SundayReview | NEWS ANALYSIS

No Time to Think

By KATE MURPHY JULY 25, 2014

 

ONE of the biggest complaints in modern society is being overscheduled, overcommitted and overextended. Ask people at a social gathering how they are and the stock answer is “super busy,” “crazy busy” or “insanely busy.” Nobody is just “fine” anymore.

When people aren’t super busy at work, they are crazy busy exercising, entertaining or taking their kids to Chinese lessons. Or maybe they are insanely busy playing fantasy football, tracing their genealogy or churning their own butter.

And if there is ever a still moment for reflective thought — say, while waiting in line at the grocery store or sitting in traffic — out comes the mobile device. So it’s worth noting a study published last month in the journal Science, which shows how far people will go to avoid introspection.

“We had noted how wedded to our devices we all seem to be and that people seem to find any excuse they can to keep busy,” said Timothy Wilson, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and lead author of the study. “No one had done a simple study letting people go off on their own and think.”

The results surprised him and have created a stir in the psychology and neuroscience communities. In 11 experiments involving more than 700 people, the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes.

Moreover, in one experiment, 64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think. These same people, by the way, had previously said they would pay money to avoid receiving the painful jolt.

It didn’t matter if the subjects engaged in the contemplative exercise at home or in the laboratory, or if they were given suggestions of what to think about, like a coming vacation; they just didn’t like being in their own heads.

It could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia.

“One explanation why people keep themselves so busy and would rather shock themselves is that they are trying to avoid that kind of negative stuff,” said Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “It doesn’t feel good if you’re not intrinsically good at reflecting.”

The comedian Louis C.K. has a riff that’s been watched nearly eight million times on YouTube in which he describes that not-good feeling. “Sometimes when things clear away and you’re not watching anything and you’re in your car and you start going, oh no, here it comes, that I’m alone, and it starts to visit on you, just this sadness,” he said. “And that’s why we text and drive. People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don’t want to be alone for a second because it’s so hard.”

But you can’t solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture, which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.

“It’s like we’re all in this addicted family where all this busyness seems normal when it’s really harmful,” said Stephanie Brown, a psychologist in Silicon Valley and the author of “Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster — and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down.” “There’s this widespread belief that thinking and feeling will only slow you down and get in your way, but it’s the opposite.”

Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power, she said, leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay. The constant cognitive strain of evading emotions underlies a range of psychological troubles such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and panic attacks, not to mention a range of addictions. It is also associated with various somatic problems like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, inflammation, impaired immunity and headaches.

Studies further suggest that not giving yourself time to reflect impairs your ability to empathize with others. “The more in touch with my own feelings and experiences, the richer and more accurate are my guesses of what passes through another person’s mind,” said Giancarlo Dimaggio, a psychiatrist with the Center for Metacognitive Interpersonal Therapy in Rome, who studies the interplay of self-reflection and empathy. “Feeling what you feel is an ability that atrophies if you don’t use it.”

Researchers have also found that an idle mind is a crucible of creativity. A number of studies have shown that people tend to come up with more novel uses for objects if they are first given an easy task that allows their minds to wander, rather than a more demanding one.

“Idle mental processing encourages creativity and solutions because imagining your problem when you aren’t in it is not the same as reality,” said Jonathan Smallwood, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of York, in England. “Using your imagination means you are in fact rethinking the problem in a novel way.”

Perhaps that’s why Google offers its employees courses called “Search Inside Yourself” and “Neural Self-Hacking,” which include instruction on mindfulness meditation, where the goal is to recognize and accept inner thoughts and feelings rather than ignore or repress them. It’s in the company’s interest because it frees up employees’ otherwise embattled brain space to intuit end users’ desires and create products to satisfy them.

“I have a lot of people who come in and want to learn meditation to shut out thoughts that come up in those quiet moments,” said Sarah Griesemer, a psychologist in Austin, Tex., who incorporates mindfulness meditation into her practice. “But allowing and tolerating the drifting in of thoughts is part of the process.” Her patients, mostly hard-charging professionals, report being more productive at work and more energetic and engaged parents.

To get rid of the emotional static, experts advise not using first-person pronouns when thinking about troubling events in your life. Instead, use third-person pronouns or your own name when thinking about yourself. “If a friend comes to you with a problem it’s easy to coach them through it, but if the problem is happening to us we have real difficulty, in part because we have all these egocentric biases making it hard to reason rationally,” said Dr. Kross of Michigan. “The data clearly shows that you can use language to almost trick yourself into thinking your problems are happening to someone else.”

Hard as they sometimes are, negative feelings are a part of everyone’s life, arguably more so if you are crazy busy. But it’s those same deep and troubling feelings, and how you deal with them, that make you the person you are. While busyness may stanch welling sadness, it may also limit your ability to be overcome with joy.

Kate Murphy is a journalist in Houston who writes frequently for The New York Times.

A version of this news analysis appears in print on July 27, 2014, on page SR3 of the New York edition with the headline: No Time to Think. 

The Stories That Bind Us

This Life

By BRUCE FEILER MARCH 15, 2013

Families may want to create a mission statement similar to the ones many companies use to identify their core values. 

I hit the breaking point as a parent a few years ago. It was the week of my extended family’s annual gathering in August, and we were struggling with assorted crises. My parents were aging; my wife and I were straining under the chaos of young children; my sister was bracing to prepare her preteens for bullying, sex and cyberstalking.

Sure enough, one night all the tensions boiled over. At dinner, I noticed my nephew texting under the table. I knew I shouldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help myself and asked him to stop.

Ka-boom! My sister snapped at me to not discipline her child. My dad pointed out that my girls were the ones balancing spoons on their noses. My mom said none of the grandchildren had manners. Within minutes, everyone had fled to separate corners.

Later, my dad called me to his bedside. There was a palpable sense of fear I couldn’t remember hearing before.

“Our family’s falling apart,” he said.

No it’s not,” I said instinctively. “It’s stronger than ever.”

But lying in bed afterward, I began to wonder: Was he right? What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?

It turns out to be an astonishingly good time to ask that question. The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively.

Myth-shattering research has reshaped our understanding of dinnertime, discipline and difficult conversations. Trendsetting programs from Silicon Valley and the military have introduced techniques for making teams function better.

The only problem: most of that knowledge remains ghettoized in these subcultures, hidden from the parents who need it most. I spent the last few years trying to uncover that information, meeting families, scholars and experts ranging from peace negotiators to online game designers to Warren Buffett’s bankers.

After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

I first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a colorful psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Duke was asked to help explore myth and ritual in American families.

“There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he told me at his home in suburban Atlanta. “But we were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.”

Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.

Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.

And then something unexpected happened. Two months later was Sept. 11. As citizens, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush were horrified like everyone else, but as psychologists, they knew they had been given a rare opportunity: though the families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time. The researchers went back and reassessed the children.

“Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?

“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.

First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. ...”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about.

Jim Collins, a management expert and author of “Good to Great,” told me that successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to capture their core identity. In Mr. Collins’s terms, they “preserve core, while stimulating progress.” The same applies to families, he said.

Mr. Collins recommended that families create a mission statement similar to the ones companies and other organizations use to identify their core values.

The military has also found that teaching recruits about the history of their service increases their camaraderie and ability to bond more closely with their unit.

Cmdr. David G. Smith is the chairman of the department of leadership, ethics and law at the Naval Academy and an expert in unit cohesion, the Pentagon’s term for group morale. Until recently, the military taught unit cohesion by “dehumanizing” individuals, Commander Smith said. Think of the bullying drill sergeants in “Full Metal Jacket” or “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

But these days the military spends more time building up identity through communal activities. At the Naval Academy, Commander Smith advises graduating seniors to take incoming freshmen (or plebes) on history-building exercises, like going to the cemetery to pay tribute to the first naval aviator or visiting the original B-1 aircraft on display on campus.

Dr. Duke recommended that parents pursue similar activities with their children. Any number of occasions work to convey this sense of history: holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even a ride to the mall. The hokier the family’s tradition, he said, the more likely it is to be passed down. He mentioned his family’s custom of hiding frozen turkeys and canned pumpkin in the bushes during Thanksgiving so grandchildren would have to “hunt for their supper,” like the Pilgrims.

“These traditions become part of your family,” Dr. Duke said.

Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively. But talking doesn’t mean simply “talking through problems,” as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.

The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.

“This Life” appears monthly in Sunday Styles. This article is adapted from Bruce Feiler’s recently published book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 17, 2013, on page ST1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Stories That Bind Us. Order ReprintsToday's Paper|Subscribe

Money Talks to Have Before Marriage

By RON LIEBER OCT. 23, 2009

Divorce tends to be emotionally gut-wrenching for the people who go through it (not to mention those around them). But most couples don’t realize that divorce can also be among the most ruinous financial moves anyone can make.

Sure, you could bet big and lose on a single stock or money manager. Or your small business could go bankrupt, taking your life savings with it. But divorce and the costs that often come with it — from legal bills to the sudden need for an additional residence — affect far more people.

The risk that any marriage will end in divorce is about 45 percent, according to David Popenoe, a professor of sociology emeritus at Rutgers University. The chances fall to about 40 percent for first marriages and decline further for college-educated couples, people from intact families and couples who share the same religion.

Given the various financial complications, I’ve long wanted to devote a series of columns to divorce and money. This week, I’ll start with a topic that could save some marriages if more people made it a priority. It’s crucial to air and resolve financial disagreements beforehand.

Scott Donovan and Molly Milinazzo compared credit scores.CreditRobert Spencer for The New York Times

“It’s almost impossible to be hooked up to somebody who has the same balance of spender and saver as you, or expansiveness versus conservativeness or financial circumstances,” says Gregory A. Kuhlman, a New York City psychologist who runs  with his wife, Patricia Schell Kuhlman.

He adds that the mix gets even more volatile with second marriages, when couples may have children, ingrained financial habits and savings or other assets that necessitate the discussion of a prenuptial agreement. “Success in marriage is only partly attributable to compatibility. It’s about how you manage those differences and whether you have a style for doing so that is successful.”

What follows is a list of four financial issues that ought to be near the top of the discussion list before getting married. Please add to the list in the comments of the online version of this article.

ANCESTRY  When Lisa J. B. Peterson started her Boston-based financial planning firm, Lantern Financial, she knew she wanted to focus her practice on young professionals. She quickly realized that many of them could use premarital financial counseling and built a program called Harmoney around their needs.

One of the first things she asks clients about is what she refers to as their financial ancestry. “It’s looking back at your own personal past,” she says. “How did your parents deal with money, how does that impact how you deal with it, and how might that impact the couple’s relationship?”

Because so many of our money behaviors are learned, she asks couples to share their earliest money memories — whether their father hid money from their mother or how either parent fretted over the funds available. This can be a particularly intense discussion for people whose parents were divorced, and the stories are sometimes accompanied by tears. “Money is so emotional, and people forget that,” Ms. Peterson says. “You think that it’s just numbers.”

CREDIT While it’s about the least romantic subject imaginable, your credit history holds a chunk of your permanent financial record. It follows naturally from the ancestry conversation, and Lantern Financial pullscredit reports and scores for its clients.

Molly Milinazzo and Scott Donovan, an engaged couple who live in the Dorchester section of Boston and are both 24 years old, were relieved to discover that their scores were within about 15 points of one another when they went through the Harmoney program in May. “A lot of people end up surprised, and it’s best to keep those kinds of surprises at bay,” Ms. Milinazzo says.

Full disclosure on the credit front is useful for two reasons. First, a credit report is, in part, a catalog of past mistakes and overall habits —  payments you missed or department store credit cards you didn’t really need. That in itself is a good starting point for a discussion about what you’ve learned (or still need to learn) about handling money.

There’s an immediate practical side to this, too. If there are errors or low credit scores that a couple can improve, there may still be time to make the fixes so that the couple can get the best rates on a loan for their first home a year or two later.

CONTROL Figuring out who will pay the bills each month may not seem to be an important conversation or assignment. But it gets tricky when both people want to take it on. “People understand that in a relationship, money is control,” says Jeff Kostis, a financial planner in Vernon Hills, Ill., who walks engaged couples and newlyweds through a checklist of questions. “If you’re not paying the bills, you don’t know where the money is going, and you feel like ‘He doesn’t want me to go out with my friends’ or ‘She doesn’t want me to play in the fantasy football pool.’ ”

For two people who have both been on their own for a while and don’t want to give up doing the monthly financial chores their own way, Mr. Kostis suggests, at a minimum, regular household meetings complete with Quicken or other spreadsheets so that the person writing the checks can keep the other one up to speed. With more stubborn couples, he might suggest handing the controls back and forth at the beginning of each year.

Mr. Kuhlman, who explains the counseling approach he and his wife take with clients at stayhitched.com, says it shouldn’t be surprising that control issues come up constantly when talking about money. “It’s concrete, you can see it,” he says. “It’s not ephemeral or less measurable, like affection.”

A few things that he suggests couples discuss early on: If one person is making most or all of the money, does that person get to make most or all of the financial decisions? If you’re the car aficionado or have researched all of the local school options for the children, do you get to make the decisions about those things? “These are the kinds of things that don’t come out when you’re dating,” he says.

AFFLUENCE Here’s another question that tends not to come up during courtship: Just how rich do we want to be one day? Mr. Kuhlman refers to this more politely as the “desired level of affluence.” “Are our career paths going to be something that pulls us together? Or, more often, are they things that will tend to pull us apart, where we’ll really have to be proactive to make sure it’s under control?” he says.

Mr. Kostis might put it a bit more bluntly, say to a spouse of an aspiringinvestment banker or corporate lawyer: Are you O.K. with acting essentially as a single parent, with your partner working 80 hours a week until the age of 80? “Not that there is a right or wrong answer,” he says. “It’s just about understanding, going into the marriage, what that would really mean.”

He adds that people in the financial advice business often joke that they spend half their time talking about money and the other half acting as marriage counselor. “But it’s the same communication style,” he says. “You’re giving people permission to be honest without having someone jump down their throat for giving the answer that they really want to give.”

What did your divorce cost you? Write to rlieber@nytimes.com.

A version of this article appears in print on October 24, 2009, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Four Talks About Money to Have Before Marriage. 

                                                         My Motherless Mother

By CANDY SCHULMAN

 JANUARY 13, 2016 

The End is a series about end-of-life issues.

“I need to talk to you,” my 90-year-old mother announced in a stern tone usually reserved for reprimanding a child.

Visiting her in Florida, I noticed increasing balance problems and short-term memory lapses, early signs of Lewy body dementia. She perched on the bench of the organ my father had learned to play in retirement.

And she began to recite, like someone eager to have her past documented by an oral historian:

“I grew up in an orphanage. My mother didn’t want me.”

I froze — eager to listen, afraid of what she’d reveal.

“My father had tuberculosis and went to a sanitarium,” she continued. “After he died, my mother couldn’t afford to keep me at home. I went into the orphanage when I was 18 months old. I stayed until I was 15. Then I moved back home, where I lived until I married Daddy. I resented my mother.”

I was incredulous. At 53, I was hearing details of her past for the first time. She was a widow, recently surviving a heart attack. I was married with a teenage daughter. Mom had always been private, lapsing into Yiddish whenever she didn’t want me to understand. She’d dribbled out a few facts over the years: My grandmother left Russia after a broken love affair, fleeing to Ellis Island at the age of 17 — alone and penniless. My mother was raised in poverty in Jersey City. Occasionally I overheard the word “orphanage” in hushed tones. I didn’t dare to pry. She didn’t invite questions. Until now.

“When I was 7 they brought me into a room in the orphanage and said, ‘These are your older brothers.’ I didn’t even know I had brothers.”

Mother swallowed, took a breath. “My mother was supposed to visit once a month. But months would pass and she wouldn’t show up.” Her lips quivered. “I never had a mother. Never even had a doll.”

Suddenly I realized why she criticized me for buying my daughter too many toys. “Did your mother work?” I asked.

“She was so poor, she made and sold gin during Prohibition.”

No wonder Mother never drank. I started to tremble. As anxious as I felt diving deeper into her past, I knew this might be the only opportunity to discover why she’d been so distant, running away from friendships and intimacy. Her failing health compelled her to share memories of institutionalization with someone who’d remember.

“I’m stronger than you are,” she had often boasted when I was growing up, proud that she never even took a Tylenol. I was a sensitive child. She called my outbursts “crocodile tears.”

Now I watched real tears stream down the cheeks of the stoic stranger who’d never invited me to sit in her lap. Suddenly she hugged me. I could feel her shoulder blades in her diminutive frame. I fell into a back-and-forth rocking rhythm. I’d cradled my daughter — but never the woman who’d given birth to me.

Together we cried, for ourselves and for each other. Our embrace ended awkwardly, as if we’d been caught misbehaving.

