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No More ‘Mommy May I’: How our mothering has changed as we, and our children, have aged

May 07, 2021 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

 As we approach Mother’s Day this year, it got us thinking about how our parenting styles have changed now that many of us have adult children.

Doing a good job at this stage generally reflects a cautious balancing act. Telling adult kids what to do just doesn’t cut it any longer. It isn’t anything we did; we’ve all had wonderful times together. But in a flash, our kids have grown up as we also grew older. They separated from us and now have their own lives. And isn’t that what we wanted for them?

Mommy May I” has become, “Hey, it’s my life, and I’m an adult. I want to make my own decisions.” It’s tough to shift our parenting, but this has generally been our goal—to raise independent children who could survive well on their own in case we weren’t alive or were incapacitated in some way and couldn’t be there for them.

Because we’re older and have gone through many of life’s experiences, we think we know best when life becomes tough or there are many choices for them to make. We don’t want our kids to stumble, but we believe they should occasionally evolve and survive. We’ve slowly come to accept this, and sometimes it’s not been easy. The parental playing field has gradually shifted, and they learned to make decisions without us weighing in with our two cents—or more.

Ironically, however, now too often our kids try to tell us what to do whether it’s how we decorate, cook or even socially isolate as the pandemic continues. Sometimes, it’s annoying but at times it can be endearing that they still want to be involved and care so much.

Linda K. Stroh and Karen K. Brees, co-authors of Getting Real about Getting Older: Conversations about Aging Better, write that we should come to terms with the fact that our attachment to our children will always be stronger than their attachment to us. “Get really clear on the fact that your children may love you, but there is no way they can love you in the same way you love them…”

Here’s what we’ve learned and how our boundaries and parenting practices have changed with age; maybe, yours have, too:

Guides. When our kids were young, we set the rules, and we basically expected them to follow our lead, or most of the time. Now as adults, we try to serve as their guide dogs, if you will. They are all grown up, possibly married, and employed, maybe have a wife or husband and kids. Technically, they don’t need our advice or money anymore. It’s an important lesson to remember. We stop ourselves from rushing in to rescue them with words or deeds.

Supports. We now listen more than give advice because we hope we raised our kids to be strong and independent. Let’s not cripple their ability to think and act for themselves by throwing in our advice all the time unless they ask. To do so can “infantilize them” and make them doubt their abilities. When we step back, our role morphs from that of being their leader and role model to being their friend and colleague, a great place to end up.

Friends. We are now friends by choice. We can tell them how proud we are of them and encourage them. They can still come to our homes, and we’ll make their favorite foods, buy them things and tell great stories of our shared history together. And we compliment them to their faces rather than do as some of our parents did behind our backs and only to their friends and family. We want them to hear our praise.  

Role models. By letting our roles evolve, we model this new role for our kids, so they see how we adapt and are flexible. It’s also a good lesson for our children’s boy- or girlfriends, partners, spouses. They’re likely to gain new respect for us.  

Not codependents. Let them go. We all love our kids and want to help but when they’re grown, we should wait for them to seek our counsel rather than dispense advice 24/7. The big problem with doing so is that there’s the potential then for kids to become hooked and unable to make their own decisions without parental input. Adult kids need to have their own experiences and learn how to deal with the good and the bad, which may differ dramatically from how we might. Often there’s more than one way to rope a calf so to speak or decorate their homes, cook the traditional Thanksgiving bird and where to send their kids to school and camp.

If we see them sinking, we can sympathize but not rush in and rescue them. It’s tough to do this and stand back, but it’s the only way they’ll form a healthy ego. Our message in these cases is to let them know unequivocally that we are there for them but have faith in them to figure things out. Caveat: If they have substance abuse, debilitating physical or mental health issues, that takes parenting an adult child to a different level and seeking outside advice.

Not personal. You call and they don’t pick up. You text and you hear nothing for days. You worry, and you call again. You still don’t get a reply. Now, you may be annoying them! Forget emailing them and try not to take it personally. They are busy beings now and you are not top of mind. If you ask, “Do you want my opinion?” and they say, “No thanks,” don’t get offended. This is a good sign that you did your parenting job well. Try to keep your sense of humor and find a peer whom you can vent to.

