Book Review: When I Married My Mother by Jo Maeder

As a successful Manhattan radio DJ, Jo Maeder led what many would consider a glamorous New York City life. Yet when it became increasingly clear that her mother could no longer live on her own in the home she owned in Virginia, Jo made a choice to leave the city and move with her mother to North Carolina, where they would be near her brother and his new wife.

While that’s the basic story behind When I Married My Mother: A Daughter’s Search for What Really Matters—and How She Found It Caring for Mama Jo, there is so much more to be told in this memoir from author Jo Maeder that makes it remarkable. Jo’s parents had separated when she was a teen, and she moved away from her mother to live with her dad and brother in another state. Even before then, she didn’t feel close to Mama Jo, who collected dolls and hoped her daughter would share her passion. She didn’t. Over the years, Maeder and Mama Jo didn’t find much to connect them.

So Maeder’s decision to give up her friends and the life she had lived in New York for so long to care for Mama Jo was anything but easy. Complicating the decision was the fact that Mama Jo was a hoarder; her home was a jumble of worthless trash that needed tossing and precious family heirlooms that Jo wanted to hold onto. And Maeder, who was not particularly religious, was moving to be near her brother who, like many people who lived near their new home, was.

When I Married My Mother will strike a chord with anyone who has wondered what she will do when an aging parent can no longer care for herself. Who in that situation would not worry whether she is willing to or capable of changing her own life for an unknown future? Jo’s story is very personal in its specific details, but it’s also universal in the questions it asks us to consider: What will I give up if I care for my mother? What will I gain? How will my life change? Will it be worth it?

Readers have a glimpse of Maeder’s ultimate conclusion to that last question in the subtitle of her book: A Daughter’s Search for What Really Matters—and How She Found It Caring for Mama Jo. But she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties she encounters in adjusting to her new life, and she doesn’t present herself as the perfect daughter. She also continues to question where her new life will lead her. Above all, Maeder gives her readers a look at what is possible when you open yourself up to choosing differently than you ever thought you would.

This book has stayed with me since I’ve finished reading it, and I think about it often. I’ve been recommending it to my friends as well as on this site. I believe part of the reason it had such impact on me is because so much of what I read directed to adults caring for elderly parents is about how to make the unbearable bearable. Maeder’s experience makes me believe it can be more than that. Certainly Maeder was unmarried and had no children when she decided to take care of her mother, but she had a vibrant life. She chose to fit caring for her mother into it, and she is happy with her choice. Most parents take joy in ushering their children into this world; Maeder has given us a way to find joy with our parent even when helping them leave it. I believe mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 16 and up would appreciate When I Married My Mother.

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