A mother’s work is never done – at least, that’s how it might seem when adult children move back home with their parents, take their time establishing careers, and delay starting families of their own.
But as children in their 20s find their way, Toronto author Marni Jackson says, parents need to learn to let go.
Ms. Jackson has watched her own son Casey grow from the boy she wrote about in her 1992 bestseller, The Mother Zone: Love, Sex, and Laundry in the Modern Family, into a 27-year-old who experiences all the uncertainty, restlessness and growing pains typical of many his age. He has temporarily dropped out of university, hitchhiked alone through the United States into Mexico and Guatemala, hopped from one occupation to the next and struggled through heartbreak.
In her new book Home Free: The Myth of the Empty Nest, Ms. Jackson discusses the agony of letting her son carve out his own path, and explores how modern parenting, defined by the baby boom generation, has made it more difficult for parents to step back and quit their fretting.
Ms. Jackson explains to The Globe and Mail why parents need to have more faith.
You say we work too hard at mothering. Why do we need to learn “un-mothering”?
Well, I think families are a lot closer these days and we’re in contact in a lot more ways, so when we pull apart there’s a lot more to unplug. We have all these neural circuits with our kids, and so when we’re trying to let go we’re letting go on lots of levels.
Are overprotective parents to blame for the arrested development of adult children?
No, I think there’s too much blame placed on parents and kids for how families behave, and I think family is just changing. I also have a hunch that this expectation that kids should leave home at 20 or whatever is a bit of an aberration. Around the world and throughout history, kids have stayed under the shade of the family tree, and I see nothing wrong with that.
It’s only in North American, middle-class families that we have this vision of children leaving home at 18 and magically growing up. And I think one of my points is, leaving home and growing up are two separate enterprises.
In the book, you ask: Where did we get this idea that children should leave home at 18? What are your thoughts?
I think it’s partly due to two world wars, where boys went off to be soldiers, and secondary education spreading from the upper classes to the middle classes. So there was this expectation that at 18 you leave home, and more and more that’s not happening.
While you worried about your son’s solo hitchhiking trip, your husband seemed to have a “boys will be boys” attitude. Are dads naturally better at un-fathering?
In my case, yes. I don’t want to generalize about fathers and mothers. But in my case, I’m a vigilant mother. I have to unlearn my habits.
At the same time, a lot of your son’s experiences mirrored your own when you were his age.
Of course. Every time my son hit a bump in the road I was thrown back to my own 20s, which were all over the map. I thought about how I treated my parents, and I was as careless. But that was the days of the generation gap. We didn’t expect to be friends with our parents.
Do parents today need to protect and support their adult children more than their children actually need them?
I think sometimes, yes. I think parents want to keep their kids safe, and when our kids are older you can’t do that. You can’t be hands-on, so that makes you helpless. And feeling helpless makes you anxious. I call it the “middle-management problem,” where you have a certain agency but not much power.
How have you been able to get a handle on your feelings of helplessness?
By writing the book. [Laughs]E-mailing less is a good start. I think we need to have faith in how our kids are navigating the future. I think we bring outdated ideas about what careers should be and how you work these days. I think, in classic parent mode, we have to realize we’re slightly out of it.
You raise the idea that the world is a more dangerous place now. Is it, or is that a myth every older generation makes?
Maybe. In the old days our parents were worried about wars and polio, you know. And nowadays, the peril situation is more global and amorphous. It’s like pandemics and terrorism and environmental collapse – and we are right to be scared.
The other point is while I was growing up, jobs grew on trees. These days, the economy is still really hard on youth and in many cases they’re not choosing to stay home. They have no choice.
But we have to have faith that our kids are going to bring their own strategies to that. I think they’re totally more savvy. They probably know more about their parents and how to relate to them than our generation did. They have a self-awareness and they’re dancing on a more crowded dance floor. Despite this protracted growing-up thing, in many ways our kids are more grown-up than we are, but we want them to be grown up in a different way. We want to impose our idea of what’s grown-up on them.
How did your ideas of growing up conflict with Casey’s?
Four or five years ago, I really did think, ‘Well, get the degree and decide on a career path.’ And that is simply not how it works now. It’s a case of broader skills and multiple jobs, and that’s what everybody’s doing. I just had to catch up to that. If your son is taking his time to figure out what suits him, that’s part of the deal in your 20s, it’s what you should do in your 20s. But then there’s the problem of paying the rent. You get the combination of a lack of jobs and parents that you like – of course you’re going to stick around.
So parents should take it as a compliment if their children don’t leave home?
Sure, if their kids aren’t running screaming from them, that’s a good thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.