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Nobody's Baby NowREINVENTING YOUR ADULT RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR MOTHER AND FATHER
By Susan Newman
WALKER & COMPANYCopyright © 2003 Susan Newman
All right reserved.
Before you can guide your adult child-parent relationship forward, you need to know where the relationship is and how it got there. What impedes the relationship? What sparks it? What keeps it vital-or stagnant?
Even if your parents are irksome, critical, or cranky, the bond you have with them has taken years to form and is far stronger and more resilient than any single annoying personality trait or difference of opinion. The sore point in your relationship may be your parents' attempts to control your life, or how you or they handle money. You may have a parent who overdoes the worrying or whose constant criticism makes you feel inferior. Some of your difficulties may not be with your parent per se, but with your parent's new partner. You may be having a hard time accepting and adjusting to this person in your parent's life. It's quite possible the time you spend with your parents feels like work.
The broader questions that follow will help you gauge the current relationship you have with your parents and identify rocky and uncomfortable areas that need attention. By answering them in a careful, thoughtful way, you will find a starting point and be ready to remedy the difficulties. For example, if you answer no to the first question-feeling you do most of the giving or provide most of the support-you may want to consider being less available to your parents, but that is only one of the possibilities you will find for correcting that particular problem.
Perhaps you answer yes to the question about feeling guilty when you hear your parent's voice. There's a fine line between the sense of obligation that creates guilt and the sense of connection that makes you want to stay in touch or be with your parents. You will be able to replace the word "should" with "want to" or "look forward to" in regards to being with your parents when you replace feelings of obligation with choice. Friction lessens when you choose to share experiences as part of loving and caring, rather than from feelings of duty or responsibility.
As you respond to each question, make note of the areas you would like to improve-for example, have your parents less involved in your daily life, strive for a more loving and respectful relationship, reduce the tension between you, or find more shared interests. Your list will serve as a map to keep you focused as you discover solutions with which to tackle the troubling parts and to bring you much closer to where you want your answers-and the relationship-to be. You can form a friendship with your parents, no matter what the problems are and where you begin, if you address the practical and emotional issues that bother you.
Now, with a cursory reading of your relationship's strengths and weaknesses, you're ready to reassess the time you devote and your connection to your parents and learn how to keep them in your life without feeling overly stressed or annoyed. You'll also begin to acknowledge, if you haven't already, that you have priorities, too, that may take precedence over parents' requests. Without too much effort, you can be successful at keeping all the significant people in your life happy, including yourself.
The Family Fishnet
Even when you are an adult, your yearning for closeness with your parents and a desire to please them can create a strong dose of guilt when you can't meet your parents' expectations-to call, to spend Saturday with them, to be home for Thanksgiving, to be there whenever they may need you, to be successful in your career, to marry, to have children ... and the list goes on and on. Parental pressures are much like a fishnet surrounding your entire life. How cramped the space feels to you depends on your emotional makeup, your feelings about your parents, and how tightly they wield the net.
Dorianne's parents hold a tight rein. They comment or offer advice on everything, from Dorianne's appearance to her and her husband's finances. "Both my parents are weight obsessed. They don't say anything if I gain weight, but if I lose a few pounds, they make a big deal about it. My mother is very conscious of what I wear. When I know I'm going to see her, I am definitely more conscious of how I dress."
Neither of Dorianne's parents entirely trusts her to handle personal or financial situations by herself. She told a friend at work a personal secret, and her mother asked her if she was sure the friend knew not to tell anyone. Dorianne objects. "Really! I'm thirty years old, and she's questioning my judgment. Same thing with my dad: When a piece of furniture was delivered damaged, he insisted the company give us a new table. We were fine with someone coming to repair the one we had, but my dad wasn't. When I was looking for a new job, he tried to tell me what to say to get a higher salary."
If you savor your independence, having a parent watch over your life or any aspect of it can feel prickly. Your parents, like Dorianne's, may try to exert across-the-board influence-from where you live and with whom you socialize to how you should dress for a job interview. On the other hand, you may feel slighted by your parents if they tend to be more hands-off. Thirty-four-year-old Jessica is angry because her mother is removed and seemingly uninterested in Jessica's life. "My dad always told us, `You have to meet your mother halfway,'" she explains. "I've gone beyond halfway, but she's never reached the halfway mark. I have a mom who lives thirty minutes away from me. Do you think we've gone out to lunch? Not once. She's never asked me to go shopping. I've tried to include her, and she's really not interested. If she made the slightest effort, I'd jump at it. If she said, `Jessica, come over, and we'll bake cookies for the children,' I'd be in shock, but I'd be in the car."
Kathrine, a thirty-one-year-old motivational speaker, is likewise frustrated by her mother's lackadaisical approach to hers and her brother's visits. When either of them fly in, rather than picking them up at the airport, their mother has them ride the airport bus because she prefers to use the hour to stay longer at her office or to catch up on phone calls at home. She doesn't see her refusal to come to the airport in a bad way or consider that her children's feelings might be hurt. Her daughter feels otherwise. "There are certain things I care about that I think are important to our relationship, and she just doesn't see them."
Different Generations, Different Views
Your parents' parenting tendencies hinge in large part on their personal history. Since you and your parents are from different generations, you have different expectations, mores, and attitudes; your opposing views can have a profound impact on the relationship. Even if you have a lot in common and agree on many issues, you may be miles apart on such important subjects as religion, sex, politics, and child rearing.
"My parents can't imagine that you can be friends with the opposite sex," says Will, who is forty-five and single. "You either date women or you marry them. You don't live with them platonically, and you certainly don't have sex if you're not married. My parents were dating during a time when the worst thing and greatest shame was to be unmarried and become pregnant."
