Chapter One: Who Am I? Who Are They?
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. You and your parents may deal with their attempts to control your life, or how you or they handle money may be the soar point in your relationship. You may have a parent who overdoes the worrying or one who makes you feel inferior with her constant criticism. Relentless criticism itself, no matter how it affects you, could be the thing that upsets you. 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. These are some of the problems you will learn to resolve.
The broader questions that follow will help you gauge the current relationship you have with your parents and identify the rocky and uncomfortable areas that need attention. By answering them in a careful, thoughtful way you will have a starting point and be ready to remedy the difficulties using the appropriate ideas and information. For example, if you answer “no” to the first question feeling you do all the giving or provide all 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.
Is a parent too involved in your life in ways that feel intrusive? Or too demanding of your time? You will start to reassess the time you devote to your parents and learn how to keep them in your life without feeling overly stressed. You’ll also begin to acknowledge, if you haven’t already, that you have priorities, too, that may take precedent over a parent’s requests. You can be successful at keeping all the significant people in your life happy including yourself. You’ll learn how to draw boundaries and guard your personal space in Chapter Four. Chapter 5 looks at in-laws and stepsibling conflicts. Some of the skills you develop in drawing boundaries will be also be very useful with in-laws.
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. Hopefully, before you are halfway through this book, you will be able to drop the word “should” from your vocabulary, and replace it with “want to” or “look forward to” in regards to being with your parents. This happens when you replace feelings of obligation with choice. The friction will lessen when you choose to share experiences as part of loving and caring, rather than from feelings of duty or responsibility. Making sound choices is a skill you will be developing whether you are trying to fill an emotional gap in your relationship with your parent, fix perturbing sibling problems, or focused on money issues with your parents.
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, 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.
The Ground Rules for attaining a peer-peer relationship become realistic once you are able to address the practical as well as the emotional issues. You can form a friendship with parents, no matter what the problems and where you begin.
Pinpointing Problem Areas in Relationships With Your Parents
- Does the relationship feel balanced to you?
- Do you feel your parents expect too much from you?
- Are they too involved in your life?
- Do they influence your thinking too much?
- Do you communicate? Often? Too Often? Too little?
- Are too many or not enough topics off-limits?
- Are boundaries clearly defined and understood?
- Can you talk to your parents about your feelings?
- Are your parents as affectionate as you would like them to be?
- Do they respect your feelings?
- Do you have enough interests in common?
- Do you tense or feel guilty when you hear your parent’s voice?
- From your point of view, is the relationship gratifying?
The Family Fish Net
Even as 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 fish net 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.[Jill #36]’s parents hold a tight rein. They comment or offer advice on everything, from [Jill]’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. She will tell me I look beautiful and hone in on my earrings or hair and go on and on. When I know I’m going to see my parents, I am definitely more conscious of how I dress.
“Neither one of them entirely trusts me to handle situations by myself. I told a friend at work a personal secret and my mother asked me if I was sure the friend knew not to tell anyone. 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 gives 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. Some parents may attempt to exert across-the-board influence from where you live and with whom you socialize to how you manage money or your children. On the other hand, some adult children feel slighted by parents who tend to be more hands-off.
Thirty-four-year-old [Melissa #3] is angry because her mother is removed and seemingly disinterested in [Melissa]’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 30 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, ‘[Melissa], come over and we’ll bake cookies for the children,’ I’d be in shock, but I’d be in the car.”[Sandy B. #39] is 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 won’t be able to understand each other on all levels. You and your parents 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 and your parents may be miles apart on such important subjects as religion, sex, politics, and child rearing.
Many parents remain naïve about how you and your friends live your lives. “My parents can’t imagine that you can be friends with the opposite sex,” says Will [no #] who is 45 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 sets off parental alarms, too.
When midway through his teens, 35-year-old [Tim H. #58] told his parents he was gay, his father thought his son was being brainwashed. He had to cope with a parent whose upbringing had taught him not to be proud of anyone gay. Similarly, [Dave #55], who is six years older than [Tim H.] 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 [Dave #55].
Parents who grew up in the pre-therapy generation can be uncomfortable and unreceptive to offspring who are used to showing their emotions and saying what they think and feel.
Sarah, 37, [Laura S. #28] 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 a suggestion to seek counseling can be repellent to parents who have had little or no exposure to its benefits. [Erin #31] sent [Andrew #9], her fiancé, ahead to her hometown to live her mother and stepfather and house hunt while she finished up her job in another city. They were getting along fairly well until one evening her mother told [Andrew #9] that she has low self-esteem and is a martyr. [Andrew #9] innocently said, “If you recognize this about yourself you can change it. There is help out there.”
