By LILY STARBUCK
In her first book, Not That Kind of Girl (2014), Lena Dunham offers insight into the difficulties of growing up. And like anyone growing up these days, she talks a great deal about her parents. Dunham recalls when as a recent college grad living a home, she had such a terrible fight with her mother that she called a relationship expert for help. “You’re my mother and I need you, but in a different way than before,” Lena says to her mom, echoing the expert’s advice. To which her mom replies, “That’s fucking bullshit.”
Dunham says she has a close relationship with her mother, who has been a continuing character in her work from her first 2010 feature film Tiny Furniture. While they fight like most mothers and daughters, they have an open, close, and even intimate relationship.
Today, mother – adult child relationships look a lot different for millennials than previous generations. The term ‘BFF’ is often used to describe the relationship in the media today. An October Cosmo article asked – and answered yes -, “Can Your Mom Be Your BFF?” A parade of self-help books for mom’s boast titles like “I’m Still Your Mother: How to Get Along With Your Grown-Up Children For the Rest of Your Life” and “Too Close for Comfort? Questioning the Intimacy of Today’s New Mother-Daughter Relationship” suggesting how moms can assert power in this new wave of ‘moms as friends.’ But, like Dunham, many young women I spoke to do not see their relationship with their mothers this way even when most consider themselves ‘close.’
Parents and their children are closer than ever. According to a 2012 Pew study, 3 out of 10 young adults, ages 25 to 34, are living at home with their parents. This also means closer financial ties. Almost half of young adults, ages 18 to 34, are financially dependent upon their parents even if they are not living under the same roof.
19-year-old Ruby Redstone recently moved far away from her parents’ home in New York City to attend school at St. Andrews University. “It is actually easier to be close with my parents living away from home since the daily little tiffs about putting away laundry or doing the dishes are eliminated,” said Redstone, who talks to her mother over the phone almost every day. She loves spending time with her parents, and they love it too, she said.
Parents, today, have a generally positive outlook on their relationships with their kids. 78% of parents today actually report enjoying the time they spend with their adult children, according to a 2013 study by Clark University, which surveyed the parents of “emerging adults” ages 18 to 29. Furthermore, 55% of parents said they had become “more like friends” with their children since age 15+. And 49% said that their child sees them more as a person rather than a parent.
But some kids do not see it in the same light. “I have very young parents, so growing up they set clear boundaries that they were always in charge,” Redstone said, “I am extremely close with my parents but they are still my parents, not my friends.”
She is not alone. Julia Delmedico, and 18-year-old sophomore at New York University, also said would never call her mother her friend because she will “always be my mom.”
Phoebe Young, a 19-year-old sophomore at Brown University, echoed a similar thought. “She’s my mom!” she said in our interview, as if that was enough explanation for why they couldn’t be friends.
About 50% of young adults in the Pew study claim having a “good” relationship with their parents. But a “good” relationship does not imply a friendship.
Debra Umberson, a professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, looks at psychological factors behind the parent – adult child relationship. “As parents age, they commonly face retirement, reductions in income, the prospect of grandchildren, and impending death,” she writes in The Journal of Marriage and the Family, “These interests may contribute to increased interest in and opportunities for contact and involvement with adult children. This may also lead older parents to be more psychologically reactive to the quality of relationships with their children.”
While millennials are off trying to figure out their lives and become ‘real adults,’ mom and dad are dealing with difficult feelings.The relationship between parent and adult child is bumpier than it’s made out to be. The lines between parent and child are clearer for some. Some adult children get dragged into their parents’ issues now that they are grown-ups themselves.
Both Delmedico and Young found that their mothers turned to them for advice and support when they went away to college. Young said her mom would call her when she was feeling depressed or sad. Delmedico said her mom asked for advice about a fight she had with Delmedico’s dad. “If my parents are going through some shit, now they’ll call me for advice,” she said, “I’ve been a mediator for their fights.”
Despite this, kids and their parents report having good relationships. Delmedico says she enjoys the openness of her relationship with her parents. She feels like she can talk to them about anything – even boy troubles – and still maintain their respect.
The parent – adult child relationship is unique for several reasons, Umberson finds, including its permanence and influence, even after death, as well as its significance in today’s social identity. It is this permanence that makes it different from any kind of friendship.
So moms, your kids might not think of you as their BFF. And kids, your mom might be having a harder time than you are with your coming of age – like Lena Dunham’s mom seems too. But know that something about your relationship is special even when one of you gets mad at the other because, yeah, that still happens.