Monday, August 12, 2019

The Power of "No"

I recently had a defining moment in an unlikely place: at a local establishment called The Riverbottom -- across the mostly dry Gila River from Florence, Arizona's huge state prison complex. It's a popular watering hole with amazingly good food. Most Friday nights, the Riverbottom is filled with a strange but congenial mix of real cowboys, heavily tattooed bikers and elderly locals in baseball caps and polo shirts, all enjoying the live entertainment.

I was there with my friend Marsha on a blisteringly hot July night to hear a former neighbor give one of his memorable concerts, Hank Gooday, a Superior Court judge, moonlights as a country/rock singer with an avid local following. His music inspires people to get up and dance, even in extreme heat.


Marsha and I noticed a local cowboy who was dancing with his wife and smiled at their obvious ease with each other. Minutes later, after his wife sat down to rest, he came over and asked Marsha to dance with him. I could hear her sigh, but she got up and took a turn around the dance area with him. Then he asked me. And I said "No." There was a shocked silence all around.

Taken aback by the looks I was getting from the other women at the table and his leaning in to me, I tried to be polite. "I appreciate your asking me," I said, smiling. "But no. I don't want to dance."

He didn't move.

I made quick excuses: "My knees hurt. I'm too old for this..."

He smiled. "My knees hurt, too, and you don't look a day over 53."

I laughed. "You silver tongued devil! But I still don't want to dance. Dance again with your lovely wife. I really enjoyed watching you two."

"We've been married for 37 years," he said with a shrug. "I can dance with her any time. Aw, come on, just one dance..."

"No," I said, folding my arms. "Thanks for asking, but no."

When he walked away, the other women at our table looked at me, shocked.

"I think you were very rude not to dance with him," one said.

"You hurt his feelings," another scolded.

Marsha was laughing. "You really did call him a silver-tongued devil!" she snickered. "But I don't understand. It wasn't a big deal just to dance one dance with him."

Yes it was... for me. Because it was expected that I'd say "Yes" despite my discomfort. Because women are supposed to be nice and comply, to politely go along with another's agenda.

Hell with that.

My disinclination to go with the flow appears to be trendy. There have been a number of recent articles in the New York Times and professional journals about our society's expectations that women will invariably agree to requests.

In her New York Times opinion piece, Jessica Bennet talked about starting a "No Club" which she described as "like a book club but for learning to say 'No'."

"There's a lot wrapped up in the word 'No' for women, beginning with the fact that women are expected to say 'Yes' and feel guilty when they don't," she wrote.

Vanessa Patrick, a professor in the business school at the University of Houston, noted in a recent study that "the ability to communicate 'No' really reflects that you are in the driver's seat of your own life. It gives you a sense of empowerment."

She found in her study that saying 'I don't' rather than 'I can't' establishes more conviction in one's decision.

Still, it's far from easy. Even when declining with courtesy and conviction, the blowback can be harsh.

I recently said "No" to a speaking engagement after the organizer made a major change in the approach to the subject. I had agreed to a serious discussion of some emotional issues we face as we age. But she was envisioning a light-hearted party of sorts with sweet treats. I told her that I wasn't comfortable with that and suggested that we find a compromise. Otherwise, I told her, I would be compelled to say "No". Her reply was vitriolic and she cancelled my appearance on the spot.

My overall reaction was relief. I'm just starting a new psychotherapy private practice in this area. While this talk wasn't meant to be a promotional gig, I still didn't want to do anything that might detract from my image as a mental health professional. There have been times in my professional past -- many years ago -- when I agreed to give a speech or endorse a product or a concept that I found embarrassing or that made me uneasy because I needed the money or the publicity or because I was afraid that my agent or others would be mad at me if I said "No."

No more.

It feels good when actions are more congruent with one's convictions and desires. Most of us have been raised to please, to give higher priority to another's wants or needs. There are, of course, times when that needs to happen. But there are many other times in our lives when saying "No" is necessary and empowering.

So what do we need to remember about saying "No"?

Saying "No" is living intentionally.  There is a freedom in giving yourself permission to say "No" to requests or options when you want or need to. Letting yourself be ruled by "should's" is incredibly stressful. There are times, of course, when we all have to do things we don't want to do or spend time with people we'd rather not be with for professional or personal reasons. But whenever possible, saying "No" can free us to live authentically and with considerably less stress.

"I knew I had finally grown up when I could say 'No' to others without being witchy," my late friend and former college roommate Cheryl Rennix once wrote me. "Those of us who grew up in a certain time, in the dysfunctional families of our early years, were obsessed with being nice, with pleasing others, with ignoring our own wants and needs. Being a real grown up means taking charge of your own life -- and that means feeling free to say 'No' sometimes."

Saying "No" doesn't have to be nasty. It can be kind but firm. Saying "No" with grace and kindness is an acquired skill that many of us -- including myself -- are still learning.

There is a learning curve, to be sure, in learning to be firm -- not leaving any room for negotiation -- while being gracious. You may find yourself sounding a bit like a pleasant broken record -- "I appreciate your offer, but that won't be possible for me." or "I won't be able to join you on that day, but thanks for thinking of me."

