At noon (ET) today, join Globe Careers for an online discussion with Barbara Moses.
Four midlife women get together, and their talk quickly turns to what their twentysomething children are doing with their lives.
One boasts that her daughter won a Rhodes scholarship and is trying to decide between accepting it or an offer to work for a think tank in Geneva. The second says her son was recently promoted to vice-president – rumour has it that he is being groomed to become the next CEO. The third recounts how her child's social-media company was bought by a major technology company for seven figures.
The fourth woman doesn't say much. Her adult son works as a waiter and still lives at home. Though she understands the normal curve – and that it's impossible for everyone to be a super achiever – she still feels ashamed. What she hears and interprets from this exchange is: Everyone else's kid is a star, yours is loser. And you are both failures.
This kind of insidious social comparison is common among women. Many find it even more painful when the barometer is their child. But it doesn't end there. That mother who feels awful goes home and tells her son about the amazing achievements of everyone else's kids. This makes her son, who is already insecure and confused about his career path, feel worse.
If the adult son or daughter has a partner or spouse, it's also common for mothers to think the partner isn't up to snuff, career-wise, and may be holding back her child.
In an informal survey I conducted with female friends and some of my clients, about 60 per cent said they were disappointed with their child's careers, or that of their child's partner. The mothers wished the young people were more ambitious, assertive or clearer about their career goals.
Boomer parents are accustomed to trying to control every aspect of their environment, so it's not surprising that they see their children, and their careers, as an extension of their own ego. My clients tell me that mothers are often so engaged in their child's job hunt, for example, that they send in, and follow up on, their kid's résumés; hiring managers think they are hiring the mother, not the child.
This is consistent with a Michigan State University survey of more than 700 companies, which found that 25 per cent of hiring managers had been contacted by parents encouraging them to hire their children. Employers said they were more likely to see mothers collecting company information and making arrangements for interviews.
So here's a suggestion for mothers: Stop taking and evaluating your children's or their partner's career temperature. It's their life, not yours. If they are not leaping up the career ladder, it doesn't make them – or you – a failure. And if they are successful in their career, it doesn't make you a success, either.
If you can't stop yourself from comparing your child to others, here's some advice to save not only your sanity but also that of your child.
Divorce your identities
Your children's career choices and economic successes (or failures) don't make you a better or worse person. It is natural to feel pleased or disappointed about their achievements or setbacks, but that shouldn't affect how you feel about yourself. Don't beat yourself up if your child pursues a career path that is different from the one you thought he or she was capable of. Remember, you are only one small factor in influencing your child's outcome.
Bite your tongue
Remember how irritated you would get when your parents opined about which career path you should follow, or lectured you about your decisions? Chances are you're not cooler than your parents were. When I ask twentysomethings whether their parents "get" their work options, most of them say no. Whether this is true of the parents' understanding is beside the point – what is important is what their children believe.
Lecturing only aggravates your children; it rarely produces the changes parents want. It's hard but necessary to accept that you are no longer their go-to person for counsel.
There is nothing more annoying than a speech that begins with, "When I was your age ..." When you were your child's age, the working world and career options were very different. Your experience may not be really relevant to your child.
Your child may not be following a clear career path. But rather than thinking: "This is it, my kid is a loser," concentrate on the possibilities ahead: "I wonder what will happen in the next chapter?" Many young people now don't find their career groove until they're in their thirties, a contemporary phenomenon sociologists call delayed adulthood. It's not over 'til it's over.
You cannot look at your children's accomplishments through the lens of their counterparts. Another person's apparent success does not shed light on how well your child is doing, nor does it mean that your son or daughter is deficient. And lay off on your child's partner; if he or she can live with that person's career choice, then so should you.
Let them own their choices
Allow your children to make their own decisions about the work they do and where they do it. Otherwise they will always wonder what might have happened if you hadn't intervened, and/or blame you for their career twists and turns. Don't deprive them of the sweet feelings of success that come from knowing they did it for themselves, not for (or because of) mom. As Bob Dylan once observed, your sons and daughters are beyond your command.
Barbara Moses, PhD , is a speaker, organizational career management consultant and the author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life.