May 11, 2014 at 1:54 PM ET
Two years ago, when my 61-year-old mother called me in tears to announce that my stepdad wanted out of their 18-year marriage, I did the only thing I could think of to make her feel better: I found a pretty picture of her in a lavender satin dress and wrote her a Match.com dating profile. My three brothers and I hoped she’d find a nice guy who’d watch "American Idol" with her and rave about her Brussels sprouts.
We were completely unprepared for the feeding frenzy that followed.
Dozens of men responded, and my mom had a steady stream of suitors — at one point juggling four. It was awesome to see her happy again: hiding one man’s flowers under the sink before another one rang the doorbell; making Eagles CDs to go on cruising dates down the northern San Diego coast; sending me texts, such as “OMG! I just rode a Harley for the first time.”
My mom and I have always been close, and I loved my new role as her dating coach. I imparted all the romantic advice I’d read on the Internet about how to talk to a man about exclusivity and whether to consider a widower who’d lived alone for the past decade as a good bet for marriage. I persuaded her to trade in her boxy black sweaters for lacy camisoles, although she insisted on keeping her tall black boots. (“The boys love the boots,” she said.)
When she lamented about what to do about her grays “down there,” I told her about Brazilians.
Then it got awkward. Sometimes we forgot we were mother and daughter, and conversations ambled into TMI discussions about safe sex and Viagra. Let's just say that relationship expert Iris Krasnow got it right in her new book "Sex After . . .: Women Share How Intimacy Changes as Life Changes"when she revealed that our boomer parents are having a pretty good time out there.
As boomers flock to online dating in light of soaring divorce rates that have doubled for people over 50 in the last two decades, their adult children are experiencing an unprecedented role reversal. The number of members over 50 on Match.com has grown 90 percent over the last five years, and a recent Pew report found that six percent of all people ages 55 to 64 have used online dating.
“People talk about mothering their mothers, but in this case we’re actually daughter-ing our mothers. It’s an aspect of mom-daughter relationships to educate her about things she might not know about, such as how to text or use Facebook or in this case, online dating,” explains Deborah Tannen, Ph.D, professor of linguistics from Georgetown University and author of "You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation." “But there’s always a question of how close you want to be without feeling uncomfortable.”
Adult children are suddenly dealing with their Moms meeting a flurry of potential partners. Besides getting used to the idea of calling before stopping by Nana’s house these days, they’re wrestling with what to tell their grandkids about her new “friends.” Then there are concerns about her well-being — from questions about whether it’s safe for her to accept a second date at Frank’s house for dinner to more poignant matters about who will take care of her when she gets old.
Our parents aren’t sure what to make of this new role reversal, either. My Mom, for example, isn’t always happy with her kids in her business.
“There’s a certain point in life when these roles get redefined, but almost no one has ground rules for that,” explains Jay Lebow, Ph.D, psychologist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “Each person has to figure out what their personal boundaries are and what kind of relationship you want to have.”
My mom and I are still navigating ours.
She’s got a serious boyfriend now, and I tease her about rushing me to the airport after visits home so she can resume her dating schedule. “Oh, stop it!” she says, laughing. There are fewer sex over-shares, which is how we both like it.
“You want to be supportive of your mom, but once you get that information, you can’t erase it from your memory," says Lawrence Ganong, Ph.D, co-chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
Still, I’ll take any temporary discomfort to help her find love again. We daughters may think we know it all about the modern rules of dating, but on Mother's Day and the rest of the year, our mothers still have a lot to teach us about the timeless art of putting your heart on the line again at any age.
Sarah Richards is the New York-based author of "Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It"