“My mother translated his recommendation to ’You need mental help,’ and was outraged: she stopped speaking to him. Therapy carries a huge stigma for her,” explains [Erin #31].
Many of your goals for yourself may also be different from your parents’, a reflection of a different era. Lana [Lauren #33], a 28-year-old communications executive, has a mother who simply can’t understand where Lana is in her life. When her mother was 28, she was married, had two children, and a husband who supported them. She could go to work if she felt like it or not. The difference in outlook is the source of many sore spots in their relationship. Lana’s mother thinks she’s not trying hard enough meet a husband.
The parental pressure Lana fights is non-existent for attorney Tina, 36 [Tracy #87]. Both mothers grew up in the same generation but they had very different outlooks. For Tina’s mother and other women raised in the ’40s and ’50s, marriage was commonly the only way to get out your parents’ house. Tina’s mother had five children by the time she was 28. “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.”
As important as it is to understand generational differences, it’s equally important to look at your parents’ individual backgrounds—where they came from and how they got there. Like yours, their circumstances profoundly affected who they are and 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, will have attitudes about money that on the surface may seem odd or overzealous to anyone who grew up in an age of relative prosperity. [Mark #15] 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 over compensated 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 or she 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. “My father grew up in the South and walked the color line every day of his life,” remarks [David B. #65], a 45-year-old comptroller for a large corporation. “His childhood stories are a life time away from my experiences. 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 (Tamara.#34), 32 and married, observes that her mother’s childhood greatly influenced both how she raised for her children and how she relates to them as adults. Thea finds her mother way, way overprotective 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 make Thea’s and her sister’s lives work.
“My dad left when we were very young; being alone and growing up 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.”
Parents may overcompensate for what they feel they lacked as children. [Jennifer P. #49]’s father was an active and demanding parent because his own dad had not been. “My dad was a late in life baby—his dad was in his ’60s when he was born. He viewed his relationship with his dad 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.”
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. Parents’ beliefs can impinge on your freedom and create friction between you even if as a child .you appeared to be following the same “course.” If you have a parent who is a product of close-knit family with Midwestern values, who was raised when few questioned family togetherness and when many children stayed close to home, she 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 adult children and parents, particularly when divorce, religion or social position are involved.[Dawn E. #6] 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 [Dawn E.#6]’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.”
Although not adhering to them in her own life, [Dawn E.] respects her parents’ beliefs, but some adult children find their parents’ backgrounds and perspectives untenable. They rebel against their parents’ insular and narrow-minded thinking. Kenneth [Bob M. #83], who is in his late forties, becomes acerbic when he talks about his mother’s snobbery and religious dogma: “She’s the product of a blueblood, old line Boston family that believes what is right is very clear and that who is wrong is just about everyone who is not part of the inner core of families with similar breeding. She’s judgmental and has immovable ideas about what is proper behavior, what is acceptable and what is not. She balances her snobbery by believing she’s a very Christian woman.
“There are an awful lot of people who have parents like my mother, self-absorbed and threatened by what’s going on in the world,“ he says. “They have so many unresolved conflicts and ‘stuff’ of their own that they’ve never lived authentic lives and they can’t allow anyone else to live an authentic life. My wife and I are committed to breaking the old-line mold with our children.”
Your History Together
In most cases, parents’ upbringing and attitudes have a great impact on their own children and their relationship with them. These two typical snapshots underscore how long lasting childhood history and the parent/child interaction can be–even though many parents become less authoritative and more relaxed as they and their children age—Kenneth’s mother clearly being an exception.
When [Mark L #15] was growing up he was intimidated by his father’s stern and unbending attitudes. Like many parents, his dad worried about what [Mark L.] would become and how he would provide for a family. Often it felt as if it was his father’s way or no way at all so [Mark L.] avoided his father whenever he had a problem or decision to make. His father is much less dogmatic since his son married, but [Mark L] still keeps his distance and only talks to his father about sports or quirky little things about his day. But, with his mother, he says, “I talk about family; she asks about my in-laws, we talk about her friends or mine. I feel closer to my mom. I can relate to her on a human, personal level. My mother was the person you could run to for cover and that stuck with me.”
Sally [Palma #4], a 36-year-old foreign language professor, faces a parent who, while he takes pride in being the head of the household, thinks can give orders and make decisions for his adult children as if they were still eight-years-old. When Sally’s opinion differs from her father’s and he begins to take charge, she explains her position, but he reverts to the same old “I’m-running-the-show” tactics the next time. Sally defends her father: “His need to control is not malicious; it’s a habit. It’s more what he thinks is right, what he grew up with. We’re moving in the direction of an equal playing field, but only because I’m working on it.”