One of the most stressful -- and problematic -- ways to say "No" is the hedge ("Well, I might. I don't know. Let me think about it and get back to you..."). In this instance, you're stressed about possibly agreeing to something you really don't want to do and the other person feels caught in limbo.

Another habit those of us who struggle with "No" tend to have is the resentful agreement. People pleasers always say "Yes", but they often don't please themselves -- or others -- if their compliance is grudging. Or if they pull out of agreed upon plans at the last minute with a lame excuse. Saying "No" upfront can be kinder to yourself and to the other person as well.

Saying "No" doesn't mean negativity. It can mean being honest and true to your own convictions. It can mean leaving room in your life for positive events and people. It can mean building trust -- with your true intentions and actions closely aligned. Saying "No" when you must makes the times when you say "Yes" ever more meaningful.

I recently said "Yes" to another speaking engagement organized by the same person who disagreed so vehemently with my serious approach to what she had hoped would be a light-hearted event. She recently offered me another date and topic --a serious one. I said "Yes" immediately.

And if a man I know and love asked me to dance, I'd melt into his arms in a minute!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Comfortable Invisibility

I had no idea just how lucky I was to have been born with an ordinary face and body until a gorgeous friend pointed this out to me some years ago.

"You're so lucky that you've never depended on your looks for anything," she told me, tapping her beautifully manicured fingernails nervously on the table top as we sipped iced tea in a cafe near her movie studio workplace. "You don't have to worry about losing your looks. What do you have to lose? I'm not meaning this in a negative way. I think it's a real positive that no one notices you one way or the other even now. So getting older and looking your age won't be such a shock."

I was in my early forties then, she in her late thirties. I noticed she was drinking a bit, adding whiskey from a bottle in her purse to her iced tea. "I really fear getting old and losing my looks," she said.

I nodded, sensing her anguish over those first faint crows feet, and felt suddenly grateful that, indeed,  I wasn't and had never been a beauty.

My very ordinary looks had been an issue when I was growing up. My mother, for whom looks loomed large, was enormously disappointed in me.  She kept hoping that my appearance would improve as I grew up.

"Maybe you're just going through a homely phase now," she'd say, looking me over appraisingly. "When you're 16 or maybe 20, maybe you'll be beautiful." But that magical transformation never really happened.

My father was more focused on my getting good grades, a good education and gainful employment. But he kept a practiced eye on my weight, insisting that I step on the scale as he watched every Sunday when I was in my teens. He scolded me when my weight soared to 112, even though that was perfectly fine for my height and build. "Your mother weighed 108 when we met," he would say, ignoring the fact that even then I was two inches taller than my mother.

So I grew up fretting about my weight, feeling ashamed that I wasn't pretty and, at the same time,  was alarmed and unsettled when I got occasional unsolicited male attention. While I treasured occasional attention and compliments from men I knew and liked, I cringed going by construction sites and didn't have an inkling of what to do if a male stranger hit on me. Part of me always thought he must be joking.

But for all the early shame and sadness of not being a beauty in a family and society steeped in lookism, size-ism and chauvinism, I've been happy, overall, with my unremarkable face and body. I've found joy in developing my mind, my talents and social skills. I've found great pleasure in friendships with men that might not have been possible had I been a beauty like my friend. And I've come to accept and even celebrate my body as it is: decidedly imperfect, but blessedly healthy so far. The comfortable invisibility of mid-to-late life has been just the thing for me. I feel so much at ease out in a world where I go largely unnoticed.

There are many advantages to growing older, comfortable with the invisibility of age.

When we are noticed, it's for our kindness or wisdom or strength of character.

Instead of anguishing over slight (or imagined) physical imperfections, as we did in our teens or twenties, we can laugh at our larger, very real ones. Not long ago, I had a delightful time over dinner with Tim Schellhardt -- one of my dearest friends since we were teenage college students -- when we laughed heartily over the great varieties of wrinkles and sags our faces and bodies have achieved in the past few years. And there are times when my husband Bob Stover will look at himself in the mirror and ask "Who is that old man?" And then he'll start laughing. Reaching a point in life where we can laugh at ourselves with abandon is a great blessing.

Times are changing, too. The women of my parents' generation were very conscious of maintaining a certain look. My Aunt Molly and her friends wouldn't have dreamed of leaving the house without full make-up ("I have to put my face on.") And many colored their hair into advanced old age. That all seems less common now. Many of us feel free to forget about makeup most days and let our hair transform into varying shades of silver or white. My natural hair color when young was a very dark brown. I'm delighted with my head of white hair now. And, of course, the women of my generation and those younger are more likely these days to be valued for a variety of traits that have little to do with physical beauty.

As the years go by, I have come to love the freedom of public invisibility, eluding the evaluation on the attractiveness scale by others and giving myself more latitude as well. Who I am inside is emerging more visibly on my face and in my spirit. Many of us feel more at ease with our bodies and ourselves as we age. These days I focus on health, with wiser food choices and daily exercise. I watch my weight in an effort to stave off diabetes, cancer and dementia. I dress for comfort. I'm happy with the person I've become. And I live every day with gratitude for my health and good fortune in surviving to see old age.

