The Last Parenting Task

A memoir by Lynne Schmelter-Davis

I had just returned from a week of visiting my grown sons in California when my friend, Elaine, called to ask, “Did you have a good time out there?”

I decided to answer truthfully.  “It’s hard to have fun when you’re walking on eggshells, biting your tongue and bending over backwards.”

Elaine understood.  She had grown children as well.  “I heard you got some good news while you were there,” Elaine said.  “Didn’t your youngest son announce his engagement to that woman you like?”

“Yes.  The engagement got me some nachas.

“Nachos?”  Elaine asked.  “Your son gave you nachos?”

“No, NOT nachos that you eat, but nachas that you get.”  Elaine wasn’t Jewish.

I explained:  “Nachas is a terrific Yiddish word that has no equivalent word in English.  Nachas means joy but not ordinary joy.  It’s a special kind of joy that you can get only from your child.   If you get a raise or a new car you might be happy but there is no nachas there.  If your daughter gets accepted into her first choice college you get nachas.If your child receives a doctoral degree you get NACHAS!It’s been said that your child having a child is a SUPER-NACHAS event.”

Then I told her, “The Queen of nachas is Mrs. Spielberg.  No, not Steven’s wife but his mother.  Did you see the Oscar show when he won the Best Director award for Schindler’s List?  He stood up there holding the golden Oscar statue and said,  “I owe this all to my mother.” Then the camera showed Mrs. Spielberg beaming in the audience.   Both Elaine and I took a moment to reflect on this wondrous occurrence.  Elaine now understood nachas,and furthermore wished for some for herself.


Sometimes I admit to feeling intrusive, or even in the way, especially if I would like information.  Once I asked my oldest son and his girlfriend if they were planning to visit for the upcoming holidays.  The girlfriend answered, “Douglas and I are not accepting questions at this time.”

Huh, I thought.  Must questions be submitted ahead of time?


I am often reminded that I must not cross boundaries, as in a cautionary warning from one of them, “Boundaries, Mom, boundaries.”  But we evidently did not have the same concept of what exactly constituted a boundary.   One time my middle son, while he was in high school asked me for twenty dollars as he was leaving the house to go out with friends.

I said, “Twenty-bucks?  You got your allowance so how come you want twenty dollars now?”

His response:  “I need to buy condoms.”

I think now I should have said, “Boundaries, son, boundaries.”

“You said I shouldn’t use lack of funds to keep me from using protection at all times,” he said.

I gave him the money.  This is the same son who called me a decade later with news of a wonderful promotion at work and a big raise (nachas for me!) and so I said, “Wow, that’s great,  I’m so proud of you.  What will you be earning now?”

He answered,  “I’m not comfortable discussing that with you.”

I wanted to say that I wasn’t comfortable carrying you for 9 months …not to mention the potty-training and waiting on line in the cold to buy Rock-‘em-Sock-‘em Robots, the must-have toy of 1976.

I know several parents of grown children, who are sending checks to help them, especially during this endless Great Recession.  Some are assisting in the support of grandchildren or are helping to pay for their children’s divorces.  It seems that checks do not release us from the boundary rule or mean that our children will call more often.  I haven’t spoken to my grown kids on the telephone in weeks because they are so busy.

Sometimes my generation is called The Sandwich Generation because of having to care for grown children as well as elderly parents.  Sure, this can be tough. But I think a better name for those of us old enough to qualify for a discounted subway fare is the “Gumby Generation.” We have to be super-flexible all the time.   No matter what happens, we may NOT say, “I don’t approve,” “Do not do that,”  “Take my advice.”   Of course we could say anything we want but the consequences will not be worth it.  We want peace.  We want harmony.  We want to be loved into our golden years.

Your daughter got engaged to the daughter of your best friend?  Mazel tov!  Some call this faux nachas.  You must show joy. Your single daughter, age forty, has informed you that she made a withdrawal from her local sperm bank to become a mother?  Be happy about your impending grandparenthood.    It’s not about you.  It’s about them.  You can’t let on by word or look that you might be disappointed or sad.  You can talk to your trusted friends or see a therapist.  Or both.

A special challenge is stepchildren.  Can we get nachas from a stepchild?  This is a rabbinic question that I will not try to answer except to say that if the stepchild has not spoken to us for over a decade the answer is definitely “no.” If, however,  our own child has achieved something outstanding and we are in nachas heaven I would think that our spouse who is not the child’s parent could enjoy some reflected nachas.  What about boundaries with stepchildren?  For them the boundaries are so high and wide it is best to stick to the following topics only:  the weather (if it’s nice), how smart they are, how good they look, and how happy you are to see them.

Finally we come to grown in-law children or the significant others of our grown children, half-children or stepchildren of the same or different genders, religions, races and ethnicities.  Embrace all of it.  Do not count on nachas.  Let’s  forget about our parents and grandparents spinning around in their graves.  Focus on how little time we have left on earth. Do we want to spend this time meeting with lawyers while trying to decide who gets excluded from our will this year or would we rather feign a modicum of senility and appear vaguely pleased about everything and get invited to all family events     There are many books about baby-and -child -care.  Schools run programs on parenting your teens.  There are even books on how to be a good grandparent.  But no author wants to be the Dr. Spock for thirty, forty, and fifty-plus year old children.

Dr. Spock had it easy because he was able to tell us that as parents we were bigger, smarter, and could trust our instincts to do the right thing. None of this is true for parenting grown children.  At the book store the self-help section goes from “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” through  “Being the Mother-of-the-Bride, and then it ends.  Next comes “How to Care for Your Aging Parents.”

We are set adrift with no guideposts or encouraging words.   It will take plenty of good luck to get through this last parenting task well.  And those of us who do it really well might even get rewarded with unexpected nachas, like our child winning a great award and telling the world that that the achievement was all due to us.


Lynne Schmelter-Davis was a college professor of psychology for several decades, and she is the mother of three sons and two stepdaughters. Although she has retired from teaching, the parenting of grown children goes on, and on, and…