When our kids were young, we were their problem solvers. It came with the parenting territory. We had to keep them safe, help them understand how the world works and show them how to move toward independence.
Now that our kids are adults, does that territory need to be trimmed?
That's an issue parenting coach and Washington Post columnist Meghan Leahy addressed in this Q and A session.
The guest asking the Q was concerned that her 24-year-old daughter is depressed about her job and making little effort to find a new one. The mother writes that she is "trying to solve her problems for her, which leads to further issues."
Here's how Meghan suggests this mother deal with her daughter's problem.
"Back out and be supportive."
I would ask on the phone, "Would you like my advice or would you like me to listen?"
You could say, "I have noticed, Amira, that you've disliked this job for a while...what is standing in the way of changing that?" And then see what she says.
Otherwise, keep saying, "I trust that if and when you need support making a change, you will do it. I am here for you, no matter what. I love you."
Then, keep your boundaries.
That last line may be the most challenging. But what Meghan is telling us is this: We're no longer in charge of solving our grown children's problems. Our job is to be good listeners and, if the opportunity seems right, make observations.
We have a loving relationship with our 30-year-old son. As we prepare for Christmas, though, we’re feeling resentful in advance that our gift exchange will probably be one-sided: We will buy him gifts; he will not buy us anything. Nor will he seem appreciative. He acts like our gifts are his birthright. Help!
The short version of Galanes' advice:
Tell him that he’s old enough to make holiday giving a true exchange. And remind him that the cost of his gifts is irrelevant. He may be stuck in his view of himself as the child in your relationship. Hopefully, a brisk nudge will set him straight.
When I first got into the business of being a grandparent--PenPen to my son's and daughter's children--it was at a time when, not surprisingly, many of my friends were starter-grandparents as well. A common topic of conversation--or should I say stress--was the worry that the "other" grandparents would be favored, would be more "loved" than they, would have more say in their grandchildren's lives.
Some of this rivalry seemed to be driven by proximity or the lack of it. One friend who lived in New Hampshire and had three grandchildren (her daughter's children) living in Atlanta was convinced that the paternal grandparents who lived in Georgia were more beloved. They were available to babysit in a pinch and offer summer swims in their pool. Although my friend and an indulgent step-granddad visited often, my friend lamented her second-place position. Her exhibit A: Her daughter had texted her a photo of the granddaughter's newly refurbished room--puffy pillows, bouncy curtains and a sateen bed quilt that hosted a Noah's Ark of stuffed animals. The other grandma, who had a key to her son and daughter-in-law's house, had surprised the family by re-doing the room while they were away on vacation. How, my friend worried, could she compete with that.
Now comes research that should give my friend comfort. There is a “matrilineal advantage” and it gives maternal grandmothers an advantage over the paternal ones. There are dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, of course, but in general mothers and daughters have closer ties than mothers and daughters-in-law, and that, the research contends, leads to warmer relationships between the grandchildren and the maternal grannie.
“The mother-daughter dyads engage in more frequent phone contact, more emotional support and advice — more than mothers do with sons or fathers with daughters.” This is what Karen Fingerman, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who has published studies on this topic, told Paula Span of the NYTimes.
As to a mother's ties to her son's children, it's all about the relationship to her daughter-in-law. Dr. Fingerman reported that she has found that parents’ rapport with a daughter-in-law — “a key figure” — significantly influences their bond with her children. The mother--whether she's a daughter or a daughter-in-law--is the gatekeeper and she can help or harm grandparental closeness.
As to my friend from New Hampshire, she can rest easy for another reason. Her daughter (and her granddaughter) were less than pleased that the other grandma had taken it upon herself to redecorate on her own and without consultation the child's room. There is a matter of overstepping boundaries and that's where proximity can be a negative.
The comforting way to put it is that our grown kids need space. But the far end of that need can play out in a way that translates into "they don't want us around."
In answer to a reader's complaint that her daughter won't take her phone calls, discourages her from visiting (even though she's now vaccinated) and otherwise is putting a lot of distance between mother and daughter, Carolyn Hax addressed the estrangement issue. The thrust of her advice for mending a rift, be it between mother and daughter or any other meaningful relationship, is to become a good listener.
If I start listing reasons grown children estrange themselves from their parents, I’ll still be typing when the next pandemic hits.
