Their Phoenix-based son was the primary reason -- at least for Joan -- that they decided to leave their home of 42 years in the New York City area to move to the active adult community where we now live. Their son, however, has his own life: a live-in girlfriend, a home of his own, his own circle of friends. He likes seeing his parents occasionally, but they aren't the center of his universe.
"So what do you think?" she asked us. "Should I speak to my son frankly and tell him that this woman is trouble? That she's taking advantage of him if she decides to go back to school? That I'm hurt about her moving all the pictures and artifacts I've given him for his new home into the spare room? After all, I'm his mother! Should I tell him all this?"
Kim and I answered as one: "No!"
We told her stories of mothers who stepped over the line and drove their kids away -- emotionally or otherwise. We speculated on the future of the British Mom-zilla, whose harsh, critical email to her son's fiancee went viral over the Internet recently and her dim prospects of a good relationship with her son and future daughter-in-law. And we had stories closer to home. Kim talked about a friend whose potential mother-in-law made it clear that she disapproved of her son's relationship with her -- and although the marriage has been happy and the relationship between this woman and her mother-in-law was cordial, the closeness that both women might have enjoyed was precluded by that early hurt. And my childhood friend Mary told me that, in her happy 42-year-marriage, there has only been one dark cloud: the insistence of her in-laws that they continue to be the center of their son's life. That has meant more than four decades of annual vacations at the in-laws summer home in Maine rather than the trips Mary longed to take to a variety of places with her young family and with her husband when they became empty-nesters.
And it has meant that Mary learned to step back and let her own three children fly free of the nest. "It's a very hard, painful transition to make when your kids have been your whole life," she says. "But to let them go and live and vacation and love as they please is one of the greatest gifts I can give them. And, interestingly enough, it has made us closer. When they spend time with us, I know it's because they really want to be with us rather than feeling this heavy obligation."
Letting your adult children go is one thing. Learning to keep your mouth shut is quite another.
Of course, there are times when you can't keep quiet: when your adult child is doing serious, even life-threatening harm to himself or others, with substance abuse or child abuse or neglect or is showing signs of mental illness. Those are times when you intervene with love and with professional help.
But in the choices and decisions of daily life, you may find yourself biting your tongue.
When you see an adult child maneuvering through the minefields of ill-advised relationships, financial mistakes, professional mis-steps, and questionable child-raising strategies, it's incredibly hard to sit back and be neutral. You want to scream: "He's a jerk, for heavens' sake!" or "You have HOW much credit card debt?" or "You quit your job???" or "If you keep giving her everything she screams for, you're in for a rough ride for the next 20 years."
If you can't stay totally silent, it's important to frame your concern in loving, but non-intrusive ways:
"I love you so much and don't want to see you hurt. Most of all, I want you to be happy. Do you want to talk about your hopes and issues with this relationship? Or not?"
"I have faith that you can manage your life just fine, but I do have concerns when you tell me about this debt. Would you like some help in figuring out a budget or a payment plan that will get you out from under all that sooner?"
"What are you planning for the future? What did you learn from this job experience? How would you like the next to be different? How can I help you right now?"
"I know child-raising is different today and that you're totally committed to being a great parent. I'm just wondering how you set limits and when you say "No". How is she with 'No'?"
There are times, however, when it is just best to keep quiet, as excruciating as that can be.
As a parent, you know that no one will love or care for your son or daughter in quite the same way that you do. It's very hard to see kids get hurt or make mistakes, but such experiences add to growth and wisdom. Your stepping in to spare them all that is not likely to be appreciated.
Adult children need the freedom to love and lose, screw up, and struggle with choices. As a parent, you can be there to offer support and even advice if they ask for it. But unsolicited advice or what they might see as meddling can drive an emotional wedge between you and your adult child.
Now that they're grown, you're up against some limits. It can be a delicate balance: to express concern without overstepping into criticism and carping, to care without imposing, to support without smothering, to love and let go.
When Joan asked her, mother to mother, how to handle her doubts about her son's romance, Kim, the seasoned parent of adult children, put it all very succinctly in the locker room that day: "You shut up and pray."