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Monday 15 Jul 2024

Ruth Nemzoff
dr george pollard

Grub Street Interview Ruth Nemzoff Grub Street Interview Ruth Nemzoff Grub Street Interview Ruth Nemzoff

Here’s a joke. Two older men are sitting on a park bench, talking. One says, “My daughter married the most wonderful man. He cooks. He cleans. He gets the kids off to school.” The other man says, “My son married the laziest women. She makes him clean. She makes him cook. She makes him get the kids off to school.” Family life is a mater of perspective.

This much is true; the family is the glue that binds society. A strong family can mediate life for the better. Strong families led to a strong society.

The family, ideally, is a warm, welcoming hearth in a cold, callous world; it offers emotional and material support. Women and men living in families are happier and healthier than are those living alone. Pooled assets, in a family, may lead to greater wealth, too.

Raising capable adults is one goal of the family. Parents transfer much of their social selves to their children. If parents stress the importance of more education, say, daughters and sons find a way to earn more education, despite roadblocks, such as money.

When the family wobbles, lives falter. When family ties are too loose, everyone suffers; no trusty help exists. If the family breaks down, an up-take in deviance soon follows; suicide, substance abuse and social decay surge.

The family roots in courtship. In the West, falling in love leads to leaving the nest. Cupid attracts us to those more like than unalike us; for example, those of the same social class and with similar interests.

Elsewhere, arranged marriages may be the norm. In these societies, women and men learn how to be a spouse from infancy. Fixed rules may also exist; for example, specific ages for women and men to marry.

Children place heavy demands on the time and energy of parents. Yet, most women and men include at least one child in his or her notion of the ideal family. The difficult balance, of work and having a child, is thus worthwhile for most men and women.

Here’s some heartening news about parenting. Despite the normal tensions of teen years, half of teenagers, in Canada, give mom an A; roughly 30% give dad an A. The time and energy put into parenting pays off.

In the past, a child left the nest by age twenty-three, roughly. Today, the transition to adulthood takes longer. Graduate education may mean a child stays in the nest until his or her late twenties, even thirties; difficulty finding a career also leads to a crowded nest.

The crowded nest is more common, today, than in the recent past. Some adult children return home because they can’t afford to live on their own; a broken marriage, say, leads to heavy emotional and financial costs. Some experts suggest one-third of young adults, aged 19-to-35, return to live with their parents for at least four months; many for years.

An increased life span also means families exist longer, today, than ever before. By age fifty-five, most women and men finish child rearing. Barring divorce or death, living with a spouse, in an empty nest, will last twenty-five years or more.

An empty nest is time to tune a marriage. After years of child rearing, a couple may grow closer; more empathetic. Life in an empty nest can be most satisfying or not.

Contact with adult children continues after they leave the nest. Some older women and men parent their grandchildren. Some adult children care for an elderly or ill parent.

How parents deal with adult children is an age-old problem. It’s as old as our species says Dr Ruth Nemzoff. She’s the author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: how to foster rewarding relations with your adult children.”

What haven’t we learned, as a species, in 500,000 years? “Well,” says Dr Nemzoff, ‘the context is always new; it keeps changing. When an adolescent leaves home or the family shape changes, how parents and adult children get along changes, too. Dealing with such change is as old as our species.”

Grub Street (GS) What’s your favourite phrase or word?

Dr Ruth Nemzoff (DRN) The word yes is my favourite.

GS What is your least favourite word?

DRN No or impossible are words I don’t care to hear.

When does someone become an adult child? “I have a whole chapter on when adulthood begins,” says Dr Nemzoff. Women and men become adults in many ways. “In Massachusetts, where I live, someone can get a licence to drive a car at sixteen and one half years old. At age eighteen, he or she may enlist in the military.

“The same person, in Massachusetts, must be twenty-one years old to drink, legally. Many contracts require signers to be eighteen years of age or older. A graduate student may not be on his or her own until age thirty or older.

“When one becomes an adult is thus confusing,” says Nemzoff. “There are so many factors to consider. The key to understanding adulthood is to appreciate it happens differently to different men and women.”

Psychologist Jean Piaget decided there’s a child in every adult. In every child, he believed, there’s an adult. Becoming an adult involves maturity, the ability to respond in a suitable way.

“Road rage and rudeness at checkout counters suggests little maturity,” says Nemzoff. “Patience suggests more maturity.” Moment to moment, we fall between the extremes of maturity.

“Sometimes children act more mature than do some adults,” says Dr Nemzoff. This is the basis for much of the success of movies by Steven Spielberg, such as “ET,” and John Hughes, such as “Home Alone.” In these films, children call on their more mature selves to solve problems.

“I think mutual reliance brings out our most mature selves,” Nemzoff says. Maturity can thus appear at any chronological age. Providing and accepting social support is a sign of much maturity.

Dr Nemzoff says that accepting we make mistakes is another sign of maturity. “I love to discuss, with my children, what I think are my mistakes,” she says. “My children and I don’t always agree on what is or was a mistake on my part, which is interesting.”

Adult women or men, that is, those with maturity, have a practical, worldly wise way of getting, grasping and using information. Information comes from ideas, experience and the senses, each tinged with emotion. An adult can thus handle the doubts of everyday life better than can a child; road rage is not the act of an adult, but of someone that’s thoughtlessly immature.

Only through trial and error, Dr Nemzoff suggests, in “Don’t Bite Your Tongue,” do parents come to understand when a child becomes an adult,” and, perhaps, vice versa.”

Even then there’s slippage, as Psychologist Erik Erikson suggested, from child to adult to child for both parents and adult children, alike. Here lies the root of difficulty for parents dealing with adult children and adult children dealing with parents: maturation is in flux and not necessarily predictable.

