Help! I’m a Happily Married College Grad, but My Parents Still See Me as a Failure.

Advice on manners and morals.
May 12 2014 3:23 PM

Everybody’s a Critic

In a live chat, Prudie counsels a happily married college grad whose parents still see her as a failure.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Disappointment to My Parents: My parents are very ambitious, successful people. I was their only child, and they were determined to mold me into someone extraordinary. Instead I rebelled against their efforts and turned out very ordinary—an indifferent student, never got more than a bachelor’s degree, and I work a mid-level office job. I may pursue more education later, but I’m not in a hurry to do so. I’m happy with my life: I’m married to a wonderful man and we have a lovely, energetic toddler. So what do I say when my parents start in about how they wished I’d gone further in my education, wish I’d change X about my life, or tell horror stories about what a “difficult” child I was? At this point I don’t think it’s worth trying to get into an emotional conversation with them—I’d rather just gently and firmly shut it down when it starts. Any suggestions?

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A: You don’t sound ordinary to me. You completed your education, you are gainfully employed, you have a happy marriage, and a wonderful kid. This should make any parents proud and satisfied. If yours aren’t, you need to shut down your tiger parents’ “if only” talk. Explain to them that you want them in your life and that of your child, but you’re going to have to limit that if every time you’re together you hear a critique of how you’re living your life. Say that you have always done them the favor of not harping on what demanding, cold, judgmental parents they were. So you don’t want to hear about your supposed failings, either. If they can’t be pleasant when you’re together, they’re going to have to understand you will be failing to be together.

Q. On Being a MIL: The hardest role I have ever had in life is proving to be the role of mother-in-law. I have two adult daughters and when I see behavior that hurts one of them on the part of their husbands, I have a very hard time biting my tongue, so I don’t. This of course has led to both men not liking me. It would seem that this is one of those “keeping the peace” issues but not saying anything feels hypocritical to me. How on earth do I manage this? I want to see my grandkids. Or do I just accept the old adage that mothers-in-law are shrews and everyone hates theirs, period?

A: Last week, in “honor” of Mother’s Day, I ran a piece on the worst mothers-in-law to appear in this column. Lots of people wrote to me to tell about their wonderful mothers-in-law, so I asked people to post these stories on my Facebook page. There are more than 160 tributes to these great women, and I love that this breaks the stereotype of the meddling, interfering mother-in-law.

But you are portraying yourself as a meddling, interfering mother-in-law. I don’t know what you mean by your daughters being “hurt.” If they have both married abusive men, that is alarming. If so, you should have a private meeting with your daughters to express your concern that they are not safe. But if by hurt you mean anything that makes your girls less than ecstatic, that is, the normal wear and tear and annoyance of marriage, then you need to bite your tongue. You say your sons-in-law can’t stand you. But you don’t say if your daughters are egging you on and urging you to give it to their husbands. Or if they are embarrassed and appalled by your commentary. You say your interference risks your being able to see your grandchildren, so it seems your insights are not welcome by anyone. Your daughters are adults, but you sound like you’re hypersensitive to their emotional state, which is not good for you or them. You don’t have to accept the old adages about mothers-in-law, you just have to acknowledge you are being a lousy one, and that’s it’s within your power to change your behavior.

Q. Mother’s Day, Ughhhhh: Every Mother’s Day it’s the same: My kids (now teens, but it was ever thus) do nothing until they are begged/nagged by my husband, then they scrawl some last-minute card out of obligation. It doesn’t help that I’m not that wild about my own mother, either. I try to joke that we put the “fun” in dysfunctional, but it always makes me feel terrible, because I really do a lot for them and would like them to learn to express some appreciation. Should we just cancel the holiday? It’s always an exercise in disappointment, even when I lower my expectations wayyy down.

A: This is both a global and specific problem. Because of your own poor relationship with your mother, you may be conveying that contempt for one’s mother is an OK thing. You have to examine how what you say and do as regards your own mother has been communicated to your kids about how they should treat you. But it’s understandable that you feel dissed by a paltry, tossed off acknowledgement of you. I think you should talk this out with your husband and then he should go to the kids and say all of you need to do a redo. He can talk about how much you love them and how much you do to make their lives better. He explains that demands gratitude and acknowledgement, and not just one day a year. Have him tell them they are all going to take you out for a delayed Mother’s Day celebration, and in the meantime, they need to compose thoughtful letters to you. Let’s hope your kids will rise to this challenge. And if they won’t, they you need to have a conversation with them—not a guilt trip—about how you are concerned that your relationship with them seems so one-way.

Q. Security Camera in Bathroom: Over the past year, my mother has been getting increasingly more paranoid of others taking her valuables. She talks about it constantly, although as far as I can tell, it’s never happened. She’s just read a lot about theft. Things reached a new height recently when she decided to install security cameras in her house, so that she can monitor the “trustworthiness” of her maid staff and her nanny (she takes care of my two daughters part time, when I am travelling, and she employs child care to help her out.) Two of the security cameras are in her downstairs bathrooms. The cameras are hidden, and even if they weren’t, I feel this violates the privacy rights of both the nanny and the maid staff. But I don’t know how to address this with my mother without making her feel upset. Should I address it with my mother or alert the nanny and the maid staff of the cameras in the bathrooms? 

