Ask Amy: What Do We Owe Our Parents?

Dear Amy,

My mother took over from my dad’s business about 15 years ago (when he died unexpectedly). My husband and I bought the company from my mother, and I became CEO. My husband is Director of Marketing. Mom is very comfortable financially.

When she sold the company to us, she said she’d like to have an office at the business, and I made sure she we made a place for her (thankfully, she didn’t want to keep her own office). She still comes in every day. The employees love her….some of them have worked for us for many years, and are very loyal.

Here’s the problem: There is no real role for my mom now. She walks around and asks people about their families-which is nice and helps preserve our “family” culture. But she also gives her opinions and sometimes criticizes the changes I’ve made. She’s never direct about it; she just says things like “I still don’t understand why Rachel thought we needed those new computers.” It’s hard for me to feel like a CEO when my mom is still running the show!

My parents have given me a wonderful career and financial security…I never take that for granted. But what do I owe my mom? Giving her an office seemed like a perfectly fine idea…but now I’m finding that she’s really interfering in ways that are not helpful to the business or to me.

~ Rachel

Amy Katz Dear Rachel,

What a profound question! What DO we owe our parents? I’m not sure there is one answer. For some daughters, the question arises around the financial arrangements for their parents after they retire from the business. For you, the question seems more related to the responsibility you feel for your mom’s emotional well-being. Either way, it’s a tough question, rooted in the relationships we have with our parents, with our spouses, our financial resources, and our values.

Your willingness to give your mom an office tells me that you are sensitive to the transition she’s going though and that you want her to feel she has a place there. But what is her place? It sounds like your mother needs to feel valued and also needs to feel a connection with people. If she took over when your dad died, I imagine she was extremely busy, focused on work, and had little time to cultivate friendships and other activities (as you probably can understand, now that you’re the CEO). So work probably fulfilled a lot of her social needs, too.

Here are a few thoughts:

1). You might consider asking your mom to be your “trusted advisor”. Include her in your thinking about the business, let her know why you’ve made or are planning to make certain decisions, etc. She will be more likely to support any changes you make if she understands them and has helped you think them through.

2). Your mom does need a role of some kind but she may not know what that is. Take the time to brainstorm with her. She may have some ideas, but you should have a few, too. As an example, can she be involved in your community, representing your business in some way? This may allow her to meet other people, build some friendships, etc. She probably has had a lot of experience that others can benefit and learn from, just as you have.

3). Your employees may adore your mom, but they may also feel uncomfortable when she engages them in long conversations that interfere with their work. This may be something you have to confront head on – that you love the family culture she created and want to continue it, but that you feel her “walking around” is not helpful. This kind of conversation is not easy, but it may be necessary. CEO’s–and ex-CEOs-are sometimes unaware of how their presence affects employees. Remind her of that.

Keep in mind that your mom is still experiencing a transition. I have the feeling you can help your mom through this transition, in part by honoring the role she has played, and also by helping her develop a new one. It will take some thought and care, no doubt. But the investment you make now in figuring out how to manage your feelings and your mom’s will likely pay off in the long run.

Rachel, there are many daughters (and sons) struggling with the question you’re raising, both in family and non-family businesses, and I’m glad you wrote to me about it. I suppose that ultimately, what we owe our parents is a question we all have to answer for ourselves.





Have you ever felt like Rachel? Please share how you handled the situation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *