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Home > Research Articles > Why isn't Willy a doctor? Study at Cornell finds that aging moms have conflicted relationship with lower-achieving adult children.

Cornell News

Saturday, November 16, 2002

FOR RELEASE: Nov. 14, 2002 Contact: Susan S. Lang Office: 607-255-3613 E-Mail: SSL4@cornell.edu ITHACA, N.Y. -- Of course mothers love their children. But as moms get older, more than half report some conflicted or ambivalent feelings about their adult children. And, according to a recent study at Cornell University and Louisiana State University, the older mom gets, the more mixed are her feelings about her children.

"Older mothers tend to be most ambivalent toward children who never completed college or aren't married," says Karl Pillemer, an associate professor of human development at Cornell and co-director of the Cornell Applied Gerontology Research Institute. "Mothers are also more ambivalent toward children that still need financial support from them."

The study, which surveyed 189 mothers, age 60 and older, was conducted in collaboration with J. Jill Suitor, professor of sociology and director of women's and gender studies at Louisiana State University, and was published in theJournal of Marriage and Family (August 2002). The study is supported by the National Institute of Aging.

Mothers, Pillemer says, tend to be most ambivalent toward children who have failed to achieve and thus be financially independent adults. As mothers grow older, more frail and probably more in need of emotional support from their children, they tend to become more conflicted about their feelings toward grown children, Pillemer notes.

The mothers in the study reported closer relationships -- but also the most conflict -- with their daughters. Pillemer suspects this is because they have more contact with their daughters and interact over a broader spectrum of issues.

In a previous study, Pillemer and Suitor reported that about 80 percent of older mothers admit to having a favorite child. The sociologists now are working with the Center for Survey Research at the University of Massachusetts in Boston to interview 600 mothers, ages 65 to 75, their adult children and the children's fathers, if possible. They are exploring the degree to which adult children in the same family differ in their relationships with their parents and the factors that help explain these variables. The study also will determine the effects that the relationship with a child have on elderly parents' mental and physical health, social isolation and self-esteem.