GS What sound or noise do you love?

DRN Children laughing.

Nemzoff spoke with women and men, in five countries, about how parents and adult children get along. She’s clear that not all children want to show their appreciation to their parents. “Most do, I think,” she says.

In “Don’t Bite Your Tongue,” Dr Nemzoff looks at ostensibly normal families. Families in turmoil aren’t part of her work or what she writes. “That’s a separate topic,” she says.

What her research confirmed is that “most adult children want to show their appreciation to their parents. Parents need and want to know how to take part in the lives of their adult children, without taking over those lives,” says Nemzoff. Both goals are realisable, without creating lasting rifts.

“I had a wonderful experience speaking in China, at Fudan University,” says Nemzoff. Fudan is the Yale of China. The school ranks among the top fifty universities, in the world, for modern languages and politics.

“After I spoke at Fudan,” says Nemzoff, “an adult child said to me, ‘My parents sacrificed for me. They sent me to school. I wasn’t in the fields. That was a big sacrifice. They helped me, gave me time to do my homework and supported me. Now, I’m at university and they want to marry me off to a village girl. What is my obligation to them?’

“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s fascinating.’” Here’s why that comment was great. The previous night, Nemzoff spoke to some British students. “They were doing a year of post-college teaching in China.” One student said that his parents “sent me to Eton and Oxford [or Cambridge]; what I owe them is a return on investment.” Nemzoff thought that a variation on the question asked by the Chinese student.

Yet, American kids will tell Dr Nemzoff, “I want to go to graduate school in California. My parents feel I am leaving them. What do I owe them?” This is a different approach than what’s taken by adult children in China and the British students.

GS What inspires you?

DRN Other people inspire me.

Nemzoff says she hears the same questions, in different dressings, all around the world. What’s the answer? “Well,” she says, “I think it depends on the family, on the context.

“I ask the adult child, ‘What would you like to show your parents?’” The response she gets usually involves verbal gratitude. “Students often think they must show their parents appreciation using words, which isn’t always true and doesn’t always work.

“After one talk,” Nemzoff says, “a Chinese father approached me. He said, ‘We don’t have the tradition of our children talking to us.’ They do have a tradition of children showing respect.

“For an adult child,” says Nemzoff, “showing respect may not and does not have to be with words. The student, at Fudan University, does not have to marry the girl from the village. He could show respect by sending his parents money. He could do it by visiting them more often.” There are multiple ways to show affection, effectively.

Dr Nemzoff had a relevant incident in her own life. “I recently had a hip replaced. I was in pain. My granddaughter said, ‘Can I get you a glass of water, Momma Ruth?’ She didn’t need to say she loved me, she showed it.”

It’s always better to show than only tell; anyone can mouth words, few can act. “This is giving someone chicken soup when they are ill or sending flowers,” says Nemzoff. “Florists exploit this point, with the slogan, ‘Say it with Flowers.’ There are many ways of speaking; sometimes with words and sometimes with actions.” It may be best to use words and actions.

Context, says Dr Nemzoff, reflects the circumstances of family life. Different cultures, such as China and North America, lead to different circumstances. In a society, differences in occupation or social class led to large differences in family circumstances.”

It’s a matter of what is dutiful, she says. What is respectful? How does an adult child continue to show love for his or her parents?

“A first generation immigration family in America,” says Dr Nemzoff, “may have different expectations of what is a dutiful child than does a family here for many generations.” Expectations are fluid.

“How parents and adult children get along might be generational. It might be cultural. There are so many sources for different expectations,” says Nemzoff.

Recently, she says, I had interesting conversations with two fathers. One father said, ‘My child is so attentive. He calls me every week.’ A few nights later, I spoke with another father. He said ‘My son calls me once a week,’” if I’m lucky.

Adult children want to show appreciation for parents. What expectations do parents have for adult children? “In America,” says Nemzoff, “there are, again, many differences. Still, among the most common themes is, ‘I don’t expect anything from my children.’ That’s what parents say, all the time.”

That’s not the truth, though. “If adult children don’t call their parents, if they don’t come home for the holidays or if they don’t do something their parents expect that’s when parents realize they do expect something. I think parents, in American, often aren’t aware of what they expect.”

“Personality has much to do with showing appreciation,” she says. “In some places, you can run into a room and hug everyone. In other places, more restraint is expected.” Shaking hands, instead of hugging, works in some circumstances, but not others.

“Context sometimes causes difficulty,” says Nemzoff. “In my second book, ‘Don’t Roll Your Eyes,” I show how in different sub-cultures, each family is a sub-culture, get in the way.” It can hamper realising men and women are engaging each other and exchanging love, respect, affection and appreciation.”

Nemzoff uses the term, ‘sub-culture,” correctly. This is rare. Most easily seen as deviant, such a motorcycle gang, a sub-culture is a group that acts in a way that sets it apart from the larger society. Teenagers, women, men and fans of Katy Perry are sub-cultures as is each family.

Sub-cultures can be large or small. Katy Perry has millions of fans. A bowling league may have fifty players. A family may have three members.

Each family varies a little from other families and the larger society. Doing homework is a norm. In some families, if it’s 8 pm, homework must be complete. Other families have no rules for doing homework.

GS What turns you on?

DRN Variety, novelty, learning turn me on.

GS What turns you off?

DRN Routine turns me off.

Beyond the examples mentioned, how much alike or unalike are adult children when it comes to thinking what they might owe their parents? “I don’t think there is much agreement,” says Dr Nemzoff. “Still, most adult children do recognise what their parents did for them and want to repay it some way.

“In a class, I asked my students, ‘How do you know your parents love you?’ The American students said, ‘They gave me a skateboard or we went on trips.’ An Asian student said, ‘They fed me.’

