Carolyn Hax: A mother who needs to back off on expectations of a grown daughter

Carolyn Hax
Columnist January 20, 2012

Dear Carolyn:

Our 25-year-old daughter chose a different lifestyle than we’d imagined for her: She parted ways with college at 20 and has been bartending ever since. She has good management skills and has never been out of work, and we respect the fact that she’s finally responsible for herself.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Our issue is with her use of foul language. We’re not prissy, but both of us work in professional settings where the casual use of such language is not acceptable, and neither of us grew up in households where it was used.

She has recently gotten married and hopes to have children. I’ve told her that her language will sound a lot different in the mouth of a 3-year-old, and that it would be a good idea to start reining it in. She feels her language is part of her persona, and although she usually makes an attempt to cut it out around us, it’s never far from her tongue. I worry about how she’ll be perceived by others, particularly once her putative children start school.

The language issue is a roadblock in our relationship with her. There’s probably not much we can do about it, but are we wrong to be concerned about how she sounds? Is there anything we can say or do?


Ears Hurting in the Suburbs

Yes! Yes, there’s something you can do. You can see in your letter that you are in the early stages of estrangement from your daughter over language she might or might not use around children she doesn’t even have yet.

Then you can try to persuade me that her cussing is more harmful to family health than your judging.

You praise her management skills and faint-praise her self-sufficiency (“finally” . . .), and your expressed purpose is concern for your someday grandchildren, but if there’s such thing as writing through clenched teeth, you’re doing it here. It’s achingly clear that you can barely abide your daughter, and that’s the thrust of your note.

To wit: A question about her language didn’t require mention of her dropping out or bartending, did it?

Conveniently, the answer to both questions, text and subtext, is the same: The best thing you can do for your grandkids-to-be is make real peace with your daughter, not just peace from one end of a 10-foot pole.

You have deep self-interest here. The more you dwell on her deviation from your expectations, the more she’s likely to deviate. Why? It’s tempting to blame her immaturity, and there’s probably some of that at work here.

But the bigger issue is that what you “imagined for her” still governs your opinion of her, and probably always has. That comes with a powerful message for a kid, one you probably don’t even realize you’ve been sending: “We don’t care who you really are, we just want you to look like us.”

Translation: If you really do care about your imaginary toddler grandchildren, then back off with your daughter. Even better, discard your tidy suburban expectations of her — for real this time — and let yourself see who she is. Who, after all, do you think will grow into a better mom: A loved child who is at peace with herself, or an obedient child who did everything her mother wished?

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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