Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

"So, You Finally Got Around to Calling!"

A mother's lament.

In the typical way of human affairs, children grow up and become independent. Being independent means having one’s own values and being able to express them no matter what others think. In the context of living with parents, it means being able to decide for oneself whether or not to go to church, or sleep with someone without being married, or choose to work at one job instead of another. Not asking parents for money is consistent with being independent, but it is not critical. Living apart from parents makes growing up easier, but is, once again, not critical. In fact, in certain cultures adult children are expected to live with their parents until they get married. Whether or not such an arrangement works depends on the expectations of both children and parents. For example, many first generation young men of Italian extraction live comfortably with parents into their 20s and sometimes 30s. Others who come from a different background may consider such young men as not entirely grown up; but that is not so. Having a parent do your laundry and cook meals for you does not undermine your independence. Of course, having a parent tell you what to do when you are an adult does have that effect.

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There is often a potential conflict between generations if the parents were immigrants to this country. They may have taken with them certain expectations about how families are supposed to hold together indefinitely. Not long ago, the societies from which these men and women came centered upon life on a farm. Adult children took over the management of the farm a little at a time. Their parents were never considered retired; but they worked less hard physically and were often principally responsible for their grandchildren. Old people were honored, and it was expected that their children would pay attention to what they had to say. Things are different in our country.

I work in a suburban community just outside New York City. I commonly notice certain intergenerational conflicts that appear especially in Jewish and Italian families. The children of Italian extraction, having been born in this country, anticipate moving out of their childhood home and away from their parents within a few years of finishing college. Their parents may regard that as foolish and undesirable. The reasons they give may have to do with incurring unnecessary expenses or missing out on certain unspecified opportunities, but the real reasons are that they love their children and want and expect them to stay closely connected to them. What benefit is there, they say, in moving away? 

Some Jewish parents feel the same way for somewhat different reasons. Probably in response to centuries of prejudice, Jewish families have a tradition of gathering around to confront a sometimes hostile environment. Children are usually central in their lives; and, in turn, the children are supposed to be appreciative of the sacrifices of their parents and attentive to them when those parents become elderly. The children might agree, but are pulled by other social expectations in a different direction. They have other responsibilities to other people. They are not as solicitous to their parents as their parents want.

Probably what I notice about certain Jewish and Italian families is true of many others of different cultural backgrounds. But, these are the families I see frequently; and so I speak of them.

I had as a patient a middle-aged Italian woman who was very distressed to discover her 30-year-old son was dating a nurse from New Jersey! The awful prospect that he might move out of her house and live a half-hour away across the George Washington Bridge loomed suddenly and unexpectedly. Part of therapy involved imagining this awful possibility in a way that made it seem tolerable to her. I don’t think I was especially successful, but the problem was obviated by the young man and his wife moving back into her house after marrying. It is now 15 years later and this no longer very young lawyer lives within walking distance of his parents. His brother lives a little closer on the other side of town.

I do not wish to seem condescending about such matters since my three adult children also live within walking distance.

But sometimes adult children do, indeed, move far away. And sometimes, more rarely, it is the parents who relocate. Nevertheless, it seems that it is always the parents who feel that separation more than their children. If their children do not call frequently, they feel disappointed. And sometimes bitter.

When I treat such patients, I say the usual things: “The telephone works in both directions—call them!” or “He/she is very busy coping with a new job in a new place. Not calling home doesn’t mean you are forgotten.” These remarks are not comforting. Being at such a distance from their children seems unnatural; and they suspect that their children are withdrawing irrevocably. And perhaps sometimes that is true.

In any case, there are some parents who feel neglected and tell me they are not going to stand for it. They then behave in ways that make it less likely that their children will call. They sit by the phone all the time, they tell me, and then when, finally, their son, or daughter, calls, they say, “So you finally got around to calling!” Before they say hello, they make a scolding remark. When it is the grown child who is my patient, he or she tells me that they dread making that phone call and put it off. Just as one would expect.

So, here are some suggestions for that aggrieved parent:

  1. Refrain from scolding your adult children, In particular, do not point out to them how remiss they are in their treatment of you. Rather than making it more likely they will call more frequently or in other ways attend to you more regularly, you are likely to make them resentful and cause a real estrangement. Besides, what good is making someone call at a certain time every day if that person is only doing it to stop your complaining? It’s a good idea also not to complain about your grandchildren forgetting your birthday. Grandchildren are not supposed to remember their grandparents’ birthdays. They have better things to do.
  2. Try to make your children’s calling you and visiting you a pleasant experience. Do not, if they are visiting, demand that the visit last a certain amount of time. That will make the visits onerous to them. If they can leave when they want to, they will visit more frequently. Also, in case you are inclined to worry about your grandchildren not eating enough, refrain from saying so. Chances are you are wrong, anyway.
  3. Try to do things for your children, even if they have more money than you and seem already to own everything. Baby-sitting is a good thing and makes everyone happier. Try not to expect to be appreciated. Children of every age tend to take their parents for granted.

Also, when things work out well—and very often, they can—it is possible to place your relationship with your adult children on a new footing. It is possible to be friends. You may find certain things fun to do together, such as going to a ball game or the theater, or even on a vacation. Key to making these desirable things happen is the willingness to forebear pointing out your children’s deficiencies. In other words, you cannot treat them as you did when they were children. 

(c) Fredric Neuman   Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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