And in such peace and acceptance, there is a kind of beauty.

I see it in my dear friend Sister Rita McCormack, a cherished role model since I was eight years old and she a 23-year-old teaching nun just arrived from Ireland. Though Rita has not been blessed with good health the past two decades, her luminous spirit, filled with kindness and generosity and love in living, nonetheless makes her appear decades younger than her 89 years. The beauty of her face and spirit transcend the physical, delighting and inspiring everyone who knows and loves her.

I'm growing to discover my own kind of beauty, something noted recently by a newer member of our family.

"You are beautiful," my Thai-born sister-in-law Jinjuta, 36 years my junior, insisted, as she touched my face and smiled. "I hope someday I can be as beautiful as you."

Who knew that beauty would come with age and quiet acceptance of the passage of time? The beauty we all discover with age is much more profound than physical attractiveness. It is the growth of our essence that can shine brightly, ever more luminous with time.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Mother's Day Reflections

"Happy Mother's Day!!"

I hear it from supermarket cashiers and from my favorite person at the McDonald's drive-thru as she hands me my unsweetened iced tea.

It's just a reflexive greeting, I tell myself, feeling a stab of equally reflexive pain within.

But I don't show the pain. I just smile and say "Thank you! And Happy Mother's Day to you, too."

Mother's Day is always a bit melancholy for me. My only pregnancy ended in miscarriage 44 years ago. And my mother died 39 years ago, when I was only 35. I've spent a lot of Mother's Days feeling out of step with the world and reminded, with each cheery greeting, of my losses.

I'm not feeling sorry for myself. Not exactly. I'm just feeling wonder at the diversity of life experiences I see around me and times of wistfulness as I imagine roads not taken and loved ones taken too soon.

Many people have bittersweet feelings on Mother's Day for a variety of reasons.

There are people who have complicated relationships in their adult children and those who are actually estranged, for whom the silent phone and empty mailbox are stark reminders of their painful differences. There are parents who have experienced the unimaginable pain of losing a child they loved and nurtured well into childhood or adulthood. There are those who live far away from loved ones. And there are mothers who love their children immeasurably but still, in quiet moments, wonder what might have been.

Maybe it's simply human nature to wonder.

A friend I'll call Betty interrupted a successful career to have and to nurture her four children. And they're wondrous children -- now successful, kind and caring adults with children of their own. When I fantasize about the children I might have had, I imagine clones of these fabulous four. And yet, at least in part, they are who they are because of Betty's sacrifices.

Could I have made such a sacrifice? In truth? No. I saw my mother walk away from a career she loved to raise the three of us and, as much as she loved us, she had terrible regrets and much marital unhappiness. I vowed that my life would be different. And it is. But still I wonder at times about that road not taken.

So does Betty, as proud of and totally in love with her family as she is. What if she had been able to resume her career? By the time she was ready to go back to work, the opportunities simply weren't there for her. She wonders what life might have been like if she had completed her Ph.D. I did complete my Ph.D. And I find myself thinking that, at this stage of life, the love of a family means so much more than any collection of degrees or years at work.

Those of us who are not and have never been mothers find many ways to feel connected.

We delight in nieces and nephews, knowing that an aunt's love can mean so much. Every Mother's Day, I think back with love and gratitude to Aunt Molly, my father's younger sister, who was a a pivotal person in the lives of my brother, sister and me. And she was a professional writer, the best of mentors. She never married or had children of her own. But we claimed her as our own, feeling fierce and loving bonds with her. We used to call her our "third and best parent." And for years after our parents both died of heart attacks in 1980, we used to celebrate Aunt Molly on Mother's Day. She joked about feeling like an imposter as we took her out to brunch. But she wasn't an imposter. She was our love. After she died in early 2004, I found a picture I had never seen, framed and tucked away in her nightstand.

Aunt Molly and me back in the day 

It was the first picture taken of us together. I was a fragile premature newborn -- tiny, with a full head of hair and she was a 28 year old unfamiliar with babies. We both looked uncomfortable but curious to know each other. We were fortunate enough to know and love each other for nearly sixty years. Now that photo sits on my desk -- where it makes me smile as I remember this very special person who blessed my life. And I try to relive these memories in visits with my very young niece and nephew today -- though Aunt Molly's shoes are truly impossible to fill.

Niece Maggie, 9, and me in December 2018

We celebrate our friends who are mothers-- and enjoy loving and cheering on the new generation and, in time, the generation after that. I deeply love some children of friends, get tremendous satisfaction watching their lives unfold with professional successes and personal happiness.

I recently celebrated with Mary Kate Schellhardt, the daughter of my dearest friend Tim, when she turned forty -- not with the dread some of us once felt at reaching that milestone, but with a sense of celebration of her maturity and life experiences and anticipation of wonderful adventures to come.

Mary Kate and me celebrating

And I'm thrilled to wish Carrie Goyette, the daughter of my treasured friend Sharon Hacker, a very happy first Mother's Day! Carrie has wanted to be a mom since she was a toddler. I used to watch with amazement as she played so seriously with her dolls. But Carrie waited a long time for her dream to come true -- a long time before she found true love in David, a longer time -- and a heartbreaking journey through miscarriage and infertility and exhausting IVF regimens -- before she held Hayden Hope Goyette in her arms. Her baby was born smiling. She knew, somehow, how lucky she was to have Carrie and David as parents.