“There was stunned silence, in the class. I think children, in America, take a reasonably good life for granted; thus, they focus on material parts of life. The Asian student showed how difficult life is for most people.

“Even here, in America,” says Dr Nemzoff, “it’s not easy to put food on the table or clothe our children. I hope most adult children know they are somewhat lucky. They may be parents, themselves, when their eyes are opened.” It takes much effort to raise a child.

In ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue, Nemzoff writes of forgiveness. “Parents must keep in mind that they were once children. They must forgive their parents for mistakes made. Their children must do the same. Then parents must forgive their own children for whatever mistakes they make. No one is perfect, no one is exempt.”

All parents make mistakes says Dr Nemzoff. “We love our children too much. We don’t love our children enough. We give them too much freedom or not enough freedom to develop. No one gets it exactly right.

“Everything is on a continuum; rearing children means invoking many, many judgement calls. Any call we do make could be made differently. Who knows if it would have worked out the same way or not?”

GS What’s your favourite piece of clothing?

DRN A swimsuit is my favourite clothing.

“Don’t Bite Your Tongue” has a unique heritage. “I was going to cocktail parties and such,” says Nemzoff, “with baby-boomer parents. Everyone was talking of parenting their adult children. The most common phrase I heard was, ‘I bite my tongue’ or something along that line.

“I began talking with strangers, in bus stations, on planes or trains, about parents and adult children. Again, most everyone said something along the lines of ‘I bite my tongue’ or ‘I don’t say anything.’ These women and men said they had much to share, with adult children, but felt they could not or should not speak. The usefulness of the parents as a source of sage advice and support was lost.

“Our adult children know us well,” says Dr Nemzoff. “Silence may be worse than saying something, anything, to them. In uncertainty, they wonder why we don’t speak up.” Parental silence can be deafening.

“Ultimately,” says Nemzoff, “the true message of the book is how to say what should be said, when and why. Knowing where to say anything to adult children is important, too.” In other words, do you text, use social media, call or say it in person.

Dr Nemzoff urges parents not using social media, including texting, to sign up. “The more arrows in a quiver the better” she says. “Parents need to use all means to deal effectively with adult children.

“Parents must find the crowd that includes their children. If adult children are using social media, then parents must use social media. If you don’t know how to use the technology, ask your children. They will show you how to use the technology.”

The Automatic Teller Machines (ATM) is a good example, says Dr Nemzoff. “There are no social class, educational or other barriers to using an ATM, but I didn’t know how to use it or feel comfortable trying. I had my son come with me. I was so nervous. “Now, I use the ATM as does the rest of the world.

“Parents can learn to use an ATM, social media or texting, effectively and efficiently. Sometimes, it may be the best way to contact adult children. Increasingly, social media is an efficient way of staying in touch,” across and around the world.

Older parents may lack interest in using social media or texting. “I understand how the relevance of social media may be lost on the non-user,” says Nemzoff. “Once someone starts using it, though, the relevance is obvious. It does pay off, as it did when I learned to use an ATM.

“I know one woman, 75, that didn’t use social media or texting,” says Nemzoff. “She hated it. She didn’t even have e-mail.

“When her grandchildren went to college, they pooled their money and bought her an iPhone. They taught her how to use it. She resisted at first, but the pay-off, staying in touch with her grandchildren, led her to learn.

“Now, she can’t get over the usefulness of texting. She sends a few words, ‘I’m having a ball’; her grandchildren reply, almost instantly. Technology keeps her connected, with her grandchildren.”

Contrary to much thinking, technology is usually for the good says Dr Nemzoff. “Sometimes parents or children think texting, for example, might be invasive. I don’t think that’s true, as an immediate answer is not always or anytime necessary.

“Social media and texting are merely another way, a new way, to greet and stay in touch with those we love. When meeting, some women and men like to embrace the other person; some want to shake hands, whereas, for others, a nod is good. A text message, say, “Hi, how are you,” is a different form, but the effect is the same and it’s not invasive or demanding. There are many ways to stay in touch and say, ‘I care.’”

Might some adult children think parents texting or on social media is a way of them getting too much into their world. “Of course, we know, as parent or adult child, we can’t let other people define us. No, my suggestion is for everyone to be part of the 21st century.”

GS What is something about you that would surprise readers?

DRN Readers might be surprised to learn that I’m seventy-five years old and how actively curious I am.

The idea behind ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue” is new and important. There are a great many ideas for books. How did Dr Nemzoff come to write this book?

“I’m a resident scholar at Brandeis University, in Boston,” says Dr Nemzoff. “A colleague, Dr Rosalind Chat Barnett, was interested in the subject, too. Separately, we saw the problems inherent in parenting adult children. She asked me to join her in researching this subject.

“My only rule, for this book, was no parent blaming. Even the worst parents do their best. My colleague agreed and we were off.

“We wrote a great proposal for the book. My colleague had a fantastic agent. For four years, the agent tried to sell the book.

“Book editors are usually under forty years of age. When an editor read our proposal, she or he would say, ‘My parents don’t parent me.’ “Yet, I was at parties, all the time, with women and men the age of the parents of book editors. Most of what the parents discussed was parenting adult children.

“It wasn’t parenting in the sense you parent a toddler; that is, watching them every second. The concern was with adult children.” Parents worried over how to parent adult children, without getting in the way or causing a rift.

“Down the road four years,” says Dr Nemzoff. “I went to the wedding of a widow and widower. It was a dark and stormy night wedding; only some of the guests showed up. I got to talking to a young woman that worked in publishing.

“Of course, I told her of my book idea. She thought it great. Four years later, this young woman was promoted to head of the parenting books division at Palgrave MacMillan, the publisher.

