure what I thought would happen. That I'd lurch into some new manifestation of adulthood? Receive sparks of maternal wisdom that could heal emotional wounds and hasten maturity in middle age? I received a quote for $800 of damage to my left bumper, and little else.
Becoming older than a parent can be a troubling transition. At the most base, mathematical level, it's hard to comprehend how they can still be your parent if you are older than they ever were. When a parent dies they become frozen in time, forever their age at death. You write it on medical history forms and mutter it in sympathetically awkward conversations. Like a mummified memory, preserved for all to recall as things were, but not what would have been. Your parent has to be older than you. If you become older than they were, it's as if they are no longer the parent. Almost like a disquieting role reversal where you become the parent of the parent. A Twilight Zone episode never recorded, but perhaps Rod Serling thought of it.
I wouldn't mind doing it. I'm sure my mum, sick and weary with five children under the age of 18, could have used the warmth of many parents. But I haven't figured it all out with my own children yet. Many days I fail spectacularly and cannot fathom how she managed. But she did. When my daughter says, "you don't love me," I'm never quite sure if she's expressing standard 4-year-old emotions or if I'm doing something wrong.
When I was still a child, I had a dream in which I was mum, looking down from her bedroom window upon us playing in the vast rambling garden. I've never since had a dream where I am literally someone else and consumed by another's emotion. I yearned at the loss we would feel when I died and what the future held. The dream was perhaps the most powerful I've ever had, because I was she and I felt the pending separation so acutely. I don't know if it was pure empathy or some darker childhood manifestation of loss.
A therapist recently told me about "trans-generational transmission of trauma." It resonated instantly, in part because I've always loved alliteration, but also because I'd sorely like to avoid it with my children. But separating the typical challenges of raising small children from one's own un-evolved childhood baggage can be tricky business. I can be brittle and short-tempered and overly anxious. But I can also love fiercely and freely when my head isn't busied by self-absorbed insecurities.
The other day, my daughter talked about having a baby someday. I told her that once she has a baby, mummy becomes a grandma, and daddy a grandpa. "I don't want daddy to be my grandpa," she replied, and I explained that I am still her mummy, and daddy her daddy, even once she has her own baby. That can never change. And perhaps nothing changed on Christmas Eve because nothing should have changed. Mum is still my mum and it all stays the same even though I am older than she. It's a subtle shift, but nothing more.
So everything and nothing shifted that day. I became my mother's elder but am disappointingly unchanged. To maintain her mathematical status it's as if I, too, have to stay frozen in time. And, in some ways, I am forever that small child, adjusting to a life that does not include a mother. Mature in ways that life forces you to become, but childish in ways that are unbecoming for a middle-aged mother. This, too, is a new adjustment. Living years that she never lived and still allowing her to be my mother, but without staying stuck in the past.