Moms as career mentors

May 14, 2006 | By Deb Smith

Lauren Gould is 21, a relative newcomer to the workaday world, but she has a powerful force helping her direct her career.

It’s not an inspirational professor. And it’s no one in the offices of her high-profile employer, Martha Stewart Living Radio.

Rather, it’s her mother, Michele Gould—who falls into the category of baby boomer women who pioneered their way into the workforce, learned the ropes and who now, as mentor moms, are encouraging, advising and guiding their kids as they embark on their own professional lives.

“I’m Lauren’s non-paid personal assistant,” says Michele Gould of Merrick, who has had her own career in advertising and who has recently taken a marketing job with a senior housing facility. “I’m the silent partner. I’m the producer. She’s the star.”

Parents as career mentors aren’t necessarily a new phenomenon. But typically it was likely to be the father who played a role—whether introducing sons and daughters to business colleagues or offering direction and advice. Today, dads—and, even more so, moms—involved in their children’s careers range from supportive, playing behind-the-scenes advisory and career guardianship roles, to that brand of hands-on micromanaging known as “helicopter parenting:” hovering over their offspring’s career moves and even crossing boundaries when they show up at their son or daughter’s job interviews or call employers to negotiate a better salary.

Granted, with the high cost of a college degree and the levels of student loan debt, parents do have a sizable financial incentive to help bring about a successful career launch for their kids. And just look at the number of young people who maintain a financial dependence in returning to the roost: Eleven percent of those aged 25 to 34 are living at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, up from 8.7 percent in 1980.

But there’s a pattern of involvement that predates their children’s graduation from college. More than in previous generations, baby boomer parents have been deeply involved in their kids’ lives, protecting and championing them from kindergarten through college, and they’re not going to stop as the kids enter the work world, says Neil Howe, co-author of “Millennials Rising—The Next Great Generation” (Vintage, $14.95). More than with other recent generations, he says, “ their lives are closely intertwined.”

Just look at one big difference from earlier decades: Today’s parents want to be their kids’ best friends. That’s what 43 percent of the 1,000 parents polled said in research from Synovate, a global market research firm. What’s more, many of today’s Millennials—those people born since 1982—see parents in those very terms and seek out their advice.

In a recent survey at the University of Minnesota, 40.8 percent of the 148 responding parents of seniors said career planning was the No. 1 area their kids were asking for their help. In previous years, students would have sought such guidance from trusted friends, says Marjorie Savage, director of the university’s parent program and author of “You’re on Your Own (But I’m Here If You Need Me): Mentoring Your Child During the College Years” (Fireside, $13). When a career counselor there asked a student why she had taken her mother along on the way to a job interview, according to Savage, the young woman said, “Why wouldn’t I? She’s my best supporter. She calmed me down on the way to the interview.”

As for Michele Gould, here are some of the ways she’s tried to assist her daughter, a graduate of John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore:

When Lauren was a journalism major at the University of Maryland at College Park, Michele told her to forget about summer camp jobs and look, instead, for work-related internships through the college.

She researched professional associations and found New York Women in Communications Inc., which offers scholarships. She told Lauren to apply (she won) and to get involved with the group (she has).

She footed the air fare so Lauren could fly from school to New York to attend professional networking events.

She told Lauren, “You have to dress the part of the executive you want to become.” Once Lauren landed a job, Michele helped select her career wardrobe.

And she told Lauren, who lives at home, to forget about coming home for dinner and to instead attend networking events. “You never know who you’re going to meet,” Michele told her. “Don’t come home—go out and do business.”

What does her daughter say about having such a close adviser?

“We’re a tag team…. She tells me what to do, and I go do it,” Lauren says, who adds that she’s grateful for the guidance and support.

But has she ever tired of her mom’s involvement—of getting an e-mail in-box full of career-advice articles, for instance?

She concedes she may have found some moments annoying—and that sometimes she’ll tell Michele, “Oh, Mom, you’re being a pain in the neck.”

But though she may seem to push back, “I just like to pretend”—all in all, Lauren says, her mom is “definitely my best friend.”

Some would say that young people should be flying solo at this stage, figuring out the nuances of the workplace themselves just as other generations have. But Liz Ryan disagrees. As long as no inappropriate lines are crossed, a parent’s involvement “is not unfair help,” says Ryan, chief executive and founder of WorldWIT, a network (online and off) for women in business and technology. After all, she says, the old-boy network has been around for centuries.