“Then, I was on a panel. I had much success in my life; I thought I should speak of my failures. I spoke of failing at publishing.

“The next week, the young woman from the dark and stormy wedding called. We talked. The following week I had a contract.”

What’s the take away from this anecdote? “Tell everyone you’re writing a book. No matter where you are or what you are writing about, talk of it. You never know what will happen.

“Don’t give up, either. This young woman said she decided to publish ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue’ because [another author] had a book on the same topic that sold twenty thousand copies, which is great. ‘There’s room for a second gas station, a second book on the same topic, she said.’”

Years ago, when gas stations dotted the urban map, there were corners, at cross streets, with two or more stations. The idea was that if one station was busy, drivers would go to the one across the street. For drivers, one brand of gas was as good as another; that was the message of four gas stations at many crossroads. No one told the advertising agencies for gas stations of this fact.

“I thought being second would hurt the success of ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue.’ It didn’t. In fact, [the other author] paved the way for me,” says Nemzoff.

She realised her goal through tenacity, industriousness and hope. “Yes,” she says. It was mesmerising. It was a good publishing lesson for all writers.

“I had the contract, but Dr Barnet, with whom I intended to write the book, had moved on to other research. She didn’t want to write a book on parenting adult children, anymore. She did write the preface to ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue.’”

GS What are you reading right now?

DRN Last night, I finished “The Custom of the Country,” by Edith Wharton.

Suddenly, Dr Nemzoff had to write a book on her own. “I had never written a book before,” she says. “I never thought of myself as a writer. I’d never had a goal to be a writer, but I did have much to say.

“I had to figure out how I was going to do write a book. This was complete Panicsville, for me. I was 66 years old. How do I do this?”

She knows age should not deter. “At the time, two of my children took me aside. They said, ‘You don’t have to do this just because you have a contract. If you’re going to do it, you’ve must figure out how to do it, without making everyone miserable.’”

Dr Nemzoff pondered writing the book. “I reflected, for a while,” she says, “before deciding what I needed to do. I realised my fear was of being alone on the project. Writing a whole book, by myself; locked in a room, not knowing if what I was writing was good, bad or useless.” The idea of becoming a cloistered writer was new and, at first, unwelcome.

She called her college room-mate, Elinor Sachse. “I was in tears. ‘What am I going to do,’ I said to her.

“Elinor said, ‘Oh Ruth, don’t worry. I read your papers. I read them in college. I read them now. You’ll be fine. I’ll help you, as you wish. Thus, one day a week, I had a conference call, with her, while I wrote ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue.’

“Then I wondered how to I work with an editor. I thought an editor only saw the manuscript at the end, when she or he crossed the tees and dotted the eyes. I was wrong,” says Nemzoff.

“My editor, Luba Ostashevsky, was flexible. She’d see the end product, once done, if that’s what I wanted. Alternatively, she’d work closely with me. Now, I had two calls a week about the manuscript.

“A friend said I should get a student scholar partner. I did. The scholar partner is an undergraduate student. She, in my case, worked with me, for pay, and I agreed to tutor her.

“I found wonderful scholar partners, Brooke Rosenbauer and Janine Evans. They helped research ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue.’ We met once a week, as I wrote the manuscript. Brooke and Janine also helped edit ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue.’

“Once I began writing, I had three meetings a week, with women that read my work and commented on it. We talked through writing and other issues. This set up was a gawd send for me.”

Writing, as Dr Nemzoff discovered, is hard, physical work. “I realised,” she says, “I needed to be physically fit to write effectively. Writing is athletic. A writer must be in good enough shape in order to sit and write for hours.

“I developed a schedule. I would get up in the morning and write. At roughly 10 am, I took a long bike ride,” says Dr Nemzoff. “When I got my next writing block, I’d take a swim. I paced myself with what I would now call meditative tasks, such as biking, walking or swimming. This regime helped me write.

“Thus, the combination of having people and being physically fit were what I needed to write ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue.’ The other motivator was my book contract,” says Nemzoff. She had only six months to write and present the manuscript for a 256-page book.

“Once the research was done,” says Dr Nemzoff, “it was six months hard writing. It wasn’t drudgery, as the topic interested me to no end. Some days, though, it was tough.

“I was fortunate my family agreed I need only show up at the dinner table,” she says. “Other than that, my responsibilities were sort of on hold for a few months. Everyone agreed to fill in for me, which made the difference.

“I like to spend a great deal of time with my family, especially in the summer. The chaos is invigorating. Yet, I don’t need to be in the centre of the chaos to enjoy it. Hearing the chaos and the noise, the teenagers in the background, was comforting.”

Dr Nemzoff is not alone, among scholars, who find focus amid chaos. Dr Richard Feynman, the 1965 Noble laureate in Physics, did much of his best work in a strip club near his home. Dr Erving Goffman, the Canadian Anthropologist, scribbled away during the lunch time chaos of the main student cafeteria at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I think what I’m saying to the writers,” Nemzoff says, “is recognising what you need around you when you write; some writers need solitude, others yearn for chaos. There is never a substitute for knowing yourself. Too many people, not only writers, don’t know themselves.

“Once I’d started my routine, it seemed to work, well. Still, it was total focus on the manuscript. The chaos, I think, helped ground me.”

GS Is there a mistake you made, when you began writing, which you now regret?

DRN I don’t regret anything about writing my books. I’m forgiving of any problems that arose.

How have reviewers and readers taken to “Don’t Bite Your Tongue”? “The response is good,” says Dr Nemzoff, “but I now know I could have done more to promote the book. I didn’t marshal reviewers. I didn’t ask people to review the book.

“Still, the book sells well. The feedback is mostly positive. The book helped a great many women and men, which is heartening.

