Ruth Nemzoff, a mother of four and grandmother of six, is a researcher and resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. Her primary field of interest is interpersonal communication, with her most recent book addressing the role of communication in the relationship between parents and their grown children.
At the heart of Nemzoff’s research and writing is the fact that we are all flawed human beings, and that the task of building relationships requires forgiving each other for our humanness—that is, our flaws. To do this, we in turn need to forgive our own parents.
In this interview with Vision’s Gina Stepp, she discusses some of the themes of her book.
GS The title of your book is Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children. Some young adults may initially cringe to think their parents are being told not to bite their tongues but to tell them exactly what they think.
RN Yes, my 30-year-old daughter said to me, “Mom, nobody my age is going to buy that book for their parents.” However, people in that age group who have read it do find it quite illuminating. First, they get a new perspective on their parents, in that they see that their parents have their own struggles and that they did the best they could. And second, they get some ideas for their own communication—how they might talk in a way that would be less pugilistic or would lead to less conflagration.
GS You point out that it was difficult to find a term for the relationship between parents and their adult offspring. Why did you settle on “adult children”?
RN I felt that the oxymoron adult child captured the complex emotional content of the relationship for the parent, in that we see our children unequivocally as adults but also as children whom we treasure in a way that we perhaps treasure nothing else in the world. There’s an emotional connection. But it also captures the complexity of the relationship in that we also, within ourselves, are both adults and children.
GS What constitutes the emotional content of the relationship?
RN First, there is nothing and nobody that parents have fought as hard for or sacrificed as much for. Parents give an enormous amount to their children, and as a result they’re extremely invested in them, in helping them grow and thrive. They look out for their interests, stay up with them when they’re sick, clean up their messes when they’re sick—all of that investment helps the child grow and feel secure. So naturally parents want relationships with their adult children. They’re grown up, they’re interesting, and the parents have invested so much emotional time and effort in getting them to this point. There’s no longer the work component; they can simply enjoy being with them. Only in times of crisis is there work. Other than that, these are wonderful, interesting human beings, so we want to be connected with them.
But both generations need those relationships. Families are a mixture of choice and obligation, and in times of crisis—and by that I mean sickness or divorce or other difficult times—we simply need each other to help us out.
GS On the side of the child, what is the biggest thing that contributes to the complexity of the relationship?
RN Children care a great deal about their parents, and they care whether they have a good relationship or a bad one. How many of your adult friends do you hear talking about the terrible relationship they have with their parents, or that they have no relationship at all? It bothers them that their parents are not part of their life. If you lose contact with a friend, it may be a shame, but you’re not missing part of your life. But when it’s parents who are missing from your life, you want to do something about it. There’s something about them you can’t let go of because they were such a major part of your formative years. Yet they may have failed you in many ways, or you may have shared incredible sadness. When children feel their parents have failed them, one way to reach out may be to try to understand the factors that played a part. Maybe there were pressures that overwhelmed them, or they were reacting to their own parents’ failure to nurture. Elements like that still affect adult children, and they still long for that relationship.
I also think that, just as popular myths about romance affect marriage, so popular myths about the mother-child relationship or father-child relationship affect our longings. We all have this fantasy that we’re going to walk romantically into the sunset with our husband forever and ever, but we eventually settle for a few nice weekends a year if we’re lucky.
GS So we have similar fantasies about our relationships with our grown children: we think they’re going to be coming over every weekend and bringing the grandchildren.
RN Exactly, but we have similar fantasies about our relationship with our parents. For instance, we may cherish the notion that they will forever be at our beck and call.
GS What is the biggest complaint parents have about their adult children?
RN My book is written for parents who basically have good relationships with their adult children. What they yearn for is more intimacy. They don’t want to live their children’s lives; they don’t want to be involved in every petty decision—or even every major decision. But they would like to at least feel a part of it. They don’t want to read in the newspaper that their child got a job promotion. Or perhaps the adult child might say, “Hi, I was offered this new job; these are the pros, these are the cons, this is what I’ve decided.” The parents would love it if their child asked, “What’s your opinion? I’m not necessarily going to follow it, but input would be valuable.” That would be the ideal.
GS You pointed out in the first chapter that the typical advice people give for raising independent offspring is to “let them go.”
RN Right. And I would say that really isn’t the task. The task is not to let go but to constantly use incremental learning to bring them to new ways of staying connected. For example, when we have an infant we hold them all the time. Then when they are learning to walk, we allow them to take a few steps holding one hand and then gradually not holding at all, and then we allow them to walk across the room, and so on. That process continues throughout life. So when they go off to camp the idea is not necessarily to completely disconnect but to write letters or send e-mails. In whatever way available, you want to stay connected and share these new experiences, and not let too much time go by without catching up.
