Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children through Conflict and Change

Martha Joy Rose

Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children through Conflict and Change by Judith Smith features interviews with over fifty women in order to identify the unique challenges older mothers of adult children often face especially when there is mental illness or addiction involved. Much like pioneering feminist psychologists have employed the term matriescene – the ongoing development of maternal identity over the course of a lifetime – Smith keenly points out in her opening chapter, “you don’t stop being a mother just because your kids are grown” (P. 11).

Combining topics of aging, motherhood, identity, and connection, Smith elaborates on these interconnected subjects by incorporating observational experience, scholarly references, and ethnography. The aim of her book is to take a difficult subject out of the darkness and expose it to the light of day to seek solutions that might make a difference in the lives of women who mother ‘difficult’ adult children.

Smith argues, as many have, that naming the problem is the first step towards finding relief and solutions. The term ‘difficult child’ is a ubiquitous term encompassing adult children who are challenged by housing issues, work issues, mental health problems, addiction, and long-term wellbeing. However, the bigger question appears to be, how do mothers specifically find their own level of care in the midst of multiple challenges by the people they love? How do social services mitigate these ongoing systemic problems? How might we best move forward individually and collectively?

Intergenerational living, co-residence, and some children’s failure to launch are a phenomenon that can be identified around the world. To some extent each circumstance is dependent on economic status, cultural tradition, and geographic location. Problems arise when the reality of helping older children feels less like a choice, and more like a chore, or even a rescue mission. The resulting elder abuse, financial strain, and/or emotional distress can be devastating.

Throughout the book, Smith reminds us of the psychological, historical, and anthropological tendency for parents to assume responsibility for the outcome of their children’s lives. While this is mostly associated with infancy and youth, mothers have become increasingly responsible for their adult children as well. Some are motivated by necessity; some by guilt, some by social pressure, and a few are overly enmeshed.

Likewise, the ‘bad mother’ syndrome is a self-perpetuated dynamic reinforced by the social construction of motherhood, especially in modern day America. It is exacerbated by mother shame, mother blame, and natural feelings of maternal ambivalence, which of course, serve to feed the machine of mother’s disproportionate sense of responsibility, pain, and isolation. So what are the solutions Smith proposes?

One solution is quality services. Another is the ability to perceive the truth of the circumstances. When dangerous scenarios are perpetuated, elder mothers who are caring for their adult children are often the first to suffer. Mitigation can only occur after those mothers wake up to the reality of what is happening. Smith goes on to provide several examples of positive social support systems, self-care, and an emphasis on self-safety.

Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children through Conflict and Change is not a difficult read. In fact, it is most illuminative and to my experience broad reaching. Although the text focuses on a relatively small number of women, aged sixty and over, the subject matter spans a great many topical issues related to addiction, mental illness, carework, mothering, intensive mothering, and self-love. I highly recommend this significant book, which will no doubt, coupled with other programs like Al-Anon and NAMi (National Association for Mental Illness), shed light on, and offer healing for, a heart-breaking issue for many families.

Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children through Conflict and Change will be published byRowman & Littlefield in February 2022.

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