Carrie and Hayden Hope Goyette

We have the time to reach out to children who need care and attention from a non-parental adult. Ryan Grady, my husband Bob's third Little Brother in the Big Brothers program, came into our lives when he was nine years old. He was smart, quirky, opinionated and fun. He enjoyed singing and dancing to original Broadway cast albums -- much as I had when I was a child. "I'm your kid!" he would say, wrapping his arms around me. "I wasn't born to you. But I'm yours!" As a young teenager, Ryan helped me to prepare for the oral licensing exam to become a psychotherapist. As he fired practice exam questions at me, he made the quiet decision to do this, too. And he has. Now 35 and a licensed clinical social worker, he is a successful therapist and agency administrator and, even though he is not our biological child, we couldn't ask for a better son. He calls several times a week. He asked Bob to be his Best Man at his wedding two years ago. We visit back and forth between his home in L.A. and our new place in Arizona. He just left a sweet message on my cell phone wishing me a happy Mother's Day and expressing his enduring love. And that means so very much!

Bob and Ryan during Ryan's most recent visit to us in Arizona

Yet I have moments of wistfulness as families come together to celebrate the day and the times when people talk so casually about "my daughter" or "my son." Or roll their eyes talking about their parents. And I want to remind them what a precious gift they have in family -- in their children, in their parents, in the time they have to enjoy, annoy and love each other through all the good times and the challenges every family experiences.

They're so blessed -- and so are we, those who have no children but are, nonetheless, surrounded by love. Some of us may live alone, some with a loving spouse and/or some splendid dogs or cats, enjoying nieces and nephews and the children of our hearts, bound to us by love if not biology-- as we celebrate loving connections of all kinds, not just today, but every day of our lives.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Ditching The Baggage and Living a Life

A few days ago, I had a sobering conversation with a beloved longtime friend who is fifteen years older than I am.

Bound by love and cultural imperatives, he cared for his mother for sixty years after his father's death. She lived to be over 100 years old, guarding her place in her son's life fiercely against all girlfriends who came and then went, adoring the man, but discouraged by his mother. So he never married. And since her death eight years ago, he has lived alone in the Los Angeles home they shared for many years. I haven't seen him in some time though we've been in regular touch from a distance since I left California nearly a decade ago. We both talk about how we would love to get together, maybe for lunch, the next time I'm in Los Angeles. But the logistics are proving difficult.

His health is deteriorating rapidly and he is facing major surgery. His uncertainty on his feet, despite using a cane and, occasionally, a walker, has increased to the point that he hesitates to go out except for medical appointments. At the same time, he is too ashamed of the condition of his home to enjoy a take out lunch with me there.

"Oh, if you could see my kitchen now, you would just vomit," he says with a shudder I can almost feel over the phone. "It's a mess. Everything is a mess. My stuff has just taken over."
This was beginning to sound familiar. My parents were hoarders -- ashamed at one point to have anyone visit, then passing beyond that clear-eyed assessment to the delusion that there was absolutely nothing the matter with the house. It was a small house that took us two years to clean out after their deaths nearly forty years ago. Rooms were filled to the point of impassibility with treasures from the past -- many rendered worthless, even as keepsakes, because they had been chewed by the rats that ran through the house, the attic and the walls. My husband Bob, brother Michael and I filled over a dozen truck-sized dumpsters and countless trashcans, often recoiling in horror at the rats and the wreckage of our parents' lives.

Our father had died in July 1980 and we rushed to help our mother clean the place and get rid of the rats. Only she wouldn't. She claimed that the rats didn't bother her and that she needed to go through every rat-chewed magazine and newspaper in the place. When we would throw stuff out, she would bring it back into the house. At the same time, she started taking a home decorating course at a local community college. The class was limited to six students because each week, the class would meet at one of the students' homes to make decorating suggestions. The visit to my mother's home was scheduled for the last week. I was horrified. My mother was oblivious to how an outsider would view the place. "I think French doors in the dining room would be so cute!" she said with a smile, pointing to an area obscured by piles of trash. She died of a heart attack four months after my father's heart attack death -- and several weeks before that scheduled class visit.

Compulsive hoarding is not uncommon. According to a recent report in The Washington Post, up to six percent of the U.S. population -- or 19 million people -- could be categorized as compulsive hoarders. They fill their homes with prized possessions that include a lot of what most would consider junk: old newspapers, food packaging, shampoo bottles and old clothing. The stuff of their lives takes over living spaces and can cause impairment of functioning in a variety of ways -- from social to occupational to financial. Some hoarders, unfortunately, collect animals in numbers that make it impossible for them to care for the numerous pets properly, impacting lives well beyond their own.