“Many churches and synagogues use ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue.” The book seems effective in helping bring women and men back to the religion, says Dr Nemzoff. “The book aims to start conversations more than answer questions,” which seems a good way to bring back lapsed parishioners.

For all problems, serious or not, it’s good to learn how others contend. “We are all limited in our views,” says Dr Nemzoff. “I think it’s incredibly important to hear how others handle problems, which most of us shared.

“Hearing other viewpoints gives us new ideas. This is one reason I set up ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue,” with questions at the end of each chapter. I want to urge women and men to reflect, alone or in discussion groups.

“I receive many invitations to speak because of ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue’; over 350 invited talks, so far. This evidence leads me to believe the book works for many men and women.”

Does Dr Nemzoff think readers understand “Don’t Bite” as she hoped? “I do, she says. Here’s an example. “One woman came up to me at an event and said, ‘I bought your book and sent it to my daughter. She just had a baby. I told [my daughter] that if I ever do anything wrong, tell me to review page 142 or whatever of ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue.’

“Another woman told me she bought the book and never opened it. She left it, prominently, on her counter. Her kids came in and said, ‘Mom, why’d you buy this book, we have a great relationship?’ She said, ‘Yes, we do, but there are some concerns that trouble me.’ That started a great conversation.”

A goal, for Dr Nemzoff, was writing a book in actionable English. “The examples of feedback, above, show “Don’t Bite” worked well, in this regard. My aim was to put scholarly jargon into a readable form that led to action. ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue’ is based in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for example. The CBT jargon translates well into everyday English and works well in practice, too.”

Most reviewers of and commenters on “Don’t Bite” are women. “I found this time and time again at my various sessions, too,” says Dr Nemzoff. “Typically and roughly, fifteen per cent of those that attend my talks are men. For all our change in family structure, women remain responsible for the larger kin relations.

“To be fair to the baby boomers, they were starting families at the beginning of the women’s movement. ‘Women responsible for families’ was still the norm, it hadn’t eroded much. The personal device, the cell phone and so forth, changed that somewhat; you no longer call the house and talk with whoever answers, you call a cell phone, which are individualised.” The person that answers your call may be anywhere, in the world.

Could that norm fully change, ever? Women carry the baby and birth the child. Their interest, in the child, is concrete and direct. Men are in a more abstract relation with the child. Until the DNA age, men complained they were never sure they fathered the child. Once social relations take place, men attach, strongly, to the child. Is it child bearing that leads women to want, to demand, to oversee or control family relations involving children?

“I’m not going to solve that one,” says Nemzoff. “That idea is debated all over the place. What I can say is that most men do care about their children and they care deeply. Men may do it differently, though.”

Here’s a related example. “Male and female adult children often take care of elderly or ill parents. Males do it in instrumental ways, such as paying for this or that. Females usually take the parent to physician, provide meals and do more daily tasks,” says Dr Nemzoff.

“It may be that we don’t understand, fully, how tasks are divided by gender. Some men certainly take a parent to appointments. Some women certainly write cheques. What isn’t well understood is why conventional or traditional gender roles exist and persist.”

There are of social policy considerations, too. “What I try to weave into “Don’t Bite,” because of my legislative background, are some social policy issues. If we look at social policies,” says Nemzoff, “we see why some of these male roles and female roles have happened.”

Some parents need multiple jobs to adequately care for their family. Some families need multiple wage earners, sometimes with two or more jobs each, just to keep up. Income, for example, can further complicate the difficult task of keeping the family together.

“Wage inequity forces families to make choices. Can one parent or the other, usually the wife, as she may earn less than her husband, stay at home or not? Some families can afford to live on one income, others can’t.”

“I suspect daughters don’t get the same degree of help, say, when caring for an ill parent, as a male might,” says Nemzoff. “The male claim of income interruption is heard more clearly than the same claim voiced by a woman, regardless of the validity of the claim.” It’s not equitable, as we know.

“It’s an interesting puzzle,” says Dr Nemzoff. “I have a friend. She just had a knee done. Her two sons are taking care of her. I have no idea how they handle toileting issues, with the knee. My sense is she would feel uncomfortable, but I don’t know for sure.”

Dr Nemzoff raised the question with her friend. “I don’t think I got an answer. That, alone, may be insightful.

“Caregiving issues,” Nemzoff says, “are matters of context and circumstance. Most of us see toileting as private. There are times, though, when propriety is overtaken by need, such as a knee operation. One must get through the day.”

GS What is your favourite indulgence?

DRN Milk chocolate is my favourite indulgence.

If she had her way, “Don’t Bite Your Tongue” would be in more general use, everywhere. “That’s a typical thought for an author,” Nemzoff says. “We all want everyone to read or use the baby they nursed for months and months.

“If I can’t have my fantasy for “Don’t Bite” fulfilled, maybe the book can help build communities, such as the old coffee clutches.” These informal groups were popular before the boomers came along and texting began. “Coffee clutches were an important source of support and a way to build a support network.

“I think this is what birthing groups do now,” says Dr Nemzoff. “For me, yoga groups fulfil the bill. Everyone needs a meditative task as well as strong social relations.”

The number and nature of our social relations often affect life expectancy. Research suggests those that had better family relations, when younger, live longer and healthier. Those with strong support networks live longer than those without such networks. Suicide is more likely if the victim does not have a reasonably strong support network.

Longevity is more a result of support groups and less a result of simply top notch medical care. “Maybe adult children will be too old, themselves, to help aged parents,” says Nemzoff. It’s the hidden cost benefit of longevity.

“Attending to our social relations,” says Nemzoff; “developing and maintaining those relations, pays off. I hope that even if you cannot do work with your own children, you will be inspired to do it with other people’s children. One of the conclusions I drew, from the research for ‘Don’t Bite Your Tongue,’ is parents can hear the children of other parents more clearly than they can hear their own children.

