“When Mom Was My Age” is an interview series between daughters and mothers. New interviews appear every Monday. If you would like to participate, contact Jane.
The following interview is with a daughter, mother, and grandmother! Daughter Teresa Coates interviews Peggy (her mom) and Dorothy (her grandmother), talking about their lives at age 40. Pictured above: Dorothy in 1968 and Peggy in 1989. (See the end of this post for a picture of all three.)
Teresa says, “I had thought my life vastly different from my mother’s life at 40 and from her step-mother’s life at that age. In truth, we found more in common than any of us expected.” Teresa Coates is a Portland, Oregon-based single mother and writer.
So, Mom, back when you were my age, where were you living?
We’d just moved to Vancouver [Washington] to live and you had just graduated from high school. Marcella was in the 9th grade and Stephanie was 10. And we had made a move to a beautiful home that was bigger than I’d ever imagined I’d ever live in and I loved living up there. I was working for Sears part-time and then went to work through a temporary agency and then later got a job at Siemen’s Energy and Automation. I ended up working three different jobs while I was there and each of those was basically a promotion.
Your dad had been commuting to work, two hours from Newberg. It was just really hard for him. So we decided that we would look for a place and move up there. And so we found this place—great price, big house. Four bedrooms, family room, it was wonderful.
How much did you pay for it?
Oh, I think $59,500 or $57,500.
[laugh] Nice. I could actually buy a house for that price.
Yeah, something like that. It was more than we’d ever had to pay for a place. So I had to go to work. I’d always wanted to be a secretary, my whole life, and so I was actually able to get in there and do that. And the temp agency actually helped me speed up my typing and taught me about computers as well. For the first time in my life, at the age of 40, I finally had a job that I liked!
Sweet. So life was pretty good?
Yeah, it was. At the time I was a bit concerned about you, though. You were dating and thinking about getting married and working a lot and teenagers are a struggle anyway. So I was worried about you a lot.
You and Dad were both were working full-time, I was working and dating Brian, and Marcella and Stephanie were still in school. So, what was your typical day like at that point?
When I was in school, you were still home all the time.
It was pretty hectic. We’d have to get up earlier because I had to get those two off to school, get them breakfast, make sure they had everything together, which … they were both so scatter-brained they didn’t always have it together, y’know. [both laugh]
And then they left at different times, like 7 and 7:30, and then I had to leave just before Stephanie did. So then I had to leave Stephanie there to have her be in charge of herself and get herself to the bus stop a block away.
I don’t even know where you were, probably still in your room. You were so in and out of the house, with your job. Sometimes you worked early, sometimes you worked late. Who knows.
[laughs] Yeah, I totally understand. That’s the way it is with [my 18-year-old son] Stuart at this point. He’s always going, going, going.
Yeah, it’s hard. But I’d just have to leave them in the morning and go to work and just trust that Stephanie would get herself off to school. And then I’d go to work and spend my day at work and then at about 3:30 when the kids arrived home on the bus, probably two or three times a week I’d get a call: “Mom, she’s doing this, she’s doing that. Make her stop!” It was kind of crazy. And then I’d get off at 5 and get home around 5:30 and start cooking dinner and try to get kids to start doing homework while I’m making dinner. Y’know, they’d sit around the table and argue. They were very difficult to get homework out of. Both of them. Yeah, that was hard.
A lot of my evenings were spent trying to get kids to get homework done and do the grocery shopping if I needed to for the next day and trying to figure out meals.
This is the first time you’d had to work full-time, right?
Yeah, there was a lot to do. Laundry, y’know all those chores you have to do in the evening now because you’re not home during the day. Dave was off working all day, too. And if we had time, we’d sit down and watch movies, y’know, because we like to watch TV and movies. We didn’t have a lot of shows we liked to watch, but we’ve always liked watching movies.
Even now you still watch a lot of movies together.
[laughs] Always have. We try to spend time together as a family, even if it’s watching a movie or playing a game. Even just helping with homework. I wanted to make sure we did things together because it’s the only time we were together, in the evenings. And so much of the evening is spent preparing the meal, eating the meal, cleaning up after the meal and then trying to get the kids to do homework and making sure they have clean clothes for tomorrow.