“I once told my mother she didn’t love me,” Mother blurted. “She was shocked.”

Avoiding her gaze, I didn’t admit I’d wanted to accuse her of the same thing. As a child I’d often felt neglected, left alone at the age of 8, not understanding why Mom ran off to art classes rather than spend time with me. Chiseling sculptures eased her anxieties. My father called it “nervous energy,” but she was trying to keep the trauma she held inside from exploding. If I disagreed with her, she washed my mouth out with soap. Once she hit my face so hard for speaking back to her, my gums bled. When I wanted to major in journalism, she said, “You don’t have any talent.”

We spent our lives disappointing each other. I yearned for someone to praise and inspire me, but so did she. We both needed a good mother. She was always protecting herself from the scars of her early abandonment.

Now she confessed, “When I put my mother in a home, it was on the same grounds as my orphanage. Imagine how I felt each time I visited.”

I couldn’t. All I remembered was taking my grandmother out for ice cream on Sundays. How could my mother have kept such an anguished secret from me all those years? Not a word during the car ride from Brooklyn to Jersey City and back. As if we were any mother and daughter visiting an octogenarian in any nursing home. My mother had kept her secret from me all these years — until she suspected that soon it might be too late.

“Don’t ever put me in a home,” she said, sounding desperate.

“I won’t,” I promised, suggesting that she might live with me someday. Even though my city apartment couldn’t house all of us.

“My mother said two women should never share the same kitchen,” Mom insisted.

My secret: I was relieved. But now that I knew who she really was, I hoped my anger would become tempered with compassion.

Her outpouring was over as quickly as it began. Neither of us brought it up again. As she became frailer, I flew to Florida more often. I escorted her to the movies, where she’d fall asleep, mouth agape, waking up during the credits, remarking, “What a great film!” In a dressing room in Bloomingdale’s, I helped her find a brassiere, trying to fasten the hooks with the finesse of a lingerie saleswoman. Hiding her embarrassment, she stared at us in the mirror and said, “You’ve become my mother.”

One night as I made her favorite dinner of salmon, broccoli and sweet potatoes, she asked, “Did I ever hit you?”

“You never hit me,” I lied. What was the point of rehashing that now?

“Was I a bad mother? No one taught me how.”

“You weren’t a bad mother.”

I did my best to appear strong in front of her. I’d soak a package of tissues with tears in the airport every time I left.

She grew to depend on me, becoming less harsh and critical the more I consulted with her doctors and monitored her medications. I was her caretaker. My older brother was unavailable, and my other brother had died at the age of 46 from lung cancer. Fortunately, Mom had a long-term insurance policy to cover the cost of having round-the-clock aides. I borrowed money to make up for my lost income as a freelancer. I brushed her hair. Played Go Fish with oversize cards designed for a child. Sang “Happy Birthday” when she no longer knew me.

For the last two years of her life, she was bedridden with advanced Lewy body dementia and a broken hip. Her eyes were closed most of the time, her body shuddering from jerky, involuntary movements. At least she wasn’t aware that her hands were sheathed in gloves to calm her, or how she was sedated to allow caretakers to bathe her and change her diapers.

She never even knew I kept my promise and didn’t put her in a nursing home. But I knew. It had been a challenge, yet her death left me with few regrets and no guilt. I hadn’t abandoned her as she’d feared, the way her mother had so long ago. The decision to move a parent into a nursing home is always excruciatingly difficult, but it was out of the question for me. I understood how essential it was for my mother to die at home. In her house. On her terms.

Condolence cards from friends kept emphasizing that after the initial grief subsides, memories of a dying parent become softened with earlier, less painful images. After the funeral, I kept reliving the conversation my mother had initiated six years before.

At the time I feared that my promise not to put her in a home would be a burden full of old resentments. Yet if she hadn’t revealed who she was and why, I would have missed the unexpected pleasure of getting closer to her.

A month after she died, I faced the emotional task of cleaning out her apartment. In an envelope titled “to be opened only after my death,” I found a tape she’d recorded.

“I grew up in an orphanage,” my mother’s voice began, and once again I listened.

I made copies of the tape to distribute to her eight grandchildren, grateful that they could finally hear her story in her own words. Just as Mom had chosen how to die, she had determined how to share her legacy.

Candy Schulman is working on a memoir about her mother, from which this essay is adapted.