What matters is that you become a better listener, stat: “You’ve been saying no [to phone calls and visits], and I’ve been so caught up in changing your mind that I forgot to listen. I’m sorry. I will take no for an answer and stop pushing. I’m here when you’re ready. And, if I haven’t said so already or enough, thank you for being so good about putting the kids on FaceTime with us.”
This might leave you feeling resentful, as if you’re the one doing all the sacrificing here. That’s a common complaint when I recommend a full retreat — but it’s also a trap. It tempts you into looking for fairness when fairness doesn’t apply; reality is in control. And reality says you can’t make your daughter do anything (in fact, it’s probably tired of repeating itself), whether fairness demands it or not. You can work only on your side of the problem.
So, you offer her respect, space, grace — and give yourself the best chance of mending the breach.
The coronavirus has been novel in more than it's medical/scientific ways. There's also been a behavioral effect: Our grown kids are parenting us--or trying to. They are not only worrying more intensely about our health and well-being but setting down guidelines for how we should take care of ourselves--what we should and should not do on a day to day basis.
One friend, who babysits for her toddler and infant grandkids three days a week, has been told by her daughter that she cannot sit outdoors at coffee shops or restaurants or otherwise socialize in person with friends. Her daughter has also forbidden her to see her dentist or go to supermarkets--the daughter shops for her and drops the groceries and other supplies at her door. My friend, who has no underlying health issues (except for being 71) doesn't want to give up her babysitting gig so she has taken her daughter's orders seriously and kept away from all of us.
The situation is understandable in that the daughter, who works in a downtown office three days a week, is doubling down to make sure the virus is not brought into her house. But sometimes our children overstep the mark and we need to assert our independence.
A Carolyn Hax column carries a case in point of how some of grown kids try to control their parents' lives--or parts of it. It's not related to Covid rules but the situation applies.
A woman wrote to Hax to say that after her children and grandchildren moved far away she went through a difficult period. but now has a very busy life that is filled with responsibilities to others. One of her children insists her mother get away for the winter and has rented a place for her in a sunny clime--all expenses paid. The mom doesn't want to be away from her new life for such a long period of time. She wants to know how to say no to a "beautiful offer"without antagonizing a daughter who is " not one to take "no" for an answer."
Some highlights from Carolyn's answer:
The only way to go about refusing her offer is to just refuse the offer. That’s it. Prepare yourself beforehand to ride out the drama-storm that ensues.
Now, all this having been said: You do note that “I really don’t want to leave . . . for so long.” Is there a period you would be eager to spend in this sunny clime? If so, then you can also say, “I’m sorry, I cannot accept two months. A week, however, would be lovely. Let me know if that’s possible.”
Say this only if you trust yourself to hold that line. Otherwise don’t even suggest it — just stick to the “no.”
And if/when she flips out on you, remain calm: “This is not up for negotiation. Let’s either change the subject now or talk another day.” Be ready to hang up as needed. “I’m interrupting you, hang on — I’ve got to go, bye.” Click.
I know this probably looks/sounds terrible, but it’s not unkind. It’s letting an emotional trespasser know she needs to get back on her side of the fence.
Back in March, when the coronavirus pandemic had most of us sheltering in place, some of us did so with our grown kids and even grandkids. Where they had been living independently, now they were with us under our roof or we under theirs--or we were within a pod of safe visitors. Who knew the sheltering would last so long or that the promises of aid and assistance--babysitting, room and board--would last so long and be so exhausting.
What to do about the problems raised by the over-stuffed nest and pledges of commitment to our now too-close loved ones? Our once-quiet, empty nest may now be filled with the chaos of multi-generation visitors. Did we really mean to commit to serving three meals a day to four adults and two children? Or be available to babysit while they worked? Or share our car, cross trainer and bandwidth indefinitely? How do we get our life back when the end to the crisis is no where near? Here are some suggestions from experts quoted in "How to Set Pandemic Boundaries for Relatives," an article that reminds us that boundaries are necessary even when they may be hard to set and make us feel like we're being a bad parent or grandparent.
On feeling overwhelmed: Create a list of all of your responsibilities and then identify what you alone can do and what can be outsourced to your "guests." Examples: cleaning the bathrooms; grocery shopping; preparing meals.