“One of the greatest forms of help is among inter-generational groups. When you hear older people say your children aren’t disorderly, detestable or thankless, you know it’s true.” This is good, if all too rare.

“Extended families, which include your children, you, your parents and in-laws, say, are important,” says Dr Nemzoff. “We need extended families at the beginning and end of life as well as for all the crises in between. No life is untouched, no matter how wonderful it may seem.”

Life wouldn’t be much if it went untouched. “That’s true,” she says. “I hope people will enjoy this fact of life; take it seriously, work with it, make friends with it. Then “Don’t Bite Your Tongue” would be more than merely something to read, it will enrich the lives of readers.

GS What’s your favourite curse word?

DRN That would be damn.

“Don’t Roll Your Eyes,” also by Dr Nemzoff, is a handbook, of a sort, for dealing with in-laws. Her reason for writing this book was to further expose the intricate nature of social relations. “I wanted to look at in-laws. Whether they are related to a family by blood or not, they are part of the family.”

Who qualifies as an in-law? “For sure, the parents of each spouse are in-laws,” says Nemzoff. What of grandparents? What of great-grandparents? What of the siblings of each spouse? What of aunts and uncles? What of cousins and second-cousins? What if the parents re-marry after divorce, is his or her ex-spouse or current partner part of the family? “No wonder we roll our eyes when thinking of in-laws,” she says.

“The English language is not good at distinguishing among in-laws,” says Dr Nemzoff. “Everyone, somehow related to the spouses, is lumped into the word in-laws.” Some languages are less reductive.

Language usually leads to action, but gets in the way when it comes to in-laws. “Lumped into one word, in-laws are often disliked because that’s what we’re supposed to do,” says Nemzoff. “Uncertainty stemming from the language leads to insecurity. Insecurity makes use touchy, when it comes to in-laws.

“Mothers-in-law, for example, are thought meddlesome.” Here’s a joke to that point. “Two men are drinking in a pub. Their conversation turns to mothers-in-law. One man says, ‘My mother-in-law is an angel.’ The other man says, ‘You’re lucky. Mine is still alive.’” In some cultures, such as the Hopi, there’s an expectation and appreciation of mother-in-law jokes. Among Europoids, in North America, this is less the case.

“Such jokes live on,” says Nemzoff, “as they contain a grain of truth. Marriage, in the West, is not wholly a business deal, as is the case in some parts of the world. In the West, marriage calls for some adjustment, of which, defining and dealing with in-laws is one.

“I realized,” she says, “we get married. We think we are marrying a person. We find we married a family.

“Some women or men find this out before the wedding,” says Dr Nemzoff. “The realisation arrives the first time an intended must fix a screen door, at the home of his parents, or she must do something with her mother rather than go for a romantic walk in the park. Most of us don’t discover that we wed a family, not only one person, until after the wedding.

“At the wedding reception, for example,” says Nemzoff, “people unknown to one spouse or the other show up. Sometimes, the unknown bring along their friends, too. One or the other spouse quickly finds out that many women and men, mostly strangers to them, have a stake in the wedding, which is supposedly an intimate time for two people.”

Aunts or uncles may also invite friends. Often, parents invite the unknowns to the wedding. “For parents, the wedding is a graduation, of a sort,” says Nemzoff.

“Parents view their job is done, at least for this child. They want to celebrate something other than only the wedding of their son or daughter. ‘We would like everyone meaningful to us to meet this new person we are bringing into our family, into our circle,’ the parents might say or think.

“Each spouse is joining the other’s family circle. She and he may have great ambivalence, at this point. She or he doesn’t know everyone, yet. He or she may not like everyone, either.”

The engaged love each other, but not necessarily everyone in each other’s family. “That certainly happens,” says Dr Nemzoff. “What the bride and groom must recognise is that what makes the other person loveable is a result of his or her past experience. The unknowns, at the reception, may be a large or small part of what made your spouse loveable. That can’t be ignored.”

Suppose the family she is marrying into is unbearable? “There are certainly people who are unbearable,” says Nemzoff. “We all have people in our lives, in-laws or co-workers, we feel are unbearable.” There’s no denying this fact.

We find ways to put up with unlikeable people. “One of the ways we do get along with unlikeable women and men,” says Dr Nemzoff, “is by finding neutral topics to engage with them. For example, the football games on Thanksgiving are a wonderful way to bond through talk of the game.

“We find ways to get along with co-workers we don’t like. We recognise she or he is contributing to the greater good. Even obnoxious people make photocopies, well; that’s from the old days when we used to photocopy everything. Maybe his or her mathematical abilities are fantastic, so we put up with this terrible attitude or terrible personality in order to meet work-related needs.” This should extend to family and in-laws.

“The solution,” Nemzoff says, “is working hard to find something likeable, if not lovable, in everyone. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to find a redeeming quality. It’s there, if you look deep enough.”

GS What occupation, other than author and scholar, would you like to try?

DRN Not a different job, but more frequent public speaker.

We celebrate the couple, says Nemzoff, but in-laws can make marriage a mare’s nest. “Where arranged marriages are the norm, marrying a family is expected. When parents plan the wedding, marrying into a family may also be expected.

“In the West, that’s all unclear and up for grabs.” Parents likely have one set of expectations. The bride and groom likely have a different set of expectations. Siblings, of the bride and groom, have different expectations. The unknowns that show up at the wedding reception have a different set of expectations, too.

“Still,” says Nemzoff, “all parties to the marriage need on-going support through life. The family is important, as source of comfort and emergency care, if not friendship and support. We must carefully foster these social relations.”