A same-sex, different-religion, or ethnically mixed relationship may set off parental alarms, too. When midway through his teens, thirty-five-year-old Nicholas told his parents he was gay, his father thought his son was being brainwashed. Nicholas had to cope with a parent whose upbringing had taught him not to be proud of anyone gay. Similarly, Ryan, who is six years older than Nicholas, grew up in an even harsher era when openness about gay issues was an anomaly. "Then, being gay was considered a psychological error, and you would be sent to a shrink who tried to `fix' you. Today kids and parents see gays on television, in the news, in plays and movies, in soap operas. That's not to say the acceptance is great today, but the odds are better coming out now then they were when I was a teenager. I haven't told them I'm gay. My parents would never understand," says Ryan.
Parents raised in the pretherapy generation can be uncomfortable and unreceptive to offspring who show their emotions and say what they think and feel. Sarah, thirty-seven, a product of years of therapy in an era of openness, deals with this aspect of the generation divide. Her mother is a Holocaust and divorce survivor, and Sarah sees her as very strong, but emotionally shut off. "She has a survivor mentality; her job in life is to take care of everyone else," notes Sarah. "She's always there when she's needed, but has no enthusiasm for life. I think she loves me and her grandchildren, but it's just a different kind of love-not the touchy-feely connection I would prefer."
The mere mention of therapy or counseling can be repellent to parents who consider it taboo. Christina sent Jim, her fiancé, ahead to her hometown to live with her mother and stepfather and house hunt while she finished up her job in another city. Jim and her mother were getting along fairly well until one evening, her mother told Jim that she has low self-esteem and is a martyr. Jim innocently said, "If you recognize this about yourself, you can change it. There is help out there."
"My mother interpreted his recommendation as `You need mental help,' and was outraged. She stopped speaking to him. Therapy carries a huge stigma for her," explains Christina.
Many of your goals for yourself may also be different from your parents', another reflection of a different era. Lana, an unmarried twenty-eight-year-old communications executive, has a mother who simply can't understand where Lana is in her life. When her mother was twenty-eight, she was married, with two children and a husband who supported them. Her mother thinks Lana is not trying hard enough to meet a husband. The difference in outlook is a source of frustration in their relationship.
Although thirty-six-year-old Tina's mother grew up in the same generation as Lana's, they had very different goals for their daughters. For Tina's mother and other women raised in the '40s and '50s, marriage was commonly the only way to get out of their parents' house. Tina's mother had five children by the time she was twenty-eight. "In one sense she feels she squandered part of her life by having her children so early," says Tina. "She missed so many opportunities that she wants for her children, she doesn't talk to me about having children."
Generational differences aside, you should look at your parents' individual backgrounds-where they came from and how they got there. This can explain much about why they act as they do with you: People learn roles based on childhood experiences and continue to play them even if they no longer serve a purpose. The parent who was raised in poverty, whose parents struggled to feed the family, for instance, may have attitudes about money that on the surface seem odd or overzealous to someone who grew up in an age of relative prosperity. Michael explains how his parents' childhoods and attitudes affected his life. "My parents grew up in the depression, so I will always have a frugal side to me. I have overcompensated for my parent's concerns about education by getting a master's degree in sports psychology, partially because I thought that's what they wanted versus what I really wanted to do."
A parent may have insisted on your having a college education precisely because he didn't have one. Another parent may have insisted on that same education precisely because she did. A complex grouping of childhood experiences filters into how one parents. The father of Marcus, a forty-five-year-old African-American comptroller for a large corporation, grew up in the South and walked the color line every day of his life. "His childhood stories are a lifetime away from my experiences," remarks Marcus. "His self-image issues, feelings of rejection, and his anger made him difficult to live with. He was demanding of all his children, hoping we would be more accepted if we succeeded in school and in our jobs."
Thea, thirty-two and married, observes that her mother has always been overprotective of Thea and her sister, in part because she grew up dirt-poor and isolated in a small rural town. Her entire focus was on the kind of life she wanted for her children. She did whatever was necessary to care for Thea and her sister.
"My dad left when we were very young; being alone and poor put my mother on the thin edge of panic. She's afraid of large cities and freeways," Thea elaborates. "If I mention I have to travel to Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, she gets hysterical. She's afraid I'm going to die, but her fears and protectiveness, as annoying as they are, make sense to me, given her childhood and very limited exposure beyond her tiny town."
Your parents may overcompensate for what they feel they lacked as children. Amy's father was an active and demanding parent because his own dad had not been. Her father was a late-in-life baby-his dad was in his sixties when he was born. He viewed his relationship with his dad as more like being raised by a grandfather, so he didn't have much of a role model to go by on how to be a father himself. "But rather than being an occasional parent like his father, my dad was very hands-on in my upbringing," says Amy.
How much you do or don't rely on your parents-or they on you-is often an indication of how your parents were reared. If, for example, your parents are products of close-knit families with midwestern values, who were raised when few questioned family togetherness and when many children stayed close to home, they may balk at your choice to live thousands of miles from home. Beyond the desire to lead a life independent of parents, opposing values and belief systems can cause major upheaval between you and your parents, particularly when divorce, religion, or social position are involved.
Delia, thirty-four, struggles with two of these issues at once-her marriage is falling apart, and she's a heavy drinker, both of which conflict with her parents' faith. The differences in how she and her parents lead their lives have created a wall, based in part on Delia's need to keep the truth from them. "I wish I could be more honest with them, but I don't in any way live like a Southern Baptist should. My parents don't believe in breaking up the family, and my drinking would distress them. I don't want them to worry about me more than they do or to feel as if they've failed as parents because I'm having so much trouble. They don't need to know everything, and I can't tell them. In a perfect world, there wouldn't be that barrier of information."
Excerpted from Nobody's Baby Now by Susan Newman Copyright © 2003 by Susan Newman
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.