These mentor moms are women “who have gutted it out,” she says. “They cut the course though the rain forest with a machete,” and now “they have something tangible to pass on”—their knowledge and workplace savvy.

But not all parents seem to know where the boundaries are. They are the ones whom Howe calls the “alpha moms—who have been a pain” since their kids started kindergarten. Such overly involved parents finally need to realize that even if they’ve closely overseen their child’s activities until now, it’s time to “take the training wheels off,” says Madeline Seifer, director of Hofstra University’s marriage and family therapy clinic. “Young adults have a task, and their task is to become emotionally autonomous. Parents, at the same time, need to enhance their skills in letting go.”

Under the guise of being helpful or guarding a financial investment, a mom might unconsciously be trying to “preserve her role as a mother” by keeping her offspring—especially the last one in the nest—dependent on her, Seifer says.

So, where, exactly, is the line between assisting and micromanaging?

Nancy Bloom, 57, a marketing professor at Nassau Community College, calls herself a “micromanager mentor mom.”

But she says her daughter Jennifer is comfortable with the relationship and sees her mom’s role as advice-giving. Indeed, Jennifer, 22, says she appreciates the advice, and wonders how she would get along without her mom’s assistance.

Nancy says she told her daughter to attend Hofstra University so she could more easily network on Long Island and find a job close to home in Massapequa. And she told her to plan on graduating a semester early, so she could get a head start on a search for a job as a music teacher.

Did that advice pay off? Indeed, it seems to have hit the mark: A friend of Nancy’s linked her daughter with her present job as a chorus teacher at the Louis Pasteur Middle School in Little Neck.

Such maternal advising isn’t restricted to daughters: When Nancy’s son, Adam, was 10 and an avid golfer, Bloom says, she told him: “You’re so good at math and you’re a good golfer—you should have a goal of being an accountant for the PGA.”

Now Adam is in his second year at the University of Tampa, and he’s switching his major from sports management to accounting. At a recent shiva, Nancy says, she met an accountant who told her, “Tell Adam to come see me real soon.”

“It’s a global competitive environment,” she says, “and educated baby boomers want their kids to have every opportunity. I wish someone had given me this advice.”

When it comes to the workplace, experts warn parents to keep an eye on the line around the office—and not to cross it. The University of Minnesota’s Savage says moms and dads are wise to appreciate the skills that employers are looking for in new hires—independence, decision-making ability, communication skills. A parent’s presence or obvious footprint in those areas can only diminish, instead of enhance, the young adult in the employers’ eyes.

It’s great to give behind-the-scenes coaching, WorldWIT’s Ryan says, but never, ever show up on the stage.

“It’s incredibly tacky to be calling the boss or inserting yourself in any visible way,” says Ryan, a former human resources director. And she says that attitude needs to extend to jobs and internships when your child is a teenager.

She reinforced the argument that parents should take a step back: If you make all the decisions and don’t allow young people to make their own mistakes, she says, they never get the chance to learn from the results and adjust their own internal compasses.

Yvonne Grant, 56, of North Babylon, has avoided that “parental ‘I’ll tell you what to do’ thing” with her three children, now 30, 27 and 22. Instead, she says, she has shared her concerns and constructive advice—but has let them decide for themselves.

She’s helped all three select colleges. And now with her youngest, Kyle, 22, she’s actually taking a stance that would give some parents the shivers: She’s encouraging him to follow his dream and pursue an acting career.

What tempers that risk, she says, is his pursuit of a graphic arts degree at Briarcliffe College. And he’s working part time in support services where his mother is chief executive: the Girl Scouts of Suffolk County, where she says it’s not unusual for the offspring of staff and volunteers to find jobs.

When Kyle was thinking of scrapping his dream of being an actor to find a full-time job so he would feel more secure financially, she advised him to stick it out—because if you don’t pursue a dream, “you haven’t done justice to yourself.”

Now Yvonne has helped her son pick out what to wear when photos are taken for his acting portfolio, and she’s helping him sort though the proofs and choose the best ones.

“I ask her advice,” Kyle says, “and sometimes I might not agree with it, but I don’t know what I would do without her. She’s my best friend. I was blessed—I feel that every day when it comes to my mother.”

It’s the sort of testament that could make any mother proud.

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