The Dark Side of Parental Love

Sometimes when kids are doing well, parents get grumpy.

Posted Nov 08, 2012

Pub Date for Twentysomething at last! It's the book I wrote with my 28-year-old daughter Samantha Henig, and we're marking Pub Date with a book party tonight in downtown Manhattan at a bar in the basement of the Woolworth Building that, amazingly, pulled through Hurricane Sandy without flooding. Among the 150 or so guests will be my older daughter, Jess Zimmerman, 32, coming up from D.C. for the party. So I'm thinking a lot today not only what it's like to be a young adult these days, but what it's like to be their mother. And I'm remembering a strange study that Sam and I encountered while writing our book—something that had special meaning for me because both my daughters have followed in my footsteps and have become journalists, already on the ascent and ready to eclipse me professionally.

You know the old saw that you're only as happy as your unhappiest child—even if the child is an adult? There's research that supports that. Middle-aged parents' sense of well-being, according to some studies, is intimately connected to how their grown children are doing, rising and falling along with the child's. Back in the 1990s, researchers at the University of Wisconsin asked 215 fifty-something parents how their twentysomething children were faring. Were the children well-educated? well-employed? financially independent? How about their overall adjustment; were they happy? self-confident? discouraged? anxious? well-liked? And they asked whether the parents thought their kids had made the most of their abilities.

The Wisconsin researchers, led by psychologist Carol Ryff, also asked the parents how their children’s accomplishments compared to those of other kids their age. And one more question that turned out to be the juiciest: they asked the parents how their kids compared to what they had been like back in the day, when they themselves were young.

Most of the findings were pretty much what anyone who’s been stuck in an elevator with that “proud parent of an honor roll student” would expect: the more well-adjusted and accomplished the child, the happier the parents. Parents who were pleased with how their kids turned out had higher levels of self-acceptance, a feeling of environmental mastery, and a sense of purpose in their lives. But there was one finding that was not only surprising but a bit disconcerting. The parents who thought their kids were better-adjusted than they themselves had been in their twenties weren’t all that pleased. In fact, thinking their kids were faring better than they had made them downright grumpy.

Isn’t this counterintuitive? “Why would parents not feel better about themselves,” the researchers mused, “if their children were doing better than they had done, as the American Dream suggests?”

The answer, it seems, is that parents aren’t quite as self-effacing and pure of heart as the Dream would have it. Yes, we want our children to have better lives than we did—at least, that’s the official party line. But life is complicated. People are complex. And parents—yes, even parents—can hold two competing emotions at the same time.

“Children who are accomplished and well-adjusted may occasion pride, and even vicarious enjoyment, among parents,” Ryff and her colleagues wrote. “Yet, these same wonderful children may evoke envy and the sense of missed opportunities in parents’ own lives.” When you get right down to it, parents’ attitude toward their children’s success is a lot like their attitude toward anyone’s success: it sort of makes them feel worse about themselves.

The anthropologist Lionel Tiger once described parenthood as “a set of radically unselfish and often incomprehensibly inconvenient activities.” There's a rumor going around that the dirty little secret of parenthood—the secret that other parents won’t tell you, because misery loves company—is that those first 18 years of parenting are the most difficult, most exhausting, least fulfilling years of anyone’s life. That's a debate for another time. But Tiger is right about this: parenthood does require a certain amount of selflessness and inconvenience. And after all those years of devoted attention, it can be difficult to shift gears—especially when we wake up, look at our adult children, and see a stark reminder of our own mortality.

Adapted from Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig, Hudson Street Press, Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright © 2012 by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig.

About the Author

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and the co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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