Why do people hoard? Some psychologists believe that hoarding can be triggered by trauma. Some recent studies have revealed that there may be a genetic component to the disorder. Brain imaging studies showed that hoarders had lower-than-average activity in brain areas related to emotions but spiked when they had to entertain the thought of getting rid of their possessions.  Hoarding is considered to be an aspect of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can start in childhood and/or run in families. While cognitive-behavioral therapy targeted at hoarders can be very effective, the challenge is to get through to a hoarder, helping him or her to see the ways that all the excessive stuff may be limiting or even threatening the hoarder's health or life.

My friend, who endured horrific trauma as a very young Holocaust survivor, is experiencing limits to his social life and his options as a result of his hoarding behavior. But he's not completely on-board with the necessity for change. He realizes that, at his age and with his medical problems, he really shouldn't be living alone.

So what's the answer? A live-in or daytime caregiver? Not a chance. A move to assisted living? He sighed. "I can't imagine being squeezed into a tiny room," he said. "I couldn't have my stuff. And it's my stuff that keeps me alive." His stuff, he tells me, includes more than 200 suits, 16,000 DVDs....

Could he donate some? I hear him wince. Could he give some treasures to friends and family? I tell him that I would very much like to have some pictures from his career, some specifically meaningful to me. He sighs. "It would be like searching for a needle in a haystack," he says. "I know I have them, but I have no idea where..."

He is resistant to the idea of help in clearing out the clutter. "People would see this as trash to be thrown out," he says. "I see it differently. Having my stuff all around me keeps me alive, it really does."

There are many who harbor the same delusion that it's the stuff in our lives that keeps us going. The truth is: the stuff can hold us back, make us pause when we need to charge ahead, weigh us down when we need simplicity and lightness in our lives.

And what keeps my friend alive is not his stuff....but his talents and passions which he still pursues and the loving circle of family and friends who cherish him, especially his niece who, like me, lives far away. She has hinted that she would like him to move in with her. He won't hear of it. "I love her so much and I don't want to intrude on her life," he says. "I don't know what I'm going to do, frankly. I don't want to be a bother to anyone."

I want to tell my friend how much he is loved, how much his niece enjoys having him with her, how quickly and willingly friends and family would be there to help him to organize, prioritize and begin to let go of some of his life-limiting possessions if only....

I want to urge him to let go of the baggage, to ditch the stuff. But I know that for him and for other hoarders, it's not that simple. Those who rush in to clean up the clutter may cause more anxiety in a hoarder and trigger even more accumulation. Achieving real change in a compulsive hoarder can require intensive cognitive behavioral treatment. One can locate a therapist specializing in such treatment through organizations like Children of Hoarders, Inc. (

I want to encourage my dear friend to treasure his relationships above all else. But I know that he does, loving sweetly and generously all the days of his life. And I know that hanging onto his stuff is, for him, an intrinsic part of hanging onto life, a life that is becoming increasingly fragile and tenuous.

And my heart aches for him.

Many of us cling to bits of our lives, especially as we age. It can be hard to let go. I struggle as I slowly let go of the pieces of mine that are, increasingly, superfluous. I'm feeling a greater need lately to let go of treasures that might bring pleasure to another or that could be useful to an unseen stranger through a local charity. The bits of my life that still remain, however, do not interfere with daily functioning. These items are confined to plastic containers concealed in garage cabinets and in a walk in closet, that is, I'll admit, decidedly overstuffed. I need to whittle it all down significantly and I will. I'm feeling an increasing need to let go ...of the stuff, the physical and emotional baggage of my past. Everything I do let go -- whether it's a piece of clothing, a lingering regret or an old grudge -- makes me feel a little lighter.

I both empathize with and worry about my old friend. I want to see him, to help him, to let him know I truly care. I want him to know he's not alone. I want to reach out in ways he can tolerate. I try humor, though I'm not really joking.

"Well, let's see," I tell him on the phone. "We can always get lunch at a drive through and eat in my car."

He laughs, but with an edge of infinite sadness.  "We'll see," he says softly.

And my heart sinks with the sudden awareness that I may never set eyes on or have a chance to embrace this dear friend again.

Monday, March 11, 2019

10 Surprising Facts About Why Parents and Adult Children Become Estranged

Being estranged from a beloved adult child can bring feelings of loneliness and terrible isolation. You watch others enjoy close relationships with grown children and grandchildren and wonder what went wrong and why? And you feel so alone.

But you're not alone.

When I wrote the post "When Parents and Adult Children Become Strangers" back in 2012, I had no idea that it would become day after day, year after year, my most popular, most read, blog post ever with hundreds of heart-breaking comments and observations from both parents and adult children.

This response made me want to learn more about this sad phenomenon -- and after some years, many interviews and lots of research, I wrote We Don't Talk Anymore: Healing After Parents and Their Adult Children Become Estranged (Sourcebooks, 2017).

In researching the book, I discovered some surprising facts about parent and adult child estrangement that I'd like to share with you.

1. You are not alone.  A U.S. study of adult children found that 7 percent reported being emotionally detached from a mother and 27 percent were detached from a father.