The sense of duty to family varies. Different families have different forms and beliefs about the duties parents and adult children. This is true of all subcultures and cultures, too.

“We all feel some sense of duty to family,” says Nemzoff. “The lack of clarity regarding what is and isn’t expected of family members, causes much confusion.” It can also lead to bitterness and riffs.”

We need to honour those that went before, says Dr Nemzoff. “Like them or not, we have a certain obligation to honour them. For Christian and Jews, it’s in the Ten Commandments. ‘Honour thy father and thy mother.’

“Does that mean you must also honour the father and mother of someone you love? For some of us, yes. For others, we just don’t know.”

Differing expectations seem the core problem when dealing with in-laws. “I think we all need to be forgiving; many of us are not,” says Dr Nemzoff. We need to look at differing expectations from all perspectives or as many as we can.

“Most women and men don’t expect to marry a family when they marry their beloved,” she says. “They knew the family was coming, but, perhaps, didn’t expect the actuality.” Sometimes marrying a family is too stressful.

“Parents are often completely confused,” says Dr Nemzoff. “‘What’s my role? I had a huge role in forming this person. What’s my role in her or his new life? Am I completely cast aside? Do I have any say?’”

Siblings may feel displaced by the new member of the family. “Yes,” says Nemzoff. “Siblings may not sure what their role is in this new family.” The new family shape can confuse.

GS What’s your favourite ice cream?

DRN Vanilla with chocolate chips is my favourite flavour of ice cream.

In “Don’t Roll Your Eyes,” Nemzoff introduces a largely ignored group, with some vested interest in the family; a new group of in-laws. “I call them the “in-loves,” she says. These are women or men that may come to holidays, each year, for example, and are not otherwise seen.

“In-loves may be the boyfriend or girlfriend of the son or daughter. It could be an uncle or aunt. It might be a former significant other that comes around, occasionally, to time to spend with shared children. It could be a long-time friend that knows the family well.”

Church or state may not bind in-loves to a family, friendship does. No matter the nature of the ties, in-loves are part of the family. What is his or her role?

“For in-loves,” says Dr Nemzoff, “it’s vital to realise he or she has some history with the family. They aren’t strangers or one-off visitors.” A current college roommate that comes to Thanksgiving, because she is the car-ride home, is not an in-love.

“In-loves are gaining in number,” says Nemzoff. “Why is difficult to say. Widowed or divorced family members may couple, not re-marry, for reasons related to social security, say. The new partner, of a widow, for example, is an in-love, at least for now.” As life-choices increase so too do decisions about how to live. “This, in turn, affects the number of and role of in-loves in a family.”

How do in-loves affect social relations in a family? “I’m not sure,” says Dr Nemzoff. “In some ways it doesn’t affect the family, much, if at all. In other ways it does.

“Some family members may harbour moral or religious feelings against, say, cohabitation rather than marriage. Some family members may feel the in-love simply does not belong.” He or she is not kin or in-law and thus, for some family members, not family, at all.

“In-loves are yet another source of ambiguity in families,” says Nemzoff. “How much time do family members want to spend with or around the in-loves? How much should family members invest in the in-loves? Will she or he be here next Thanksgiving? Given the high divorce rate, this is also true for people who are married.”

Religious beliefs may affect acceptance of in-loves. “If,” says Dr Nemzoff, “a family member believes the in-love is living in sin, for example, there might be much disapproval. This happens often.

“It wouldn’t make much difference if it was the parent or adult child that was living sin,” says Nemzoff. “There’s an unwillingness to accept the in-love. Therein is the basis of a family rift.”

GS What is something you like to collect?

DRN I’m into divesting, these days.

Family members must try to find ways to accept new members. “‘I’m not accepting the lifestyle,’” Nemzoff says, “may mean dismissing the partner or in-love in terms of gender. This is not acceptable. The happiness of the family member, with the in-love, is most important.”

Most critical is recognising the rejigged family form is new for everyone and it’s largely an experiment. “We are all figuring it out,” says Dr Nemzoff. “I think it takes tremendous patience and a non-judgemental stance.

“It’s recognising we all make mistakes,” she says. “The boundaries are shifting.” Old limits vanish as new ones fall into place.

“Perhaps, in its new form, the family finds that if an in-love assumes she or he is coming for a holiday crosses a boundary. The new limits may call for an invitation. Yet, for other families, anyone is welcome, anytime.”

It’s a matter of circumstance or context.” From the point of view of the parent, you need to have a good relationship with the people your adult child cares for; otherwise, relations with the adult child will falter. These others include his or her children or step-children as well as his or her closest friends and in-laws.

“If a parent rejects what an adult child cares for, deeply, it easily causes a rift. No one cares to be judged or disapproved, especially by parents. It makes each of us nervous and we react poorly.”

Why would an adult child or anyone want to visit someone that’s disapproving? Perhaps this is why the son doesn’t call often enough? “That may be the answer,” says Dr Nemzoff.

Much criticising is from behind the back of the target or victim. Face to face, everything seems fine. “In families,” says Dr Nemzoff, “members usually know each other well. False fronts are easily detected as is genuine concern.” A new in-love must learn to recognise false fronts.

Being polite is always a good fall back. “Act well, at first,” says Nemzoff. “Sometimes good feelings will emerge. Worst case, the criticism or disapproval can be stalled, for a while.”

What if an adult child hears her spouse criticised by her parents, but the parents never say anything to the spouse, directly? “The adult child,” Nemzoff says, “has an obligation to talk with her family. She might say, ‘I love my spouse. I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t criticise him [or her]. It’s unpleasant for me. Then talk of it.

“Sometimes that back-fires, but I think it’s important we all feel safe. We need to help our families understand. Our family needs to know we see what is happening and our spouse needs to feel comfortable in our family.

