Lynn Melnick has reviewed books for Publishers Weekly and Boston Review, and has published poetry in Boston Review, Paris Review, Crowd, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughters.
Letting Go Of The Dreams Talking About The Realities
Review of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children by Ruth Nemzoff. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008--forthcoming)
My daughter isn't quite 3 years old, so it will be a while before I am the parent of an adult child. Yet, when Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children landed on my desk just days before my own parents were due for a month-long visit, it felt fortuitous. The last time my parents and I spent longer than a week or two in each other's presence I was 18. We have a great relationship and I was eagerly looking forward to our time together, but I was also nervous that we'd end up at each other's throats before the end of their stay. I opened the book and read straight through.
Written in an effortless prose with many real-life examples and plenty of clinical information by Dr. Ruth Nemzoff, Don't Bite Your Tongue should prove useful to anyone trying to navigate the surprisingly slippery road to relating to one's grown children, when "our communications and responsibilities toward each other are voluntary and self-initiated."
Don't Bite Your Tongue begins by instructing concerned parents that it's OK to speak one's mind, necessary to understand personal motivations and absolutely crucial to let go of long-held fantasies for one's children and learn to embrace the realities, however uncomfortable. I found these chapters particularly eye-opening. It had never occurred to me that a person could experience hurt, anger and a broken heart as a result of their children's lives turning out differently than their parents had envisioned. Nemzoff isn't talking merely about dangerous or disrespectful choices, but smaller matters of love, career and money. My own daughter refuses to eat tomatoes; I imagine it would feel equally mystifying if a grown child refused something we believe good for them. Nemzoff gently urges her readers to be open with their offspring, no matter the embarrassment, to avoid building up tension and resentment.
Larger life issues are covered chapter by chapter in Don't Bite Your Tongue, including those on relationships, marriage and grandchildren. The concerns of interfaith families are considered throughout. Although all parents share the wish for their child's happiness, many find it unbearably painful to lose hope in the continuation of one's faith. Nemzoff simply but smartly captures this trouble: "You can explain why religion is important to you, but you cannot force your children to feel the way you do. Religious beliefs are paradoxically both communal and personal."
While my husband and I managed to avoid months of quarrel and hurt feelings by springing for a $25 city hall wedding, the advice on interfaith weddings in Don't Bite Your Tongue is helpful for those forging ahead with a more traditional event. Nemzoff acknowledges that some disappointment may linger forever among parents and in-laws, but she reminds her readers that we "enrich ourselves as we become sensitive to the decisions, customs, and values of others." This has indeed been the case with my family. My Jewish parents and Catholic in-laws probably never would have predicted having this relationship to each other, but we all get along terrifically. My husband and I are hosting all four of them tomorrow for Shabbat lunch, during which they will enjoy their shared passion: their granddaughter.
Nemzoff's chapter on grandparenting not only offers practical advice on everything from respecting schedules to installing car seats, but also discusses interfaith grandchildren with insight and compassion. Nemzoff teaches how to reframe each conflict within a universal measure. "All religious systems profess the need for their adherents to be kind, merciful, just, loving and forgiving," the author reminds her readers in a memorable passage. "We all hope our grandchildren will become this universally accepted notion of a good person."
Don't Bite Your Tongue closes with a careful chapter on money, which can be a sticky issue for a lot of families, and several helpful appendices geared toward further exploration and study. Questions at the end of each chapter will aid readers in understanding their own wishes and motivations. Occasionally Nemzoff's advice can seem out-of-date. How many parents need to be told that young people are marrying later in life or working at a variety of careers before settling down? After all, it is the baby boomers who are becoming the parents of adults, a generation that doesn't need to be told that a college graduate might want to explore the world, or live with a partner unwed. But this is a small quibble.
As for my own family, one week into my parents' visit and we're all still sane. I've been sharing passages from Don't Bite Your Tongue with my parents, and it's been enjoyable and useful to hear their perspective on many of these issues.