Keep a relaunch in sight: Adult children who are boarding with you may have regressed into dependency. One expert suggests saying to your child, "We know that you don’t want to be here forever. But what can we think about to give you, and us, a vision for how great it’s going to be for you to feel autonomous and free and empowered?” Tht could be the road to mapping out steps toward a relaunch.
Renegotiate commitments: Promises were made back in March, before we realized how long the pandemic might last. But a commitment to, say, babysit grandkids when in-person schools closed last spring may no longer be feasible. You are allowed to change your mind, the experts say, offering this suggestion as a way to open negotiations: “Just because we’ve agreed to something in one moment doesn’t mean we’ve agreed to it for life.”
Clarify your needs: Be clear in your own mind what you’re still willing to do. Let your grown kids know you are still there for them, but within limits. You might reassure them that you've been happy to help so far but "we all thought this would be over by now, and it’s not." Then, the experts say, tell the truth. As in something like this:
“‘I can’t be at my best at this level, so I need to cut back’, or ‘I need to take a month off,’ or whatever it is you really need....You let them know, without defensiveness, without guilt, that you want to help them come up with a different solution that works for them, because this one isn’t sustainable for you.’”
Be true to yourself: There may be an expectation on the part of your grown children that you're going to keep doing this because you're their parent and they need you to do it. Oh the guilt! Here's one expert's suggestion on this point:
“Ask yourself, ‘Do I want my kids and grandkids to love me because I do something I don’t want to do for them? Or do I want them to love me because I’m honest and I’m being myself?’”
It ain't easy:
“Tolerating uncomfortable feelings builds emotional resilience. And standing in our truth is hard, but it’s the key to honest relationships."
We love to do things to help out our adult children. It may be little things like packing up lots of leftovers to send home after Sunday dinner. Or sharing access to our Netflix account. Or babysitting so new parents can enjoy a date night.
Little things mean a lot. But sometimes we step over the line. When my mother flew up from Florida for her semi-annual two-week visits, I would go off to work and she would give my kitchen a top-to-toe scrub, including re-organizing my pantry and re-arranging my plants. I resented it. This was not help I asked for or wanted.
Maybe that's why I reacted viscerally to a recent commentary cum question from a Social Qs reader about a mother-in-law who seemed to have lost her sense of boundaries.
Returning home from a trip during which my in-laws stayed with our kids, I discovered my mother-in-law had replaced our kitchen chairs with a set she bought at a neighbor’s garage sale. Who does that? .... I am appalled that someone would change my furniture without permission. BTW: I hate the chairs. What should I do when she comes over and sees that mine are back?--Anonymous
Here's some of what the Social Q guru Philip Galanes had to say, first about the chairs and then about the crossing of lines by "helpful" parents:
It is the greatest disappointment of my week that I can’t show our readers a picture of these chairs, for the sake of anonymity. (They are wantonly hideous!) Sadly, though, there is a bigger issue here: boundary-busting by your mother-in-law.
You don’t mention any history of inconsiderate behavior on her part....It also seems unlikely that she’d be respectful for years, then — wham! — new chairs appear without your blessing.
Acknowledge the germ of generosity here. Say to your mother-in-law: “Thanks for watching the kids and for your gift. I don’t care for the chairs, though. I like to choose my own furniture. Would you like them?”
Just a little reminder that we can be helpful on little things (if they don't like the left-overs, they can toss them out on the way home. No harm done.). But they are in charge of their homes and hearths. Note to Self: It's their life.
It's a wonderful feeling to be able to be financially generous to our adult children--to support them if an unexpected need arises or to indulge them so that they can do or buy something they've always wanted. If we've got that bit of extra to spare, there's a deep pleasure in seeing our children enjoy it now rather than later--when we're no longer around.
And our kids are grateful. Why shouldn't they be? We've offered them support out of love for them and respect for their ability to handle the resource well. But sometimes, there's a little less of a heartfelt thank you. There can even be resentment, especially if there are strings attached. This letter that appeared in an advice column in a local Colorado newspaper spells out the dangers of attaching those strings--even if we do so indirectly:
When I met my wife five years ago, I had no idea of her financial status. I knew that her parents had a nice home and spent a lot of time traveling but she lived frugally and worked hard. When we got married, I learned about the extent of her family's substantial resources. Admittedly, they have been very generous — helping us with the down payment on our house, taking us on family vacations and starting college funds for our kids. The issue is that they've increasingly put pressure on us to raise the kids in specific ways, build our schedules and vacations around their needs and spend money according to their values. We, and my wife in particular, have been struggling to say no because of everything they continue to give us.