Exactly! It feels like the whole evening is gone and there hasn’t been a single moment that’s been real “family time.”
What were you worrying about at that point? Besides getting everything done.
I was worried about my teenage daughters. I had two of them at the time. Teenagers are, as you know, a lot of work! And of course, we had money troubles like everybody does. When we’d moved we’d gone from paying $150/month to almost $600/month. The first winter was really, really hard on us.
Really? I thought it got so much easier in Vancouver?
Yeah, we were really afraid we weren’t gonna have enough money for food, but somehow we managed to eke it out and still pay the bills. We just ate a lot of potatoes and noodles. Stuff like that that’s very economical. I wasn’t working all the time at Siemen’s that first winter.
So looking back at being 40 now, what does it seem like? For me, being 40 is like this new thing, it feels a little strange to be middle age. It doesn’t feel like I’d expected.
It was a good time because at that point, the kids are older and you are freer to go and do the things you want. Even if they fought the whole time, the kids could still stay together. And we could go out to the movies or go out to dinner or go out with friends and not have to totally work around the kids.
And we sometimes would call them from wherever we were to make sure they were okay. We didn’t have cell phones in those days so we didn’t have that total connection all the time, but it was a time of more freedom.
Yeah, it was a good time in my life. I didn’t have the aches and pains that I do now. I thought it was a good period of my life. By then you’ve learned a lot. You’ve learned from your mistakes.
I realize it was a time when I had more freedom. I knew it, yet I didn’t because I was so distracted by everything that was going on. I didn’t think about the fact that I had that freedom.
You didn’t take advantage of it that much?
Yeah, I look back and realize I could have done a lot more, but again you’re so involved in your family that it’s hard to pull yourself away from it and just be a couple. Or, like for you, to just be a person. You’re always a mom first.
I think for me, that’s something benefits me being single. Those freedoms are a lot more valuable to me as a solo mom so I look for these little moments where the kids are growing up and away from me. They are big steps for me, too. I’m becoming more single as time passes.
Yeah, for you, it’s different. You’re not a wife. You’re only a mom at this point, so yeah … what happens when the kids are grown?
I don’t know. It scares me a little, to be honest. Really, who ever knows. You understand, right?
Grandma: It’s always a surprise.
So, you were 40 in, what 1968? What was life like then?
I was living with my husband, Verlen, and our two children in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. I was working for McCullough’s chainsaw division. My husband worked there, too. I was testing carburetors, electrical work, you know, sub-assembly. I started out working the swing shift so I was with the kids during the day and then I’d take them to the guard shack [at the McCullough factory] at three. I would go in to work, then my husband would come out from work and pick the kids up from the guard shack [both laugh].
We arrived there in June when [my children] John and Kathy were one and two [years old]. The day we arrived it was 106º and the kids were in diapers because it was so hot. And the lady we rented our apartment from, she said to take the kids into the apartment and fill the bathtub with water so the kids could play in there and cool down. And all of our moving, furniture and all that, landed in Yuma, Arizona, instead of Lake Havasu, so we didn’t have anything but just the beds for the kids. It was an adventure.
What brought you to Lake Havasu? The jobs?
We’d been living in Freeport, Illinois, and some of our friends from the church there had heard about this town, and that McCullough was wining and dining people and putting them on promotional flights from the Chicago area, and you could come out and spend the weekend at Lake Havasu and then we did that. And of course, when we left Chicago it was 9 degrees and when we arrived in Arizona it was a little warmer. [laughs]
It was like a brand new town then. We had very few stores. I think we had a post office, a grade school and we had a hardware store.
So obviously you were working mom. Then you could come home and go to sleep. Your husband would be home, right, and then he’d go to work in the morning.
Yeah, I worked from 3 until midnight and my husband would be with he kids. He’d go to work in the morning and then I’d stay home with the kids. They were still tiny, still in cribs. [In the afternoon] I’d just pack the kids into the car and head into town; we were five miles out of town.
