Published on March 24th, 2022 | by Judith R. Smith


Difficult Mothering: An Interview with Author Judith R. Smith

“When adult children get into a situation where they can no longer support themselves and/or have no place to live, “difficult mothering” begins. It is “difficult” because it is not what most mothers hoped for or expected for their adult children. Nor was being responsible for another what the older mothers imagined for themselves in later life.” – Judith R. Smith

Judith R. Smith’s book Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children Through Conflict and Change (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022) explores a relationship that is rarely examined: that between mothers and their adult children who, for various reasons, have not reached independence. Smith chose “difficult” as the descriptor of these relationships because it encompasses not only the issues the adult children are facing, but also the experiences of the women who are called upon to provide maternal support in these situations.

Difficult is the result of eight years’ worth of research. During this time, Smith interviewed 50 mothers of adult children struggling with various issues that made independence seem out of reach, such as substance abuse, mental health challenges, and chronic unemployment. Each mother’s story is different, but the common thread interwoven throughout is the sense of duty mothers feel towards their children well into adulthood. Smith wrote Difficult to offer insight into these relationships, as well as to offer a path to find support and create change.

Society places an enormous amount of pressure on mothers to be endlessly patient and self-sacrificing at all stages of the parenting process. The book includes case studies in which mothers of adult children are being directly harmed – physically, emotionally, socially, and financially – by adult children with behavioral or addiction issues. Without support, these mothers often struggle under a heavy burden of guilt and shame.

While legal responsibilities toward a child often end at 18 or 21, familial obligations can stretch on for years or even decades past the socially accepted age of independence. Unlike the larger and more socially accepted trend of adult children moving back home temporarily due to socioeconomic circumstances, the mothers profiled by Smith do not have the expectation that being thrust back into a caregiver role will pass. There seems to be no end in sight, which only exacerbates the stress. One mother interviewed for the book, who at 76 is still providing support to her daughter, said she feels like “a mule held back by a harness.” Another faces health issues exacerbated by taking care of her 42-year-old daughter and 19-year-old grandson at 80 years old.

These relationships are complex, and the author doesn’t reach for platitudes or easy answers. Instead, she offers a nuanced and compassionate portrait of the women engaged in difficult mothering, along with guidance on how to move forward. Smith outlines the Stages of Change model in the book, which can be used as a framework to help mothers accept their reality, find support, and move forward towards reclaiming their independence. There’s also a comprehensive list of resources for help with substance abuse, domestic violence, housing, and more.

“A mother’s self-blame and her internal mandate to protect her children do not disappear as her children age,” Smith writes. Fortunately, Difficult serves as a much-needed source of wisdom, compassion, and practical instruction for women engaged in the task of difficult mothering. – JEN BRYANT

JEN BRYANT: When did you first become interested in studying the relationship between mothers and adult children, and how did your relationship to this topic evolve over time?

JUDITH R. SMITH: I spent my early career as a researcher on the early mother/child relationship.  As I aged, and as my son got older, I became curious about what had been written about mothering in later life. (I had also by then shifted my academic interests into the field of gerontology.) I was shocked to discover that there was an almost complete void in both the professional and popular writing about older women/mothers and their adult children. I knew from personal experience and from my friends’ experiences that as our kids entered their twenties and thirties, new challenges arose for both the young adults and for us as mothers. Yet, so few clinicians were writing about these issues from a mother’s point of view. If a woman lives until ninety years old, for example, she and her son or daughter will have had 70 years to renegotiate this relationship. I wanted to explore how a woman’s sense of self was affected by these changes over time.   

JB: Was there anything that surprised you as your research and work on this project deepened? 

JS: I am a qualitative researcher and began my research with an open-ended exploration to learn what issues in an adult child’s life were perceived by the mother as negatively impacting her own well-being.    It could have been that they did not visit enough, that they married the wrong person, that they were unappreciative of all that they had been given. Instead, what I learned was that the mothers who chose to speak with me had adult children who had serious mental health or substance abuse problems that had interfered with their son or daughter’s ability to support themselves. Each of the mothers had re-opened her doors to provide shelter for her adult child. She saw taking on this responsibility regardless of her conflicts about resuming active parenting, as what a “mother should do.”

A second surprise for me was learning that a number of the mothers had been verbally or physically attacked by their adult children who they were trying to protect. While as a social worker, I was aware that elder abuse was a growing social problem, my research was confirming for me what I was reading.  The literature showed that a majority of perpetrators of “elder abuse” were dependent adult children with mental illness and/or substance use disorders. Yet, none of the women I was speaking to called their adult children’s aggressive behavior towards them “elder abuse.” They named it as “disrespectful” or “aggressive.”                

JB: Much of the available literature on addiction and mental illness focuses on the individual experiencing these issues. What drew you to focus on the mothers in these relationships instead of the children?

JS: I began my research to understand mothers’ experiences – not to explore the needs of adult children. I have been interested in mothering for over forty years. Mothers of infants, mothers on public assistance who were mandated to work, mothers of adult children with mental illness. 

JB: In addition to the daily stress on mothers like those described in your book, there’s also the additional burden of “associative stigma” that is placed upon mothers whose children are dealing with difficult circumstances. How does this complicate their experience?

JS: Reaching out for help when your adult child is verbally or physically attacking you is “embarrassing.”  Every woman I talked to at one point gave an explanation for her adult child’s problematic behaviors as having resulted from something she did as a mother.  “I was a single parent.” “I had to work.” “I spoiled her.” Mothers fear if they reach out for help and tell someone about their adult child’s aggressive behavior, they will be blamed. One mom who had been physically, emotionally and even sexually abused by her son feared that if she reached out for help,  people would attack her for having allowed this mistreatment to have gone for so long: “They would wonder why I was so weak.”

JB: Mothers whose children don’t conform to expected behavioral norms are at risk of being deemed unfit. You discuss the idea of the “bad mother” in the book and how this label can be applied to parents whose children deviate even a little from the norm, like being restless in a store. As behavior escalates and children grow older, the stakes become higher. For parents whose adult children are struggling with mental health or addiction issues, how can being labeled a “bad mother” lead to unintended consequences?

JS: Fear of being labeled a “bad mother” leads mothers to avoid reaching out for help, and to avoid talking to family and friends about their situation. This social isolation can become deadly.  

Research studies that I cite in the book have shown that mothers who have reached out for help when their adolescent children are having drug problems, for example, often feel blamed for their children’s problems.  In the U.K., ordinances were passed that fined parents of adolescents if their kids acted out – rather than seeing the problem as a problem of the teen, the mothers were fined or sent to parenting groups.           

JB: In the book, you discuss the ways in which the Stages of Change model may help mothers who are stuck in harmful patterns with their adult children. Since radical changes are difficult, this model encourages gradual change, beginning with acknowledgement of the problem and moving eventually towards acceptance and different behavior. What’s the best way for a mother in this situation to begin using this model?

JS: I recommend spending some time thinking about what is really upsetting you. Because change is really difficult to make, especially when it involves your adult child, you have to be really motivated to consider the change. Focusing on what and where is most upsetting to you about your situation, is the place to start.

I also suggest that it helps to see how depressed you are. I proved a depression self-screening in the book. Being depressed will make you feel unable to initiate any changes.  Depression is treatable. If you take the depression scale and find that you score with a very high score on being depressed, I ask readers to bring this assessment to your physician and engage in a conversation about possible treatments for your depression and/or anxiety.  

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About the Author

Judith R. Smith, PhD, LCSW, is a leader in gerontological research focusing on women’s experiences as they age. She is a senior clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and professor of social work at Fordham University. She lives in New York City with her husband.

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