2. Fathers are more likely to become estranged from their adult children as the result of divorce, either in the distant past or via a recent "Gray Divorce." Resentment over a long-ago divorce and alienation fueled by parental anger can cause an emotional split that endures into adulthood. A gray divorce between long-married parents can spark conflicts with adult children who feel compelled to take sides or who resent the changes this brings to their own lives. A study of late-life divorce and its impact on relationships between the divorcing parents and adult children found that while fathers are more likely to experience a decline in contact with adult children, the divorced mothers were more likely than married mothers to report an increase in weekly contact with adult children. Newly divorced fathers may find it difficult to talk about their feelings with anyone. And they are likely to remarry more quickly and in greater numbers than mothers. A late-life parental remarriage can be as disruptive to father-adult child relationships as the original divorce.

3. Mothers are more likely to become estranged as the result of continuing demands for closeness or giving unsolicited advice. This kind of estrangement can come from conflicting needs and perceptions about how much contact is too much, what advice can feel like criticism (particularly in the area of child rearing) and what actions can feel intrusive. The mother may feel she's just being helpful. The adult child may have a very different view.

4. An adult child who is at odds with a mother's core values is more likely to become estranged than an adult child who is arrested or involved in substance abuse.  Strange but true! In a study of mothers headed by Dr. Megan Gilligan of Iowa State University, researchers found that clashing values -- such as differences over religion or partner choice -- were major factors in estrangement between mothers and their adult children. The study found that many of the estranged mothers were, on the other hand, quite tolerant of other adult children showing socially deviant behavior. One mother, for example, was estranged from a son who had divorced and remarried, life choices at odds with his mother's Catholic faith, while her two other children with histories of substance abuse, DUI arrests and, in the case of her other son, a myriad of run-ins with the law, remained close to her. In fact, she talked of her often-jailed second son with pride -- "He is my success story!" -- because he was still in his first marriage.

5. Estrangements are more likely to come from a conflict of needs rather than verbal sparring.
This divisive conflict is often the need of the adult child to be independent and in control of his or her own life and the need of the parent to remain closely connected and, ultimately, in control. When tensions rise, the adult child may seek autonomy by becoming estranged from parents. Researchers have uncovered a sobering fact: parents are more emotionally invested in their relationships with their children than their children are with them. This is called the "developmental stake hypothesis" and is consistent across the lifespan. This is important for parents to understand and take steps to safeguard their ties with their grown children by respecting their autonomy and, in the case of conflict, being the first to apologize.

6. Some emotional distance can improve parent-adult child relationships and make estrangement less likely to happen.  The paradox of an intimate yet distant parent and adult child relationship has been pinpointed in several studies, most notably in research by K.L. Fingerman of Pennsylvania State University. She found that parents and adult children who reported close ties still had some psychological distance. She noted that parents tended to stop trying to direct their children's lives and their grown children, in turn, sought to protect their parents from worry, often by not discussing some problems with them. She noted that this distance tended to improve the relationship and could serve as a bridge to a different kind of intimacy.

7. Helping an adult child financially can actually increase the likelihood of estrangement.  Why?
Studies have found that giving adult children money can be an expression of power and control, giving the parent more say over an adult child's life. And an adult child's financial neediness (or irresponsibility) may also spark conflict with his or her parents that can lead to estrangement.

8. An estrangement isn't just between a parent and an adult child.  Estrangements can impact the whole family. We see this in therapy all the time, especially with siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles who get dragged (or insert themselves) into family conflicts, bringing up many feelings, old conflicts and rivalries from the past and complicating the situation in the present.

9. Having a good relationship in your child's growing up years is no guarantee that you'll never be estranged.  Many now-estranged parents lament that they once had close and loving relationships with their children. Sometimes this later-on estrangement can come from changes in the family -- like a late in life divorce -- or from a reluctance to change -- such as parents who insist on being more involved and controlling of a grown child's life than the adult child can tolerate. And sometimes the later estrangement can come from a developing problem with substance abuse or mental illness. This is particularly common with personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder, both of which may first become evident in late adolescence or early adulthood.

10. Parents and adult children don't always agree on the reasons for estrangement.  A recent study of estranged parents and adult children found that parents tended to blame the estrangement of sources outside of themselves, such as relationships of their adult children that they find objectionable. Adult children, on the other hand, tended to attribute estrangement to personal characteristics or behavior of their parents -- controlling, toxic behavior or feeling unaccepted and unsupported.

There are many variations of the heart-breaking stories of estranged parents and adult children. Understanding your own narrative -- the reasons, the solutions and what to do if nothing seems to be healing your relationship -- takes time, insight, a willingness to open your mind to another's point of view and to new possibilities in your life. Sometimes it can mean seeking professional help to sort out your feelings.

If you're curious to know more about reasons for estrangement, ways to begin to reconnect, and strategies for healing your heart -- whether or not a reconciliation ever happens --you might want to read my book We Don't Talk Anymore: Healing After Parents and Their Adult Children Become Estranged. It is available in bookstores nationwide and, of course, as a print book and an e-book on and You can find direct links to these online sites by going to my website and clicking on the book title.

And, remember, this book was inspired by those of you who have been reading and commenting on this blog for years!


Monday, March 4, 2019

Meditations on Mortality

"How are you really? You haven't had a heart attack or stroke or anything...have you?"

