Stay-at-home and working moms must draw the line between overbearing and caring

Monday, July 28, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT

Although I do not approve of them, I can at least understand the reason for some of the cruel jokes about mothers-in-law. Some women do, indeed, have a hard time staying out of their adult children's business. When you have spent 18 years, more or less, in a close relationship with a child, it can be a difficult separation when it's time to part.

Society, in general, applauds women who devote their lives to their families. In fact many working women feel guilty because they cannot give all their time to raising a family. For the most part, the stay-at-home mom idea usually works out well when the children are growing up, but once the children become adults, what was viewed as caring, can sometimes, suddenly be looked upon as interfering.

A lot of people believe that children whose mothers are on hand full time have a better chance of becoming productive adults. In my experience, I have not found that to be necessarily true. I think it has more to do with the quality of parenting than it does with the amount of time one spends with her children. I think women who dote on their children, do not demand discipline from them and allow them to make decisions for the family - regardless of whether they spend full or part time at home - are irresponsible parents. And, in the long run, I think the children often pay a severe price for that kind of upbringing and they bring suffering upon their parents.

I'll never forget one woman whose children were constantly complaining because she wasn't at home when they got out of school. She finally gave in and announced that she was quitting her job to be at home for the kids. When she told me of her decision I advised her that I thought that was an adult's decision, not a child's. Well, she left her job, and in the first few months, she learned that her children had developed their own after school activities with their day care friends. They soon began to resent the fact that they were no longer included as a part of the gang, and they felt they were missing out on all the fun. While she did all she could to plan fun things they could do together, she increasingly got the feeling that she was just in the way. By the time she decided to go back to work, she was unable to find a job in her field and had to work at a job she didn't like for several years until her field opened up again.

A lot of dysfunctional families become that way because mothers disallow the children the opportunity of learning from their mistakes. These are usually women of the view that it is their job to make their children happy by not giving them any responsibilities. So, the youngsters grow up believing that they never have to suffer the consequences of their actions. It's not unusual, these days for middle-aged parents to still be taking care of their kids, the husband or wife of their kids, as well as the grandchildren.

Are fathers not guilty of the same kind of behavior? Certainly. But there's no pressure on men to be stay-at-home dads, as if their mere around-the-clock presence will enhance their parenting skills. Some women feel they're doing their duty to their children just by being there for them and so after the kids have grown up and move away, what are they supposed to do?

Not every woman is prepared for an empty nest. They have so constructed their lives around the needs of their families, they have neglected their own need to have lives of their own. So, it's necessary for these women to keep another person, either in the nest or close to it. A lot of these women are trying to reconstruct their lives around grandchildren, and, unfortunately, too many of them are making the same mistakes with the new nesters as they did with the old, leading to another generation of dysfunctional people.

I have personally known many wonderful mothers-in-law who were both stay-at-home and working mothers. They are women who have always had lives. They have had their own work and a lot of friends with whom they shared activities, plans and ideas. They have been artists, writers, musicians, crafters, teachers, cooks and, in addition to being good parents, had all kinds of skills and talents. One thing they all shared in common was they never thought of their children as their personal possessions. They saw themselves as caretakers, responsible for doing the best they could to guide their children to productive maturity.

Sharing a good relationship with one's adult children is one of the great joys of parenthood. That is the time when the mountain of memories you have developed over the years can serve as gentle reminders of the journey you have made together and brought you to this moment.

A mother-in-law who is a best friend to her child and her child's family can be a treasure of great worth. It is a position of honor and one to strive for. Most women can make it, if they try.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling her at 882-5734

or e-mailing her at


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