The letter was signed: Locked In Golden Handcuffs
The couples coach who answered the plea from "Locked" talked about the "aging" parents and their need to feel relevant. They also focused on what was triggering the son-in-law's negative response, such as feeling a loss of empowerment, freedom or authenticity or a sense of emasculation.
Whatever it is, it's not something I would want to visit on my son or daughter or their spouses. To give is to give freely. It's their lives to live. We are not in the driver's seat--even if we bought them the car.
Writing on The Sweet Spot, Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond tackle a question from a reader about financial support for their grown children and if it's fair to withdraw that support while they are still dependent on the parents.
You’ve been deeply generous because you wanted to provide your children with an education, security, comfort and ease. Well done. Now you must be deeply generous in another, seemingly paradoxical way: by giving your grown children the gift of independence and self-sufficiency.
They don’t pay for their own way in the world for one reason and only one reason: because you do. I encourage you to stop doing it. Allow your adult children to find a way to do it instead. And allow them to struggle with doing it.
By providing all that you provide your kids at this point in their lives, you’re preventing them from learning how to problem solve, sacrifice, persevere, and suffer and benefit from the consequences of their own decisions. In other words, from becoming adults.
The reason it’s been challenging for you to stop paying for your kids is because it’s a reversal of the way you’ve operated since your kids were born. They needed something, and you paid for it. That made sense for a time. But it doesn’t make sense now, and it hasn’t for a while. Your children aren’t children anymore and they don’t truly need you to pay for their lives, even if they find it convenient that you do.
Part of being a good parent is modeling healthy boundaries for our children, and this is ultimately that. In establishing yourself as a person who knows and states her limits, you’re showing them how to do that too.
Several years ago, when my daughter became engaged, her future mother-in-law called me the next morning. She introduced herself, chatted a bit and then asked if I was excited about planning the wedding. I mumbled a "Hmmm," but the unspoken answer was more precise. "I will do my duty."
No kidding. Not all of us are excited about planning our child's wedding--and that doesn't even get to the point of whether or not the couple getting married want us to do it. In my case, my daughter, who was living on the West Coast, was busy working to support herself and applying to graduate schools. So it fell to me, who lived on the East coast where the wedding was going to take place, to do the ground work and pull together a basic plan--subject to the bride and groom's approval, of course.
Most parents, particularly mothers of the bride, are excited and energized about taking an active role. But that helping role is more fraught than ever. Today's weddings tend to be bigger with more guests, more dinner courses and events, to say nothing of those weddings that are weekend extravaganzas in far away places. There are many more choices and more moving parts, which means too many decisions where mother and child can have differing opinions and difficulty reining in their positions. Also, grooms play a more active role in the wedding plan than they did, say, 20 years ago--which gives negotiations an additional corner to turn.
My wedding-planning days were pre-smartphone and as I understand it, texting, email, FaceTime, Instagram bring a more immediate way to communicate about little and big details. In today's Social Media world, planning a wedding can create a higher level of inclusiveness. (Some of the emails Hillary Clinton did not want disclosed had to do with details for her daughter Chelsea's wedding.)
This feeling of heightened closeness builds on a pre-existing condition. As Deborah Tannen, the linguistic professor and author, has noted, mother-daughter relationships today "are closer than a generation or two ago. Many mothers identify as their daughters' best friend. They rely on their phones to text, Snapchat, email and speak daily. But it’s not just the mothers seeking participation. It’s the daughters, too.”
All well and good. But here's the issue about parents and a grown child's wedding: Close as we may feel to our child and they to us, and as accessible as details about menus, dresses and flowers may be, it is the bride and groom's marriage and a reflection of their commitment to each other.
Beyond consulting on the wines and the seating arrangements, we need to keep our distance and to back off when--whether or not we're footing all or some of the bill--we don't agree or approve of a decision the wedding couple make. As Deborah Tannen points out, “Close bonds always run the risk of feeling like bondage.”
If the bride and groom choose to replace formal shoes with matching sneakers to walk down the aisle, our role is to mention our point of view but ultimately to accept and add a pleasant "I do."