Mean Moms, Detached Dads, and Holiday Stress

Do Millennials really have better relationships with their parents?

Posted Dec 12, 2012

If I didn’t own a calendar, I’d know it was December just by the emails and letters I receive from readers who’ve tracked me down to say they’ve read my book Mean Mothers. (The other active month is May, as in Mother’s Day.) Recently, though, I’ve been surprised by the number of Millennials who’ve been in touch. As it happens, I didn’t interview Millennials for the book for two reasons. First, the mother-daughter relationship—even a healthy one—goes through a transition when the child becomes an adult which can become rocky at times or downright fractious. Second, I was interested in what happened to unloved daughters when they became mothers, so my interviews skewed older.  

The emails and letters are noteworthy because one of the cultural tropes about this generation is how close their ties to their parents are—evidenced by the frequency of communication (phone, text, Facebook), the number of Millennials who are reportedly happy living back home in their twenties, and the degree of parental involvement in Millennial lives.

In her book Alone Together, psychologist Sherry Turkle opines that twenty-five years ago, had a college junior she was counseling revealed she was calling her mother fifteen times a day, she would have “thought her behavior problematic. I would have encouraged her to explore difficulties with separation. I would have assumed that these had to be addressed to proceed to successful adulthood. But these days, a college student who texts home fifteen times a day isn’t unusual.”

In fact, in a recent interview in The New York Times, Dr. Arthur Levine, one of the authors of "Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student,” which studied the classes of 2006 to 2011, was asked whether parent-child relationships have fundamentally changed. His answer is one echoed by other experts: “Kids now talk with their parents about their sex lives, their drugs and drinking, their classes, their social uncertainties, every aspect of their lives. One in five college students are [sic] in touch with their parents three or more times a day, and 41 percent are in touch every day. And students who say they have heroes usually name their parents as their heroes.” 

Wow. Are the parents of Millennials really heroes? Wait a minute. What about the divorce rate among the parents of Millennials? Aren’t half of these kids from what used to be called a “broken” home? (That’s meant to be ironic, by the way. I’m the divorced mother of a Millennial.) And, moreover, even if these Millennials grew up in “intact” families, many of them are now experiencing what’s being called the “Gray Divorce, “ as one in four Baby Boomers now divorce after the age of fifty.

So are the Millennials who are getting in touch to talk about their detached dads and their mean or self-absorbed moms anomalies, or are we just playing pretend here about this oh-so-securely-attached generation, who are just crazy about their parents? If we did such a great job as parents, why are so many young adults in this generation so emotionally disconnected, if not to their parents, then to their peers? And is being in constant touch, over-sharing, or being dependent evidence of a healthy parent-child relationship?

During my years of childrearing, going to PTA meetings and school events, along with the genuinely engaged and loving parents, I do remember the hypercritical mothers with their children, the ones who left the mothering largely to nannies, the mothers who insisted on being a “girlfriend” rather than a figure of authority, the absentee or dismissive dads, the parents who saw their children as extensions of themselves. I also remember the one mother who called her seven-year-old daughter a “b—” with alarming frequency. Are those Millennial kids calling their parents “heroes” too?

“I stress on the holidays and on my birthday too,” one twenty-five-year-old confides. “My parents don’t speak to each other and I always have to figure how to negotiate the big days when I’m inevitably going to disappoint someone. Am I close to them? Well, we talk and text but there’s a lot that goes unsaid.” 

I ask Dr. Karyl McBride, an expert on narcissism, author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, and a blogger on this site, whether somehow the Millennial generation has been given a pass and won the parent-child good relationship lottery. She says not: “I see the same issue in adult children, adolescent children, and little children of narcissistic parents. Narcissism reaches across all generations and is highly misunderstood. The cornerstone of narcissistic parenting is the lack of empathy and the inability to give unconditional love which comes from the parents’ own lack of empathetic parenting. They do not know how to tune in emotionally to their children.”

Are hovering or micro-managing or writing the college entrance essay for your kid synonyms for “tuning in”? Alas, we all know the answer. 

So, to those Millennials out there who’ll struggle through the holidays, please know that you’re not alone, no matter what everyone is posting on Facebook. As someone who struggled through the holidays herself, if you need help, go find it. You are, as Dr. McBride puts it, “good enough.”

Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York:Basic Books, 2011)