Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents
By Jane Isay
The number of people each of us descends from is enormous-four, eight, sixteen, etc., ancestors. Each of us has a vast genetic heritage, which explains the wide variations among members of today's nuclear family. In the past, families lived and multiplied and died in close proximity. A strange characteristic in one child could be attributed to a weird uncle or cousin who lived in the same town. More important, there was usually an aunt or uncle who understood us a little better than our parents did. When we were making them crazy, they could send us off for a visit. We learned that in every family there are wide variations in temperament and talent. So you could always find a relative who was pathologically shy, just like your brother, or who really preferred working with her hands instead of reading, just like your sister. It took some of the heat off the necessity for each child to conform to expectations of outstanding performance and behavior. We lost this in the era of the nuclear family.
Today, we have again begun dealing with extended families that are enlarged, this time through divorce and remarriage. New relatives add another kind of complexity. Patriarchs who have been accustomed to gathering the clan at their table on holidays find themselves negotiating fine lines of loyalty with grown children and their in-laws, as well as older grandkids.
Negotiations over who goes where on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and Passover can rival international treaty talks. A sister-in-law who is used to having her brother and his wife at Thanksgiving is hurt when they stay home because all the grown kids and their spouses can come to them for a change. A grandmother of eighty-five who remarries may suddenly draw close to her new husband's family, leaving her own grown children and grandkids feeling abandoned.
Adding strangers to the family always changes things, and keeping the enlarged family on an even keel and all the relatives in a friendly frame of mind takes work. It is not easy, and the lessons we learned from the old nuclear-family model do not always translate well for today's sprawling families.
Two elements make all the difference between ease and misery with in-laws and stepfamilies: chemistry and character. If the chemistry with the new relative is good, then character may not be called upon. If you are naturally drawn to someone, it is not hard to enjoy that person s company, to feel warmth and to be naturally pleased to see him or her. When the chemistry is off, character may help to carry the day. Character shows up when we put our feelings on the back burner and make an effort to forge a strong relationship, anyway.
Of course, it is best if you have both. Good chemistry is easy to recognize. One woman told me that when she met her son's girlfriend, she had the strange feeling that she was talking to herself. They think alike and they have travel experiences and values in common. She loved this young woman on sight. She feels wonderful that her only child, a son, has chosen someone who is so easy for her to love. Good for her and for the family. That is chemistry.
Then there are people who are not so sure about the prospective daughter- or son-in-law. Another woman liked her daughter's boyfriend just fine, but she worried that he didn't have the energy and ambition of the rest of the family. Years later, the son-in-law exceeded everybody's expectations, and the mother was glad that she had not expressed her concerns to her daughter. That is good character.
Peggy, the woman in the next story, was lucky. She and her mother-in-law had both.
A Kitten Called Winter
Carol adored her (third) mother-in-law, and she can't stop loving her stepdaughter, who has been in and out of trouble all her life. Carol believes that the quality of these relationships is due not only to good chemistry but also to the fact that she is not related to them by blood. Good relatives by marriage feel like a gilt, and stepchildren in trouble don't stand as a rebuke to your parenting skills. This paradox plays well for Carol, a woman in her mid-sixties, an articulate and accomplished professional. She has been married three times-the third husband seems to be for life. She and her husband, a captain of industry, met at work, and their affair and subsequent marriage created quite a scandal. She adored her third mother-in-law, a warm woman who was naturally affectionate.
"I spoke at her funeral. In the eulogy, I said that I had a profound and uncomplicated love for her. It had no baggage attached to it. It didn't have all the burdens of the past. It was easy for me to love her and easy for her to love me. It was just wonderful. Grief comes in many forms, but two of the most common ones are clear sorrow and messy grief. It is much easier to mourn someone you loved wholeheartedly. The relatives we find most difficult to lay to rest are those who generated mixed feelings in us. The simplicity of Carol's love for her mother-in-law came from their instantaneous connection. This was like manna in the desert for Carol, who comes from a family of Irish Catholics, where you're not supposed to have feelings, much less talk about them. Her mother took this ethic to the extreme.
"At a certain point, I tried to tell my mother that I loved her," Carol tells me.
"She told me she thought such talk was cheap." The only time Carol remembers her mother telling her she loved her was in anger. "If you're my daughter and I love you . . ."It was the most passion she ever showed. Her mother is in her nineties, and Carol takes very good care of her-from afar.
Carol has found that when you marry into a new family you can achieve love uncomplicated by baggage. She also feels simple love for her stepdaughter, who has been on and off serious drugs for the past twenty years. Karen was nine years old when Carol married her father, and she lived with her mother. Unfortunately, when Karen was seventeen, she and her mother moved to San Francisco. She fell into the drug culture there, and she has never really come out of it.
Even though she was a tough kid from the start, Carol was thrilled to have her around. "I loved her. I just loved her. I thought she was wonderful, and I still do."
Carol had always wanted a daughter. At first, Carol had to tell herself, "She is not your daughter." That worked well for both of them when the trouble started. When her mother was fed up with Karen's behavior, she sent her to Carol and her husband. She arrived in her last year of high school and then applied to a local college, and went there. In retrospect, Carol is sure that Karen was using drugs in high school; she was heavily into them in college. Carol's journey from the state of denial to recognition happened when Karen dropped out and moved back to San Francisco. Carol, her husband, and his former wife decided to do an intervention, trying to get Karen into rehab. It didn't work, but in the course of it, Karen's mother took away her key to the apartment-what is called a lockout. Two months later, Karen told her mother she was ready to go into rehab, which she did for nearly a year. But then she landed back on the street. A year later, she called her father collect from a phone booth. "I'm cold" was all she said. Flying to the rescue, Carol and her husband brought her back home. Paradoxically, Carol loved having her live with them.
"She's talented as a visual artist, incredibly verbal, and she writes with incredible clarity and focus. When she is in a good mood, she is the most delightful of companions. There is nobody I'd rather spend time with than Karen. She's witty; she's intelligent; she's sensitive. She's a marvelous person to be with."
Karen started therapy, went back to school, and rescued a white kitten she found beside the road. She named the kitten Winter. Karen took a job at the local bagel shop, stayed in therapy and off drugs, and got her degree. One of her teachers took her aside and told her he thought she was talented and encouraged her to get her B.S. in math and statistics. She did that and landed a wonderful job. But things got rocky when she moved out of the house and into her own apartment. She went back on drugs. Again, her father and stepmother rescued her, again she pulled herself together, and again Carol loved her time with her stepdaughter