I am a 64-year-old woman. I’ve achieved much in my life, both personally and professionally. At work I have a staff that respects and likes me. I have a wonderful marriage and satisfying female relationships that not only nurture me but also make me feel great about myself.
I tell you all this not to sound full of myself or to brag in any way but to set the stage for what I struggle with daily. Despite the fact that, by and large, I maneuver through the world in a most satisfying and successful way, when it comes to my three grown children, I’m always left to feel like a loser.
It seems that whatever I do or say is not right. I don’t seem to be able to hit the right note with them, whether about serious matters or matters that aren’t serious at all. If I ask too many questions, I’m unbearably inquisitive. If I try not to ask any questions, apparently I don’t care. If I share something one of them told me about another one, I’m the “town crier.” If I fail to tell one of them something important about another one, I’m accused of shutting them out and not taking something seriously enough. There is no winning with them.
I try so hard and usually feel as though I’m walking on eggshells, never really feeling relaxed or natural while conversing with any of them, because I know that somehow I will blow it and be judged. I think about this situation constantly and can’t seem to figure out what went wrong. It wasn’t always like this. When we raised our children, they were very good kids — respectful, compliant, and eager to do the right thing. But somehow after they grew up, the dynamic changed dramatically, and I was no longer someone they admired or turned to for advice or even just for a good time. To the outside world, though, they are fabulous and successful.
Despite the fact that I have so much great stuff going on in my life, I feel as though I’m unable to truly feel satisfaction or even happiness because of this constant tension. You don’t know me or my children, so maybe you can’t really comment on this. But I wonder whether this is something that is more common than I think. (I don’t mention this to anyone, because it’s just too embarrassing to share, so I have no idea if I’m alone with this situation.)
I also wonder whether you might have some general suggestions to help steer me to a better place with my children, a more successful place where there is greater respect and joy together.
I’ll answer your easy question first by assuring you that you are not alone! I hear from many mothers (no doubt fathers experience it as well, but often don’t take it as seriously) that they feel as though their grown children are constantly judging them, and not necessarily in a positive way. They, too, feel like they are never on solid ground or accepted for who they are, unconditionally, without judgment, and they often bear the brunt of harsh criticism and sarcasm.
The harder question to unravel is why so many grown children take such an intolerant stance with their mothers. It’s easy to say that the mothers must be unbearable and their children are reacting to their difficult personalities. That may sometimes be the case and it’s always a good idea to do a reality check and look closely in the mirror, with honesty and vulnerability, and decide whether in fact these children are reacting to something negative. If so, there is work to be done, which will often result in a much more satisfying relationship. But often, after such self-examination, these mothers come away with a solid feeling that they are not the instigators.
OK, then what? Well, sometimes grown children are unable to let go of old baggage. Feelings of resentment toward their mothers that they have been harboring, unable or unwilling to let go of, are still alive and well and require constant attention. Despite mothers often changing their “evil ways,” making amends, and moving forward, their children aren’t quite as willing to move on. This leverage they hold over their mothers possibly feels good and empowering. After a childhood of being on the receiving end, they are finally in a position to call the shots. Perhaps there are some benefits to such a power-grabbing moment in time. At least, that’s how it might feel for these grown children. Where to go from here? The intervention of a good family therapist may successfully nudge the relationship along to a healthier place.
And then there is a theory I’ve often thought about, which may or may not be relevant. I sometimes think that many people want to believe that their mothers are perfect. It’s a fantasy some individuals have that they hit the jackpot, that their own mother is beyond imperfections. And so their tolerance for anything less than perfect is quite low. Comments, behaviors, and attitudes that these grown children wouldn’t mind if they came from friends are scrutinized to a much greater degree when they come from their own mothers, whom they hold to a higher standard. Nothing less than virtue is tolerated. This is a tough one to circumvent, since who among us is perfect? We are all flawed in certain ways, still learning on the job, and working constantly toward being our best selves.
At this point, I feel compelled to divert this conversation to an entirely different place. I have to wonder whether you can allow yourself a daily sense of well-being rather than commit your emotions to a place of being held hostage to the attitudes of your children. Of course you love them, desire their approval, and want to relax in their company, but is it possible for you to fully enjoy the many blessings and successes in your life despite your disappointment in regard to your children? Must they define the success and quality of your life as you go through your day and experience so many other wonderful moments? This is a very important question to ask yourself, and I’m hoping that you ultimately come up with an answer that is liberating and kind toward yourself.
No one knows what the future will hold. Perhaps tomorrow, or maybe in ten years, your children will come around and recognize that they are blessed to have you as their mother. But until that happens, it’s OK for you to feel that you’re good enough, loved enough, and worthy of happiness nonetheless. That’s a choice only you can make for yourself.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.