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Attack of the (well-meaning) grandparents

Adding to underlying friction is the sense that, when adult children parent differently than their own moms, it’s an implicit rebuke.

Iakov Filimonov/iStock

Adding to underlying friction is the sense that, when adult children parent differently than their own moms, it’s an implicit rebuke.

She might reorganize your cabinets. Or sweep into town with sweets and slip them to your kids like a drug pusher. Or maybe she just offers occasional parenting advice that goes straight to your sore spot. The unique relationship between mothers and daughters is emotionally loaded, and the stakes escalate when daughters become parents themselves, marking the ultimate transition from child to peer.

And as our parents live longer — at least one member of a baby boomer couple will turn 88, according to Social Security data — a functional relationship is crucial. After all, Mom might show up with candy for a long time. How to cope?

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“Nothing pushes your buttons quite like an offhand remark from your parents,” says Rachel Albert, 37, an Arlington mother, who has a good relationship with her mom. This is true throughout our lives but especially for new parents, who already might feel insecure or sensitive. This relationship particularly affects mothers and daughters because women still “tend to set the tone for the household,” says Judy Osborne, 72, a family therapist in Brookline and a grandmother. Depending how close you were with Mom pre-kids, she might feel quite comfortable keeping a running commentary, whether you like it or not.

Part of the tension stems from generational parenting differences.

“I think I arrive at the same conclusions as my parents, but in different ways,” says Albert. She points to independent play. Her mother thinks her son needs time alone, and she agrees. “It’s great for kids to have unstructured time. But in the past it used to happen because you had lots of kids to watch. Now you might arrive at this conclusion from another angle. ‘What does my son lack in his “portfolio’’ of experiences? I’m going to strategically go over here and leave him alone now!’ [This generation] is more deliberate, whereas before, things happened organically.”

Parents have different challenges these days, says grandmother Becky Sarah, 64, the Cambridge-based author of the forthcoming book, “Grandmothering: Real Life in Real Families.” There are increased economic pressures, media bombardment, and conflicting child-rearing philosophies that many boomers simply never contended with.

“We had Dr. Spock, and that’s about it,” one former stay-at-home mom, now a grandmother, tells me.

“We’re hyperaware, and [our mothers] can think it’s silly,” says Jamaica Plain mom Victoria Moore, 33, whose mother babysits regularly.

Adding to the friction is the sense that, when adult children parent differently than their own moms, it’s an implicit rebuke. “It immediately kicks up a bunch of insecurities, and it makes it hard to unravel whether your [choices] are based on your philosophies or a reaction to your own childhood,” says one mother.

Leah Klein, 38, a Cambridge mother of two, agrees: “Parenting is a way to fix your own childhood,” she says, even if it was a mostly happy one.

To some extent, grandparenting is a second chance, too. One 47-year-old Boston mother, who asked to remain nameless, is getting the silent treatment from her mom, who’s upset about the family’s religious choices.

“But I know she means well,” she quickly adds. “Some people never turn that switch off; they still think of their kids as a child. It comes from a place of wanting to help.”

Meanwhile, Moore’s mother has worried that she’s raising her son as a vegetarian, even though he’s just a typical picky toddler — and even though, as Moore points out, “there’s nothing wrong with vegetarianism.” (As a child, Moore was made to sit at the table and eat “every last bite.”)

Cambridge’s Karina Ku, 31, whose parents visit from China each year, says they sometimes overfeed her children in keeping with family traditions. They’ve also questioned her discipline choices as too lenient, which leads to squabbles.

It’s hard to feel confident when you’re still a child in someone else’s eyes — including your own. “I turn into a teenager when I fight with my mom,” Klein says, laughing. It’s easy to revert to old dynamics, even when you’re both well past puberty and nobody can take the car keys, and it goes both ways. Even the most easygoing grandmothers have trouble adjusting to the role of “parents of adults,” says Sarah. “Adults always think of their children as their children, even as grownups.” Meanwhile, “adult children have a hard time realizing that their parents are still growing and learning themselves” and that even the role of Nana takes adjustment.

After all, grandparents — many of whom still have full-time jobs themselves — are less integrated in the daily rhythms of their grandchildren’s lives, so the relationship takes more fine-tuning. And American parents thrive on autonomy.

“We’re an especially independent culture,” Sarah notes. “Many people from other parts of the world, especially non-industrialized countries, are eager for family help — help they feel entitled to.” In the United States, she says, “Nobody wants to be told anything. Instead, we look on websites.”

Now “one of the issues people my age struggle with the most is how best to be with their grandchildren without being intrusive,” says Osborne. After all, many grandparents are caught in the trap of seeing their grandchildren less regularly and wanting to bend the rules to make the time precious, while also cramming in as much helpful advice as possible.

Yes, helpful.

“Grandparents are the most vulnerable” because they run the risk of alienating their children and not seeing their grandkids, Sarah points out. So it’s unlikely that their advice is malicious.

With this in mind, how to pick your battles? It’s helpful to reframe the worry for what it probably is: an earnest grandparent who only wants to help. In a sense, we have to gingerly parent “up,” managing the relationship with our own mothers to set boundaries. “You can set limits, even as you love them,” says Sarah. Next time Mom editorializes about a parenting decision, try saying this: “I’m really glad you’re a grandmother; you’re so important to us. And I hope you can support me.’ Combine it with a positive message about how valued she is.”

For grandmothers, Sarah suggests distinguishing between advice and actual help. “Advice is information. Help is doing an errand or cooking a meal,” she says. (Guess which one is better?) Osborne recommends framing concerns as judgment-free questions, offering the younger parent a chance to respond.

Ultimately, it’s good to keep in mind that what young mothers perceive as nitpicking, older mothers might simply say out of pure love. “After all, who cares about your kids more than anyone else in the world, besides you?” asks Sarah.“Their grandparents.”

Kara Baskin can be reached at kcbaskin@gmail.com.
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