You might assume that most mothers of "adultescents" (a term I use in my book Slouching Toward Adulthood for those in delayed adulthood) are stay-at-home parents, grooming their trophy kids ad infinitum so that their offspring will receive what they deserve: only the best.
You may even know such a maternal dynamo. Perhaps she left a profession to devote herself exclusively to motherhood and never missed a class play, carpool or soccer game. In doing so, she turned herself into a full-service concierge mom. She chaired the parent organization, scheduling meetings for 11 a.m. so that moms who worked outside the home couldn’t attend. And when asked — by one of the dissed moms, let’s say — “Now tell me, what is it you do?” she’d become deeply indignant.
Certainly there are plenty of women who fit this description. But the assumption that all concierge moms behaved like this overlooks the reality that plenty of them spent their kids’ formative years juggling parenthood and jobs. Their crammed schedules left precious little time to enjoy motherhood’s sweet spots: reading with kids after school, baking brownies, listening to stories, imparting wisdom. Many a working mom has surely thought, We’re the ones who got short-changed, not our children.
So for many of these mothers, it was a bitter irony that their circumstances changed at midlife. Just as their children were leaving the nest, heavy-hitting jobs disappeared, often because of the professional version of natural selection — age discrimination — which replaces people past 45 with younger, more affordable employees thought to have new ideas because the ideas are new to them.
(MORE: Why Women at Midlife Must Rewrite Their Life Assumptions)
Job loss due to firing and downsizing may have been brutal for these women, whose identifies come in no small part from their job, but these worker bees are nothing if not resilient. Thrilled to be “needed” — or at least be convinced they are — many of them have seamlessly carpe diem’d themselves into life do-overs. They’ve burrowed full throttle into mothering roles as if they were choreographing a flash mob, utilizing crack leadership skills as they switch-hit from coach to architect to head cheerleader of their adult kids’ lives, especially if their children are among the 53 percent of recent college graduates who are jobless.
We’ve all heard the axiom “Good parents give their children roots and wings.” I suspect many of these moms are tuning out the “wings” part of the message. I sometimes wonder if every one of them hasn’t embedded a chip in her baby bird’s skin so he will fly back home where Mom can bluster and blow in one belated gale of motherhood.
I know what I’m talking about. At 54, I was benched as editor-in-chief of a major magazine. As I stumbled out of my boss’s office into the unforgiving glare of the nonworking world, I went home, where my son was on a college break. I’d worked virtually all his life. What good does it do to be available now, I groused, when he’s 21 and away at school? But almost instantly I replaced my cynicism with Good thing I’m free! I’ll help him write his résumé!
My efforts to bulldoze into my son’s life stopped when he moved to the opposite coast after graduation because he wanted a job in film, and Hollywood is still where movies get made. But this is not the case for many women who repeatedly throw Hail Mary passes at supermomhood. I see women — amped up by great ideas and big-hearted intentions — flying thousands of miles to settle their adultescents into apartments, doing piles of laundry while they mastermind job searches and find their kids dates on TheJMom.com, a mothers’ matchmaking site. Motivated by their own discomfort with kids’ discomfort that they may be only imagining, these hugely capable moms craft a persona that fuses the abilities of Hillary Clinton with the nurturing of Mother Goose as played by Meryl Streep.
(MORE: When Parents Go Too Far to Help Their Kids Land Jobs)
Do some former working moms infantilize adult children to compensate for time they felt they missed when kids were young? As moms too fervently apply their work-honed skills, they need to stop and consider: Who’s the needier one here, mother or child? I realize these are harsh questions, but they need to be asked.
Mental health professionals agree that parents of adult kids need to step back so young adults can step forward. As for the sidelined mothers with energy to spare: It’s time for our country to make it easier for women to take off time from jobs when kids are young and be able to re-enter the workplace when they’re older. And it's also time to rethink what’s “old,” so that if they want to, moms will be welcomed in the workforce well into their 70s. This way, maybe, they can stay out of their kids’ faces.