Your kids might say, “At school today I played soccer” or “I learned my ABCs.” The activity doesn’t matter; the point is that the child did something the parent was not a part of and maybe doesn’t even want to be a part of, but parents do like to hear what is meaningful to the child (even if sometimes they listen with half an ear). It’s all about gradually learning how to stay connected in each stage. As we get older, how do we live perfectly independent lives yet remain able to share the joys and the sorrows—the frustrations of life? For example, if your child gets a promotion, you all might want to celebrate together. Or if your child experiences a failure, it’s nice to have people who care that you failed. Most of the world just goes on, right? They don’t care whether I wrote my article today or not. But it’s wonderful to have a child who says, “How’s the article going, Mom?”
GS There seems to be a tendency on the part of offspring to view the most ordinary statements by parents as criticism, whereas they wouldn’t so much as blink if the same statements came from somebody else.
RN Absolutely! And we do that with our children too. Everything goes two ways. Remember, we’ve never been parents of adult children before, and they’ve never been adult children before. So we’re both learning together, and that’s one of the complications. Early in the process we’re not quite sure where the boundaries are. Parents may ask about work, but maybe there’s a tinge of anxiety about it because they’re used to being responsible for it and it takes a while to let go of that responsibility—just like when they first crossed the street. Did we just send them across the street? No, the first time we’re there, we’re looking both ways with them, and over time we gradually trust their judgment and allow them to cross on their own.
It’s that same sort of process—the parent realizing that their responsibility has ended, and the child learning that the parents no longer see themselves in a supervisory capacity.
GS Are there things that sometimes get in the way of parents seeing that their kids are at that point? Absence, for instance? Let’s say you send your son away to college and he’s out of sight while he’s undergoing all this growth; then he comes home after four years. Is it tempting to view him as being at the same stage as he was when he left home?
RN Absolutely. Or he may have matured enormously emotionally and intellectually but may still be dependent on his parents financially, leading to confusion about when adulthood begins. And the fact that everyone matures at different rates also confuses it. The third confusion is that just as the child is changing, the parent may be changing or may not be changing at the same rate. Often we assume that things stay frozen, so unless we help each other unfreeze these images, we keep these outdated ways of interpreting each other. Unless children help their parents see that they are different—part of that is by showing more responsibility, and part of it is by talking—parents see them in the old light. In fact, the day before Thanksgiving when my class is leaving to go home, I always say to them, “Be kind to your parents; remember, they think the person who left is the person who’s coming back, and you’ve changed a lot. So be kind to them and help them understand some of the changes you’ve undergone.”
But by the same token, the parents have changed. They’ve filled their lives with things the adult child, having been gone, may not know about. So the parent has gone on, and the child has gone on, and each may have the other frozen in time. You may remember Mom as somebody who was totally available to you, and now she isn’t quite so available. She’s taken on new responsibilities in the community or with a job. This is where intimacy is needed to be able to share some of the changes that have occurred in your lives.
A second factor in all this is that parents may need to take the opportunity to reframe their thinking about their own parents. As we reach this stage, we’re realizing that our parents probably did the best they could. After having raised our own, we have a lot more understanding about what went into that process. Years of parenting gives you a little more perspective on your own upbringing.
And we may also need to examine the difference between our fantasies and reality, and then enjoy the reality and forget the fantasy. Parenting an adult child isn’t like following a recipe to get a specific dish. It’s more like looking in the refrigerator and making a meal of what’s there. And in each child’s case, what’s there is going to be very different. But if you appreciate each of them for who they are, then you’re not comparing them, you’re just working with what is there.
GS Would you say, then, that finding the right parent and adult-child relationship is going to be a different process between different parents and different children?
RN Absolutely, and I think that’s another important point to make: it’s a constant recalibration because they’re changing and we’re changing. I’m 67, but my friends and I often joke about what we’re going to do when we grow up. I love what I’m doing now, but I’m still always thinking, “What am I going to do next?” Our models are in some ways outdated because people are living longer and they’re living healthier, so opportunities for older people are opening up. It’s not uncommon for people to go back and get further degrees when they’re 50 or 60. Graduate schools are filled with older people. Unfortunately the world of work isn’t changing as quickly; there is still prejudice against the elderly, but many people are beginning new careers at older ages.
GS If there’s one key nugget that you’d like everyone, whether parents or children, to take away from this book, what would it be?
RN I would say that if you want relationships between parents and adult children to work, you have to take risks and reach out to each other. You have to know that it won’t always be smooth, but that it’s worth making the effort. Ultimately we have to forgive ourselves and others for our human failings. It’s very easy to hold anger and resentment, but it’s much harder and more worthwhile to be forgiving, which means looking at yourself and others and trying to see everyone in a new light. It takes a lot of honesty and acceptance of others’ foibles and imperfections to build good relationships.