It was the voice of Pam Cresant, a my long-time friend from my youth at 'TEEN Magazine. We hadn't talked on the phone or in person since my move to Arizona nine years ago. However, we've stayed in touch by mail and social media.

I laughed and said that I was fine. 

Pam told me that she had recently called another friend, had a delightful conversation, and then had found out shortly afterwards that her friend died suddenly, not long after their phone visit. "And I had this sudden urge to call you, to hear your voice and see if you're okay," she said. "I realized that we too often put off visits and conversations with friends who are so dear. I don't want it to be too late."

I sighed, knowing what she meant. Too many friends have passed away recently.

Mortality is on our minds as we age...past our parents' lifetimes, past the point when the fact that we are, at least chronologically, old is undeniable.

"My brother asked me the other day how long I thought I might live," my lifelong friend Pat Hill, a classmate from kindergarten through high school, emailed me the other day. "I told him I expect to live another 30 years. How about you? How long do you imagine that you'll live?"

I stopped, surprised by her question. I feel mortal -- and grateful to be alive-- every day. Everyone in the older generation of my family, on both sides, has succumbed to sudden cardiac death --some, like my parents who both died at 66, at much younger ages than I am now.

"I have hopes but not expectations," I told her. "I'd like to live in good or good enough health for some years to come. But I've made peace with the fact that I could die tomorrow."

How am I right now? I'm fine. There are some indications of age. My knees are intermittently painful, especially during cold, rainy weather. My hearing is impaired and I started wearing hearing aids some years ago. I never needed glasses until I was in my forties and now I can't do without them. But I'm strong. I can swim laps for an hour without a break. I'm intellectually engaged and writing better than ever. I exercise regularly and eat reasonably. Overall, I'm healthy, active and energetic. And filled with gratitude for my good health.

It's a time of life when health is, to a certain extent, a matter of luck. But personal responsibility seems to play a larger role as well when we're older. There isn't as much physical forgiveness for bad habits -- whether it's weight gain over a small treat or something much worse. Sometimes genes, old habits and bad luck converge to create a health crisis. There are people with strong constitutions and good genes who can thrive for years despite unhealthy lifestyles. And sometimes our own choices can determine whether we live more of our lives in good health or whether we spend years in uneasy decline.

My cousin Caron has been healthy, active and beautiful all her life. She didn't slow down after retirement, walking every day, studying Hawaiian dancing and delighting in shooting hoops with her grandsons. She has a loving marriage that is a true inspiration and has cultivated wonderful lifelong friendships. She has always cooked and eaten healthy food. Through the years, Caron only had one bad habit: smoking. She finally quit as she neared 70. But the impact of years of tobacco use led to COPD which has made life after 70 difficult for her. She is limited in what she can do, increasingly dependent on Bud, her loving husband of 60 years and is tethered to an oxygen tank 24/7. She shakes her head in frustration when she remembers all of the health-promoting behaviors she had and how her health was destroyed by her one vice. She is an avid anti-smoking activist and is forever reminding me to urge my sister, a lifelong smoker, to quit now before anything bad happens.

A neighbor I'll call Paula smoked for more than 30 years, ate red meat at most meals, drank mostly sugar-filled sodas and never exercised beyond pulling the levers at local casino slot machines. She had colon cancer and kidney failure during the last decade of her life. But, even as her health declined, she didn't step up to engage actively in fighting for her own health. When she would experience yet another health crisis, she'd storm to her doctor's office and say "I don't feel good. Fix it!" When she went on kidney dialysis and received an information sheet on foods to avoid -- with chocolate and sodas heading the list -- she continued to consume chocolate bars and colas throughout each day. "They can fix it," she'd say with a shrug. "I'll just take more binders." Even as she visibly declined, Paula refused to take steps to help herself. She died two years ago at 79 -- amazing everyone that she had lasted as long as she did. She probably had good genes: her mother lived to be 103 and her sister is thriving well into her eighties. 

It's a strange time of life. It's a time when you may be fine one moment and not at all fine the next. "How was it that I was running through Dublin Airport one day and then, four days later, had a heart attack and was diagnosed with heart failure?" a dear college friend of mine asked recently. Her life has changed from one of active travel, volunteer work and expansive engagement with the community and her large extended family to a quieter lifestyle where she is cared for by a wonderfully loving spouse.

So we live with the specter not only of mortality, but also of painful, frustrating physical decline. Many of us who live in gratitude for our health work constantly to safeguard what we still have. We eat healthy meals and focus on getting to and maintaining a healthy weight. We exercise daily and work on building core strength and good balance to avoid falls. We meditate and seek balance in the daily routines of our lives. The overall goal of all these efforts is, quite often, not to pursue the illusion of living to be 120, but to live whatever years that are left to us in reasonably good health

And yet there are no guarantees.

My friend Pat just emailed me again, in response to my comment to her that I've made peace with the fact that I'm healthy now but could die tomorrow: "I've enjoyed knowing you...." she wrote.

Yes. It has been a pleasure, I replied, adding that I hope we have many more opportunities to say "goodbye" and "hello" to each other in years that may come.

These days it's important to say what we want and need to say to beloved friends and family, to greet each day with gratitude and to do all we can to enhance our own lives and the lives of loved ones, both in good health and in illness.

