Different mothers, different eras, different choices

Carolyn Hax
Columnist April 15, 2013

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

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

My mother was a stay-at-home mom while Dad worked a traditional 9-to-5 job. Now that I am married, my mother has been projecting into our life quite a bit.

My wife is a wonderful mother and a busy OB-GYN. For many reasons that I support, she works full-time. My mother has a tendency to point out things like, “Store-bought Halloween costumes are cheating,” and, “It isn’t a homemade dinner if the chicken came precooked from a store,” and, “It is a real shame that people can’t take the time to clean their own home anymore.”

My wife and I typically nod and smile and say something neutral. But I’ve noticed that as my children can understand more adult conversation, my wife is getting increasingly upset when my mother says these things. What kind of conversation can I have with my mother to stress that I appreciate my childhood but not her meddling into my parenting skills?


Can’t Be Martha Stewart

Full disclosure, your question made me adrenaline-surge angry. At your mother, not you, and not just because you’re an eager participant in the 21st century.

Self-calming techniques employed.

I suggest a conversation that isn’t a debate about your wife. Instead, make two key points: 1. When your mother makes these comments, she denigrates your choices. Your wife isn’t a rogue entity, nor are you chromosomally incapable of sewing Halloween costumes. You and she run your family as equal partners, and you’re proud of the way you’re doing things, the way you both get along, the way you both contribute in what were once gender-limited roles, and the way your kids are turning out.

2. When your mother compares your family life to the one she created for you, she’s entering cats in a dog show. Right now, roughly two-thirds of moms with kids under 18 are employed. I’d also wager that most homemakers think the advent of the supermarket rotisserie bird deserves a national holiday and its own postage stamp.

Anyway. Snark-attackers like your mom aren’t just scoffing at what they see; they’re also defending themselves against it. That your wife is a doctor arguably makes her Uber-Intimidating to your mother, or at least easy to reduce to a symbol of the kind of power Mom never felt she had.

So don’t treat your mother as a silly anachronism. Do say that you appreciated your childhood, and consider adding that if you and your wife were raising kids when she was, you might make similar choices.

You can even suggest that if she were raising kids now, odds are she’d be working, too; she’d be a product of this age just as she was a product of hers. You learned the goal from her: well-adjusted kids. The method changes with your circumstances.

That’s why the purpose of this conversation — despite its then-vs.-now framing — has to be about the universal. All parents reflect their times. All families do better when different generations support each other. And all rotisserie birds save people time they can then spend with their families not complaining about dried-out white meat.

Good luck with it.

Oh — and Martha Stewart works full time as Martha Stewart, and probably outearns us all.

Tomorrow: Anonymi weigh in.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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