Listen and shut your mouth. They need to vent, and you’re a safe place to do that; it also helps them process issues with friends and colleagues, even bosses. Repeat how they’re feeling rather than telling them what to do. When they seek your advice, again give it gently and in small doses. Don’t get offended if they don’t take your advice. And don’t triangulate if their venting involves a sibling or your spouse or partner.

Late-in-life conversations. You ask: “Do you want this silver tea set that was your Grandma Betty’s?” And they say,  “No thanks. It’s not my taste.” Try again not to be offended. Ask them if there is anything they might like you to hand down to them. One of Barbara’s daughters told her and her grandmother that she wanted her grandmother’s books someday. Margaret’s younger son wanted many of her husband’s vinyl records. Make a list and include their choices in your will. Also, now that they’re adults and you’re not going to be here forever, sit them down and try to have the end of life and estate planning conversations—appoint a health proxy and a trustee of your estate. Explain how you are dividing your estate after you’re gone so they’re not blindsided. And get rid of as much as you can while you can and tell them you are doing so. You are doing them a huge favor, not to have to throw out all those old birthday cards of the last 30-plus years.

Money issues.  Involving yourself in your adult kids’ money issues can be tricky. If they have savings and want to invest, don’t ask amounts simply suggest ways to do it themselves or encourage them to find a financial professional. If they still live at home, have moved back or depend on you to pay rent, it’s necessary to set boundaries. If you can and do help them pay rent, give them a deadline. “I will help you for one year.” Each month decrease the amount you put in and by the end of the year announce that they are on their own. If they need money and you can lend it to them, draft a promissory note to let them know to pay it back.

Visiting rights on your turf. Set boundaries when they knock on the door and announce with their spouse and two children in tow that they have arrived. Here are the rules, you say sweetly, about cooking, cleaning, using appliances, showering, making meals and menus. Most important, stay out of their conversations with their kids and spouse. Bite your tongue or leave the room. They don’t want to hear you say, “Why are you talking to your wife that way?” And never discipline the grandchildren unless there is a safety issue such as a kid running into the street or getting near a flame.

Visiting rights on their turf. Be a good guest. Clean up after yourself, don’t expect them to cook and chauffeur you around. Pay for food or take them out. Offer to babysit so your daughter and her partner can go out for the evening. Don’t overuse their utilities to cook or bathe. Replace what you use such as hair care products, Kleenex, toilet paper, soap, food and more. If you do, you’ll be invited back. And always write a thank you or send a nice gift after.

Become equals in the kitchen. At this stage, hand the mantel of preparing the bulk of a big meal such as Thanksgiving over to them if they enjoy cooking. It empowers your children and gives us a break. We can cook some of the small or easier stuff, maybe before they arrive like Barbara did by making matzoh ball soup and buying groceries for the meal her two daughters had planned for the last Passover holiday. Her daughters had decided in advance the menus for the weekend. They swooped into her kitchen and prepared most of the foods, but she still participated and all three and their guys had a great time together. In fact, it was the best brisket ever!

If they’re not into cooking, ask if they would take on other tasks, from buying wine, setting the table or handling cleanup. Barbara’s future son-in-law assembled a new fire pit for evening s’mores.

At the table, break out a bottle of wine and toast the fact that you all are good friends and respect and appreciate each other in a new way that wasn’t possible when they were young, and you were new to parenting.

Have a very happy Mother’s Day! You deserve it and if you are still lucky to have a mother alive, celebrate and toast her nonstop. If your daughter or daughter-in-law is a mother, be sure to toast them as well and even send a card.

Note: Stay tuned. There is much more information about how to relate to your adult children in our forthcoming book, Not Dead Yet: Rebooting our Lives After 50, due out Aug. 15, 2021. 



1 comment

  • Rena Abrams

    May 07, 2021

    After both daughters flew the coop after college, I was disappointed that neither one wanted to stay in St. Louis, near their parents to make a life for themselves here.
    Then it occurred to me that my Greek immigrant parents, who had no family anywhere around them, raised three children, who all left them for other cities (for personal or career reasons) to fend for themselves in their “old age”, only to visit at holidays, and a once a week call to talk about the weather….I don’t often feel guilty about life decisions and their consequences, but this realization of child/parent abandonment broke my heart…
    By the way, both parents are buried in St. Louis, never having llived here (well, my mom did for a while). I visit them sometimes, and tell them about the weather.
    Thanks, Rena


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