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About the book

Difficult is based on a series of in-depth interviews Judith Smith conducted with women (all over 60 years of age, across socio-economic and geographic locations).  Despite the unique circumstances of the women’s lives, she discovered many commonalities in their stories. Nearly all had re-opened their homes to their adult children when they had nowhere else to go. Many of the adult children had mental health problems or substance abuse disorder—or both. None of the women had expected their own later years to be framed by being once again “parent.” Yet for all the many similarities, there were also unique circumstances in each child’s life. That’s what led Smith to search for a name to describe what she was seeing and to ultimately settle on the term Difficult Adult Child. She chose this name to acknowledge not just the challenges faced by the grown children, but the hardships passed along to the mothers who cared for them.


Smith speaks empathically to parents, acknowledging and illuminating the embarrassment, shame, and helplessness that women can feel when their adult children’s problems puncture their own feelings of self-worth. In the absence of sufficient supports and affordable housing for persons with mental illness or substance misuse disorder, mothers feel that they have no choice – “if not me, then who?”  The book illustrates how unpaid and unrecognized maternal caregiving work continues way beyond the child’s achievement of the legal age of adulthood. The renewed parental responsibility affects the quality of women’s lives, during a period of life when they expected to be able to focus on themselves.


The book not only illustrates how mothering in later life can frame and limit the lives of older women with difficult adult children, it offers valuable strategies and resources. Difficult includes the practice wisdom of many of the leading practitioners in the mental health and elder abuse field and takes an empathic stance towards older mothers who often feel powerless and alone.  It presents the dilemmas of these parents as part of several larger social issues-- an underfunded mental health system, women’s internalized mandate to do all that they can to be a “good mother”, and the absence of a developed welfare state.

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