A: Increasing paranoia with no reasonable cause behind it calls for a medical intervention. Since you and your mother are obviously close, you should talk to her about your concern that she’s worried about unnecessary things and tell her you’ll make a doctor’s appointment for her and accompany her. What your mother has done as far as the bathroom pee-cam is concerned is really creepy. (And maybe a lawyer can explain if filming someone in the bathroom in your own home could be illegal.) I hope at the end of the day your mother is not reviewing the tapes hoping to find the staff relieving themselves of her valuables and not just relieving themselves. Since your mother is not capable of caring for your kids without help, it might make most sense for you to separate these functions. Arrange for your own child care when you travel. And visit your mother with your kids when you’re in town. But most important is getting to the bottom of this personality change.

Q. Re: Mother’s Day: I’m now in my mid-20s, and 10–15 years ago my mother probably could have described me this way. It truly took being on my own to understand how much my mom did for me. I appreciate her so much more now, and in hindsight probably shouldn’t have been such a lame teenager. But, I think this year in the past few years I’ve been able to truly show my mom how much I appreciate everything she did, and still continues to do. I’m sure this feeling will be multiplied even more when I have my own kids.

A: Many teenagers tend to be lame on the gratitude-to-the-adults-in-their-lives front. However, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed. These are important lessons for parents to impart, and teenagers can recognize the rather startling fact that their parents are people, too, and the relationship they have with them is reciprocal.

Q. Re: On being a MIL: The best advice I ever received before I married was from my best friend’s mother. She told me that if I didn’t want my mom to dislike/hate my husband, a lot of the responsibility was on me. If my husband and I had a disagreement and I was upset, I should NOT run to my mom and tell her about it. While I would most certainly “forgive and forget” whatever small irritation it was deemed at the time to be so critical, my mom wouldn’t. She might forgive him, but she would never forget it. My best friend’s mom was very wise and it has held me in good stead for 21-plus years. My mom adored her son-in-law till the day she passed away.

A: Thanks for this. And this speaks to the fact that sometimes it is good for older people to speak up and impart their wisdom—whether it’s taken or not. What your best friend’s mother told you about marriage sounds as if it was tailored to her knowledge of your own mother. There are some mothers and daughters who can hash such things out, with the mother being able to put the information aside and not punish the son-in-law. But I agree with your basic point that if you’re old enough to get married, you’re too old to run to mom every time something upsets you.

Q. Guests on Mother’s Day Dinner: I am visiting my daughter and granddaughter out of state. I was looking forward to our Mother’s Day outing as we do every year, but I was taken aback when I realized that my daughter had invited one of her friends and her daughter (who is a playmate of my granddaughter) to the Mother’s Day dinner. Additionally, the young girl was at the house on the previous day along with more friends for a sleepover so we did see her mother and visited briefly with her. I just wonder if we could have skipped the additional company during this occasion since these people live in the area and my family is able to see them much more frequently.

A: Maybe your daughter’s friend doesn’t have a mother. Maybe she doesn’t have a husband, so there’s no one to celebrate her. Maybe your daughter thought the two little girls would keep each other entertained while the adults talked. Yes, I can understand your feeling miffed that an outsider attended your special day. And next year, well in advance, tell your daughter that you really enjoy her friends, but you want to be able to go out just as a family. But it sounds as if you were gracious yesterday, so let that stand and let it go.

Q. Piano Teacher’s Home Smells: My kid has been taking piano lessons for years from a lovely teacher who does not keep her piano studio very clean. For years, we tolerated the dust and smell (unclean cat box, I believe), since teacher also had a full-time office job, and I sympathized with her for not having the time and energy to clean. Teacher is now retired from her office job over a year, and still, her piano room is dusty and smells painfully bad (it’s quite gross). Can we say something to her? I fear the smell and dust must turn away potential students.

A: If children must hold their breath to get through the lesson, fainting from hypoxia is not going to improve their musical skills. Yes, you can tell her that she’s a wonderful teacher, but the dirt and odor in her home need to be addressed—and you fear the conditions are turning away other pupils. If she can’t fix this, your child might be one of those who eventually finds a more congenial place to make beautiful music.

Q. Domestic Partnership: A year ago, my best friend and I, both fresh out of marriages, decided to move in together and to partner in raising our children and running our household. This is not a temporary situation, but one that we envision to be permanent, at least until the youngest graduates high school in 15 years. Our children have blended wonderfully and refer to each other as brothers and sisters; they all recognize us as equal moms. What we have is truly a “domestic partnership” in every sense of the word, and we are often mistaken for being a romantic couple. Generally speaking, when this occurs, we don’t even bother to correct the mistake as what happens in our bedrooms is no one’s business. Recently we have discussed making our partnership formal in the legal sense in order for us to have legal protections for one another (i.e., the ability to make health care decisions; the legal ability to be viewed as stepparents, etc.). My only concern is that entering into a domestic partnership as two straight women cheapens it. However, the argument has also been made that since domestic partnership is open to any couple—LGBTQ, heterosexual, and even siblings—where we live, that we aren’t cheapening it, we are simply putting it to use as intended. Thoughts?

A: If you two want to have legal protection so that you can each care for each other and each other’s kids, then you should take steps to ensure this, whether it is becoming domestic partners or drawing up a private document. You are domestic partners, and since the law gives you an opportunity to register as such, it does not cheapen this right for people who are in romantic relationships. However, you each were in marriages in which you presumably pledged lifelong fealty, and you know how that can work out. So I’m a little concerned that you two have concluded, just a year in, that this set up is for the long haul. You say you don’t even correct people when they assume you are romantic partners, so many people will assume you are. But your aren’t, and the two of you—once you recover from your divorces, may decide you want real romantic partners. That’s surely going to complicate your living situation. You two sound as if you have great thing going, but you each need the ability to assess where you’re at and be open with each other if your personal needs change. 

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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