“Every family context is imperfect. An adult child must balance and accommodate his or her parents and his or her spouse, as they must accommodate him or her. A choice should not be forced.

“If the adult child is suffering abuse from his or her spouse,” says Dr Nemzoff, “that’s different. The family should consider intervention. ‘I notice you are constantly being criticized. ‘I notice your spouse constantly puts you down.’ ‘How does that make you feel?’ ‘You don’t seem as happy as you used to be.’ ‘Is something bothering you?’ ‘You know, I hope you will come to me.’ In such instances,” says Nemzoff, “a direct approach is best, even if it seems confrontational; the idea is to clear the air and make everyone comfortable.”

GS What item must you have with you at all times?

DRN I must have my cell phone with me, all the time.

Dr Nemzoff, a former politician, is, today, a resident scholar at Brandeis University, in Boston. How did and does she balance family and career? “It was [and is] patchwork,” she says, “fitting my career in with my family. There was much compromise. It was accepting imperfection and making the best of it.

“I think that’s certainly true of most social relations. In fact, much of the way I crafted my life was because I was balancing being a mother, of four children, being a spouse and wanting a career.

“I made compromises. In my case, the biggest compromise was financial. I often took a job that paid less, but gave me flexibility.”

Do men have the same opportunity, say, to take a job that pays less to stay with their family as do women? “I hope so,” says Dr Nemzoff. “It didn’t used to be an option for men. I hope circumstances have changed, dramatically.

Still, she thinks men make different compromises. A man may more willingly take on two or three jobs; this allows his wife to stay home, with the children. “Everyone compromises,” says Dr Nemzoff.

“One of the troubles we get in family relations is looking for perfection,” she says. “Perfection doesn’t happen. We have moments of beauty, moments of walking in the sunset. You know, that final scene of those wonderful Hollywood movies, if we’ve had a few moments like that in our lives we’re successful, right.” Life isn’t like that, though, sadly.

GS In what city could you get lost in for hours to explore?

DRN There are so many, but Hong Kong is certainly one, high on my list.

“Don’t Bite Your Tongue” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes” add much to our awareness and understanding of the care and persistence of the family. Dr Nemzoff clearly thinks through each topic; the clarity of her studied analyses is notable. Almost every paragraph is useful, in her well written books.

There are two main goals for her books. Nemzoff wants to make the family stronger and make dense, yet important, scholarship, on the family, to be accessible to every reader. She fulfils these goals, with élan, not once blaming parents for family problems. 

“Don’t Bite Your Tongue” deftly deals with how parents can get on with their adult children. Parents want their child to be happy. The dilemma is not doing too much or too little.

Do too much and the adult child may become dependent, regardless of age. Do too little and the adult child may sense a lack of support; the latter can lead to deviance, such as substance abuse. The balance is delicate and always a moving target.

In “Don’t Roll Your Eyes,” Nemzoff has much expert advice for dealing with in-laws. Matching expectations seems the key. Yet, as an open dialogue seems unlikely, a silent dialogue must do.

A deal, among in-laws, comes into being often without a word spoken. There is an understanding. If not, the potential for rifts is high.

Two people marry each other as well as each other’s family. This is not always obvious before the marriage or good news for the couple. Workable arrangements are an ideal, but seldom the norm. Families rift, often.

Family life, including in-laws, involves close relations. The closeness increases the chances for rifts; deep emotions, which bind families, may worsen rifts. “Don’t Bite Your Tongue” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes” go a long way to reduce rifts in the family as well as the results of rifts or rift avoidance, which may be as bad as a rift.

In “Don’t Roll Your Eyes,” Dr Nemzoff includes an often ignored family member, the in-love. Sometimes, not always, in-loves have no blood or legal ties to a family; still, he or she may be a key family member. The in-love may be a good friend of the parents, a relative that rarely visits or the boyfriend or girlfriend of a child.

In-loves can affect how family members get along. Adult children may like or not like friends of their parents. A new in-law is two steps away from the in-loves, which may lead to rifts.

This much is clear. “Don’t Bite Your Tongue” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes” are solid contributions to knowing the family and how it makes its way through the day. The focus on in-loves may be the most important contribution Nemzoff makes.

Few scholars pay much, if any, attention to in-loves. Although they are outsiders, in a formal sense, in-loves may affect family relations. In-loves are a hidden influence on families that needs much more thought. Dr Nemzoff opens the door for much new thinking, as has no one before her.

The importance of patience, sharing and wisdom is the take away from “Don’t Bite Your Tongue” and “Don’t Roll Your Eyes.” Dr Nemzoff gives the reader large doses of each, as well as heaping servings of common sense.

Only a woman, of a certain age, who has balanced a career and family, with much success, could have the wisdom of Dr Ruth Nemzoff.

GS What occupation would you not like to try?

DRN I would not like to be an accountant.


D Bricker and J Wright (2005), “What Canadians Think,” is published by Doubleday Canada.
Bruce A Cox (1970), “What is Hopi Gossip About: information management and Hopi factions,” published in “Man” 5: 1, pp. 88-98.
See Erik Erikson and Joan Erikson (1987), “The Life Cycle Completed,” published by Norton.
J R Goldstein and C T Kenny (2001), “Marriage Delayed or Marriage Forgone,” published in “American Sociological Review,” volume 66, number 4, pp. 506-519. August.
See Jean Piaget (1945), “Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood,” published by Heinemann.
See Marion R Porter, John Porter and Bernard R Blishen (1973), “Does Money Matter: prospects for higher education,” published by University of Toronto Press.

Grub Street Interview Ruth Nemzoff
Grub Street Interview Ruth Nemzoff
Grub Street Interview Ruth Nemzoff

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Interview edited and condensed for publication.

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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