That said,  I'm headed to the gym.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Sweet Remembrances

She's a friend from very different days: more than fifty years ago, Barbara and I were young actresses at a talent program at Desilu Studios. We studied with the same coach, worked together on some shows, shared audition triumphs and disappointments and also came from troubled families. Barbara had left her family home in Oklahoma as soon as she graduated from high school. I was back in my home town after graduating from Northwestern, living near my family and their continuing crises while fashioning an independent life of my own.

At some point. our paths diverged. I quit acting and concentrated on writing and, later, added another career in psychotherapy. Barbara stayed in acting longer, but supplemented her earnings with a series of day jobs that began to play a larger role in her life as time went by. She never married.

We stayed in touch, but the last time I saw her was at my wedding in 1977. She moved to Northern California. And many years later, my husband Bob and I moved to Arizona. We kept in touch with cards, emails and an occasional phone call.

Then her computer died and Barbara, beset with chronic illness, sank into further isolation.

I thought of her not long ago because she was born on the same day as my brother and both turned seventy recently. I sent her a birthday card and a note. And she called me, delighted. It was the only birthday card she had received. And our phone conversation was the first one she had had in many months. She told me that her sister had died in the past year and that now she had no family left at all. She lives in a mobile home in a small town in Northern California. Her health is fragile, but she does all she can to work with what she has, getting exercise gardening in her small backyard, enjoying her two cats, eating healthy food instead of taking pills.

As we talked, I remembered why I had always enjoyed Barbara and her determination to live life to the fullest even under less than ideal circumstances. And it made me glad that we had reached out to each other with my card and her phone call.

Our reconnection also reminded me what a difference a simple act of kindness can make to another.

Is there someone -- an old friend, a co-worker from years ago, a friend of your parents you remember from your youth who has outlived most of his or her close friends, a neighbor who has been isolated by growing disabilities -- you might reach out to with affection and remembrance?

There are so many ways you can make a difference -- even to someone who isn't tuned in, plugged in and active online.

A longtime friend I'll call Ann -- we went to school together from kindergarten through high school -- has been elusive in recent decades. She has struggled with emotional problems rooted in a difficult childhood and adulthood and, when I went back to school to become a psychotherapist, she began to view me with suspicion, fearful of being analyzed and evaluated, not realizing that is something I do with clients, not with friends or family. It has been years since we've seen each other and she has been reluctant to talk on the phone. However, when I was going through a box of treasures from college, I came across a packet of letters she sent me during that time. I packaged them and sent them to her. She replied with a loving note, thanking me for giving her back a piece of her past. "That meant so much to me!" she wrote.

Ann may never be comfortable seeing me -- and that is made more difficult now anyway since we live in different states -- but there is a bond of sweet remembrance of a shared time when so much seemed possible, with so many adventures ahead.

I've found myself warmed by thoughtful notes recently as I've worked on my difficult memoir, a complicated mix of humor and horror sweetened, at one point, with some stories of young adult romance.

There were three pre-marital lovers in my life and, with all three, there was a strong element of friendship, allowing these to become lifelong relationships even after the romance faded. Mike was my first, a lovely man with a sparkling smile and endless patience. Maurice, an actor and composer who is fifteen years my senior and wonderful in all ways, was my second. My third, Chuck, was a doctor (just recently retired) and my co-author for "The Teenage Body Book" and several other books through our years of close friendship that have extended into the present.

Chuck and Mike were born on the same day, though not the same year. I was getting ready to buy birthday cards for them both when I found out that Mike had died. I felt terribly sad. It was a difficult sadness to share. Mike and I broke up well over forty years ago and I hadn't seen him since. But we kept in touch with warm, newsy letters on our birthdays and at Christmas and phone calls to each other at pivotal times -- my parents' deaths, his mother's death, his marriage, my thoracic surgery in 2003 when he called me at work to ask why I needed to have that and if there was anything he could do to help. His silence at Christmas this year was unsettling. I realized how eagerly I always had awaited his letters. So, feeling uneasy, I did some checking and discovered that Mike had died in November.

I told my husband Bob and a few friends. They all said they were sorry to hear that. There didn't seem to be much more to say. It was Chuck, however, who realized the extent of the loss. "Mike was such an important person in your life," he wrote. "He was your first. I know how your ongoing friendship meant so much and how much you'll miss him. You had a shared experience that only the two of you knew and treasured through the years. Just as we do. So I understand -- and I'm so sorry."

And not long after, I received a note from Maurice's niece Rachel, who is only a year younger than I am and who is keeping an eye on him as he gets into advanced, though still vibrant, old age. "When Uncle Maurice was visiting me recently, he could only say the sweetest things about you," she wrote. "It's wonderful after all these years to feel the kindness you have shared with each other. Sending you love..."

Both of these messages touched my heart at a time when I needed understanding and sweet remembrances.

Life can get busy. We have all the best intentions to write or call or otherwise keep in touch. But opportunities to be kind, to be present for another, to fill someone's darkness with light can take so little time and mean so very much.

Think about reaching out to someone today, this minute.