How did you come to write Walking on Eggshells?
After 25 years of marriage, my husband and I decided to divorce for reasons you can read in the book. I was fortunate to then rediscover my first love, and we were happy together. During this time, I didn’t spend much time with my grown sons, and things were not easy between us. We all felt the loss of family then, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
The big wake-up call came when my elder son called me one day and asked if I would go with him to his therapist. What a 21st century mothering task, I thought. He had things to tell me—that he loved me and was afraid that he was losing me. That began a conversation that continues for a decade —the first years were hard, but they were worth it. A few years later, I apologized to his brother for not being the mother I should have been when he came home from college. That was difficult, too, but it totally changed our relationship for the better. I was lucky to have sons who weren’t going to let our closeness slip away. They made me realize that no matter how hard it is to take the first step, it gets easier as you continue on the path of renewed closeness and ease.
How did you do your research?
I traveled across the country, to big cities and small, and interviewed members of both generations, about 75 in all. It was an amazing journey. Men and women, from their twenties to their seventies, were generous with their stories. Their honesty was astonishing. I heard happy stories and heartbreaking ones. As an editor with 40 years experience working with psychiatrists and psychologists, I listened very carefully, and began to discern patterns.
What were some of those patterns?
I heard stories of abusive fathers who, when they changed their ways, were welcomed back into their children’s lives. Many adult children described what it’s like to go home for the holidays—how they feel as if they are small children again and can’t keep from exploding at their parents. People told me about their troubles connecting with grown stepchildren, and how they struggled to stay in touch with their sons’ ex-wives. I heard stories of grown children trying to make their mothers happy, and how hard parents try to keep their children from making mistakes. Everybody I spoke with wanted this relationship to work. The people who have mastered this new stage of life have begun to see each other more realistically, and with greater acceptance. Parents are no longer the giants who wield perfect authority, and grown children are no longer the fulfillment of some unrealistic dream.
What is going on with the younger generation? They seem so distant and tense.
Many grown children confessed to not treating their parents very well, but they expressed deep love and gratitude, not only for the sacrifices their parents made, but also for the gift of life. These grown kids love their parents even when they aren’t returning their phone calls. Why? Well, they’re busy constructing their own lives—which they understand is important to their folks. They also need to create a space around themselves before they can return to the nest as full adults.
People are so troubled with their 20-something kids. What’s going on here?
It turns out that people in their 20s behave more like children: they are experimenting with independence, the way they did when they were two years old. So they ask advice and don’t take it, call parents and then get off the phone, and come home with dirty laundry and expect to be treated like adults. Across the board, I found that this situation improves with time.
Is there such a thing as a perfect family?
Absolutely not—and I have found that if you think you know a perfect family, you don’t know them very well. Every family experiences a different kind of closeness, even between each parent and each child, and it changes over time. So the daughter who has caused the most sleepless nights may be the one you turn to when you’re unhappy at work. And the child who lives thousands of miles away and only calls with good news may be protecting you from her sorrows. You just never know.
What’s the best way to give advice to grown kids?
Don’t. Advice is the worst thing parents can give adult kids. They don’t like it. They resent it. And they will move out of range of parents who give it. Even good advice is taken badly. Wise parents practice silence, and suffer gladly with what I call Shredded Tongue Syndrome.
One worried mother warned her son about his drinking problem. He went into AA and is dry five years later, but he still isn’t talking to his mom. Beware the instinct to advise! A woman in the book whose seven children live nearby gave the best advice to parents: Keep your mouth shut and your door open.
What do the parents of adult children want?
They want to be welcome in their children’s homes, to stroll through town with a son or daughter. They will, of course, be there for their kids in times of trouble. And they hope that their kids will eventually come to see them as the flawed—but loving—people they are. They’re not looking for perfection, but openness and warmth would be lovely.
What do adult children want?
The adult children I talked to want their parents to be happy. They want to be allowed to make their own mistakes. They want their parents to accept them, warts and all. One gay man fought with his mother until his partner’s photo was on the wall with the pictures of the rest of the family—and the family became so much closer when he won. They want their parents to be there for the grandchildren, and they will lovingly take back parents who were abusive or cruel—so long as they have apologized and changed their ways.
What do both generations want?
They want to stop walking on eggshells!