I’m wondering how that worked for you because for me and my husband, it really didn’t work well at all.
It didn’t work so well for me either. I missed the precious time of bedtime with the kids, I really did. And then I found out that he’d been drinking a lot with our neighbor while I was gone and not really taking care of our kids. So I decided I would do it differently. Then we had to find a babysitter for our kids, but we were really lucky and we found the James family. They had six boys and the last two were twins, the same age as John. And so she’d line up three little potties in a row after breakfast and they’d sit there until they performed. [laughs]
Oh, so you switched to day shift and worked the the same shift as your husband?
Right. We would go together to work and come home together.
I have a personal question for you. At that point in time, women were more expected to stay home with their children, so how did you deal with that pressure and especially being LDS, I think there’s even more pressure to be the stay-home mom.
So how did you deal with that?
I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the fact that I was working. I wanted to be with the kids, but my husband had been working in places where women worked. So for him it wasn’t unusual to him for a woman to be a part of the work force.
Did you feel like he was pressuring you to work? Or were you just in a financial situation that required you to work?
We really needed to. He was sending child support to his other family. He had three children from his first marriage, so that affected our situation.
Oh, it was his second marriage. And your second marriage, too, right?
And you had children from your first marriage that were living with their father?
Yes, I had four other children. But only our two lived with us.
I know you later divorced him, but at that point things were looking pretty good still, right?
Yeah, at that time I was healthy and doing things and taking care of the kids.
So, what did you think the future held for you? If you could have seen 20 years into the future, what did you think it would be like?
Well, I just figured … Verlen was a good worker. He was a good machinist. So he always found work quickly, and it was good paying work. So we always had enough money. Except when we were in the situation of having to pay rent on the mobile and the pad and then we were trying to save money towards eventually putting a house on the property.
It was a sacrifice for me to go to work, but at that time we had goals.
Were you planning on staying there?
Oh yeah, we were going to grow with the town.
And in reality?
We moved to Oregon two and a half years later. [Both laugh.] Life has a way of not going the way you think it will! Life has a way of just changing on us. We had thought we’d be there for years, but in 1969 we moved here to be near his parents.
Thinking back to when you were 40 and looking into the future, and having been married before, you think this will last forever, we’ll raise the kids together.
Oh yeah! Right.
And then looking twenty years later and you’re not with that man anymore, but married to the local butcher. [laughs]
And what was interesting the first time, when we were both single again, when he showed up at church. It was years later, marriages later for him, and there’s Gail. At church. Of course, we recognized each other.
So you re-met in 1986?
Yeah, seventeen years later.
How long did you guys date? Three weeks?
No. [laughs] We dated for a few months. Well, actually your grandpa wasn’t quite divorced when we met, so we had to wait for that to be finalized.
When you were 40 what were you worrying about? It sounds like money was a bit of an issue.
Money was an issue, but not a big problem. As it worked out, we traded the equity in the property for a truck and camper. Which was much more fun.
My husband’s drinking was a concern. I felt like he wasn’t being honest with me, or himself or with the Church. That was a disappointment for me.
So, I’m 40 now. I just feel like your lives were so different at 40 than mine is at 40.
Grandma: Mine was different from yours because I was on my second marriage.
Mom: And I was still continuing on my one and only. At 40 I was just beginning to get into the work force.
Grandma: And the same thing with me.
Mom: I’d been a stay-at-home mom for so long.
Grandma: I’d been a stay-at-home mom, too.
I have to tell you, Grandma, that seeing your relationship with Grandpa—and he wasn’t the easiest person to deal with—and seeing how it worked so well for you and lasted for so long, and that you’re my grandma without really being my grandma …
Grandma: I know.
Well, I see that it can work, it does work. It gives me hope. People can find love, real love. It does happen.
Grandma: It does. It does. And y’know, when we got married I was 58 and Grandpa was 62. And I know that sounds so ancient, but it doesn’t sound ancient to me now. [laughs] And you know we were good together, we had lots of fun. He taught me how to relax more. He is more spontaneous and I’m more structured. It was a learning experience for me. It was a good one.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.