Why Commit to Improving Your Relationship?
- To liberate yourself from your “child” role
- To learn about and understand your parents as people
- To reduce your levels of guilt
- To eliminate conflict and tensions
- To establish stability and emotional security
- To simply have more fun being together
Making Choices, Initiating Change
Once you’ve acknowledged your parents’ history, identified their personal demons and dilemmas, and have some understanding of the way you interact with them, you’ve set the stage to make major and minor changes. Your parents no longer exert absolute authority, orders and discipline over you as they did when you were a child. Now, you have the power to choose how you want to relate to your parents and how much contact you have with them.
When Helen was a child she thought her mother was perfect. But when Helen became a teen her views switched. “I didn’t want to be close anymore,” recalls the 29-year-old aspiring actress. “When I was a teenager my mother and I didn’t speak for days on end. She toted my sister and me everywhere and I was embarrassed in front of my friends. I told my mother not to speak when my friends were in the car. We resorted to writing letters to each other; notes were our only form of communication my entire junior year of high school. By then my mother had divorced my alcoholic father and been a single parent for several years. At the time I only saw comfort in other families, intact families without the problems of alcoholism and divorce. Once I realized how much she did for me and why she had rules, we became a team; we consult each other. She didn’t change, I did.”
In spit of the fact that [Stacy #71]’s father abandoned her and her sisters for five years during their early childhood, [Stacy #71] made a conscious decision to be available for her father. She believes he needs to know someone cares about him. Her sisters made a very different choice. “I don’t think he has any friends and he doesn’t take care of himself because there are no women in his life. My sisters have little tolerance for him. They visit him only when they have a financial emergency, knowing he will come to their rescue. I talk to him once a week.” [Stacy] makes the effort to close the gap created during the years her father was absent.
There are also times when you may make choices about the extent of your involvement with parents based on the need to protect yourself, your partner or your children. [Dave #55] lives hundreds of miles from his family because the distance makes it easier to keep his homosexuality from them. “I love my parents and siblings and enjoying being with them for a week or two at a time. I cannot risk them rejecting me if I tell them I’m gay. Being secretive is a source of great frustration; I have to be careful how I act around them, but I feel I’ve made the right decision for me.”
Frequently invasions into your life require standing firm and going against a controlling parent so you can do what you want or what you think is best for you. When David [#137], 33, was planning his honeymoon, his father tried to dictate the destination. As in most things, David’s father attempted to manipulate his son by offering to pay for the honeymoon, but only if David and Kay who had their hearts set on Italy honeymooned in Israel. David’s father drives a hard bargain and as tempting as the offer was, David chose to stand by the woman he was about to marry. He thanked his father for the generous offer, but firmly told him he and Kay would pay for the honeymoon themselves. After so many years of doing everything his father’s way, David liked the feeling of doing something his way, of not being railroaded.
Although parents often mellow in relation to their children, if yours haven’t, you can learn new patterns that will change the way you interact. While it is hard to do this, everyone has the capacity to change old behaviors and grow, to re-choreograph old dances once he makes the decision to do so. Of course change takes time, however, as [LORI F. #7] found out, when you express yourself, you create a safe environment for others to do the same. “My mother was never given the tools to communicate. I was always looking for affection from her. If I had a husband and five children, I’d still want that affection because I’ll always be her daughter,” admits [Lori F. #7]. “When I told my mother that I never know how she really feels, she said ‘that’s what your dad told me before we got married.’ I realized if I wanted her to say I love you, I had to say it first. If I wanted a hug or physical affection from her, I had to tackle her—I’m taller and bigger. It’s been years since that conversation and now she says I love you on the phone first. I value every single time she does it. I’m glad I didn’t hold a grudge or hold back; I opened up and then she opened up. I think we’ve connected more in that way.”
In the same vein, by adjusting your attitude you will acquire more comfortable levels of tolerance and a revised view of your parent and of the relationship. You may also need to revise your expectations because you can’t totally remake someone’s personality. [Kara K. #61], a 30-year-old costume designer, grew up envying her cousins’ extremely close relationship with their mother. [Kara K. #61]’s aunt is very open and she expresses herself easily: Kara longed to be able to talk to her mother, but realized that kind of turnaround was unlikely. [Kara] changed her goal deciding to become to be more understanding and accepting of the way her mother is. “My dad died last year and my mother immediately pretended it didn’t happen. She can’t talk about it and she never brings up his name. She’s very disconnected from her feelings. I’m looking at her more pragmatically these days, saying to myself, ‘That’s how she handles change.’ I encourage her to do things that make her happy rather than expecting her to be this warm, completely different person. My new approach has made her more comfortable and that helps her open up a bit more than she used to.”
At this point you may be thinking, “My Dad’s impossible. He’ll never see my position.” Or, “You don’t know my mother! There’s no changing her.” However, it is possible to improve the most difficult or estranged relationships—if you decide to. You can pick up a relationship midstream and work with what you have. [Karen #22], 30, had not been on speaking terms with her mother for most of the 15 years since her mother and father divorced. Before her own marriage [Karen G. #22] was able to let go of her bitterness and accept the choices her mother made to leave her children with their father. [Karen G.] and her mother have developed a new relationship that has been taking shape slowly over the past two years. “My mother bridged the gap by flying in to come to my wedding shower, a step forward she had been unable or unwilling to take previously and that meant a lot to me. My relationship with my mother is a long-term project, an important one as I start my own family.”
As you determine the path your relationship with your parents will take, remember as an adult, you hold significant decision-making power.
You decide whether or not to:
- Stick with the status quo
- React to or engage with parents
- Redefine the relationship
- Think positively or negatively about it
- Change how you interact with your parents
Still Your Parents
Although achieving a more peer-like relationship with parents demands attitude adjustments and new ground rules, some things don’t change. There’s little question that parents remain adult children’s biggest fans and harshest critics—that they continue to praise and to criticize. And, adult children continue to want parents’ approval and support—no matter what their age or level of independence or success. In short, parents’ opinions remain extremely important to most adult children.
Stephanie, 35, [Staci L. #29] the co-founder of a successful dot-com, wonders if she seeks her parents’ recognition “because I was such a bad kid that I have to prove what a good kid I am now. I never hurt any person, property or anything of that nature, but I definitely had a very strong will, a mind of my own. I grew up quickly, and now I sometimes regress into full-blown childhood,” she says with a chuckle. “When I was quoted in the newspaper recently, I didn’t call my business partner to say, ‘Hey, we got a great piece in The LA Times,’ I called my parents and said, ‘I’m in The LA Times! Aren’t you proud? Aren’t you proud?’ I need that affirmation for some reason.”
Sometimes, more than approval, you need a parent’s support. [Lori F. #7] decided at a late date to break her engagement. The wedding invitations had been ordered, caterers booked, flowers selected, the dress ready for its second fitting. [Lori F. #7] says “I couldn’t make the final decision until I talked to my parents and I talked to them before I told to my fiancé. I didn’t need their approval, but I needed their support and understanding. I still haven’t been able to ask them how much money they lost.”
In times of crisis, adult children often turn to parents—one if not both of them—for guidance and support. [Emily #8], a law firm librarian and 33-year-old recovering drug addict, relied on her parents, particularly her father, to help her overcome her drug problem. “Here’s a man who never tried pot and one day I tell him that I’m a heroin addict,” [Emily] begins. “He didn’t freak out, he took it in stride; he asked me what do we do about it. I saw him cry for the first time in his life. To be in your sixties and be able to talk about your emotions to help your child is pretty amazing. He supported me through the really rough recovery periods. My parents were both supportive—but my relationship with my dad grew much stronger. He’s an incredibly kind person and the person I look up to most in the world. Whatever happens he goes with it. I like being with him. I like being with my mother, but it’s easy between my father and me. He’s become the person I go to, he’s my best friend,” she beams.
In so many ways you are linked to your parents forever, but most crucial, they are usually there when you need them. Can the relationship with your parents be perfect? Probably not, but you can improve it dramatically and optimize its potential. You can develop mutual respect and love between you as you work on the trouble spots. Your capacity to enrich your relationship with your parents and liberate yourself in the process is enormous. But, having the most respectful and congenial relationships with parents doesn’t mean that you won’t be resurrecting painful memories or that you won’t ever disagree with each other again.
Should distressing feelings or situations recur, you can delicately set new parameters. Parents can stress you only as much as you let them. As a grownup you have the same level of control over a parent as you do a friend, a difficult concept to grasp and put into action primarily because you expect more, you want more, you wish for more from a parent. But, the smallest tweaking can result in favorable, surprising, even astonishing change.
You can attempt explicit relationship changes or you can alter your thinking so that you can hold in check the things that once drove you crazy—at least in your mind. The very nature of the parent-child bond cultivates irritants that you want to diffuse or clear away entirely as your relationship progresses to a better place.
Before Initiating Any Change
- Compare your parents’ background and life experiences with yours
- Determine how and why their thinking may be different from yours
- Understand that change takes time
- Overlook a parents’ flaws if that will help move the relationship in a positive direction
- Keep in mind that your function is to help the relationship operate smoothly
- Consider your relationship an ever-changing work in progress