When The Apple Falls Far From The Tree

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Q: The holiday visits are over and now comes the time for my husband and me to clean up. We have two children (a son and a daughter) and four grandchildren. Throw in some uncles and aunts and we were entertaining up to 20 people at different times. It was boisterous. It was messy. It was, in short, wonderful --perfect fun. Everyone is healthy. I feel blessed.

Okay, so what's wrong? I am worried about my son. He is 35 years old and I don't know where he is going with his law career. He went to good schools, did well, and now works in a prestigious law firm. But he doesn't seem to want more. He doesn't talk about any desire to rise in the firm. On the contrary, when he talks about business it's about his wife's success. They are making plans for her to leave her big marketing job, open a clothing boutique here and then expand to other markets.

His position in the law firm is never mentioned. He never talks about making department head or becoming chairman of the firm. I am the wife of a successful lawyer and I know from experience how important a wife's role can be. It entails a lot of support, a lot of listening, a lot of socializing. As far as I'm concerned, two people worked at my husband's firm.

My husband tried to talk to our son about his future. This could have been valuable advice. After all, my husband was chairman of his firm. He knows the terrain, the pitfalls -even some of the important players at my son's firm. My son hardly welcomed this advice. Instead, he said he wanted to be left alone. He even added that he wasn't sure anymore what he wanted to do with his life.

Is he depressed?

A. It doesn't sound to me like your son is going through a depression. More likely, he's going through something else--a re-evaluation. At various points in our lives, we all re-evaluate the paths we've taken, take stock of what is truly important to us and what is not and ask ourselves if it's not time for a course correction.

This is what your son seems to be doing. But in his case, he seems also to be moving away from what were the established values and goals of the family he came from. He may be enjoying his parenting and wanting more freedom to have more time with his children. He is separating from his first family and making his present, nuclear, family the focus of his evaluation.

Fortunately -- and a credit to you -- his separation appears to be without anger or any strong statement to you. You didn't indicate any tension or defiance. There is no "acting out," no making a sharp statement that could be painful or difficult to accept. (Do you remember the son, in a column several weeks ago, who wanted his mother to stay with him at the home of fellow religious zealots?) Your son respects you, he enjoys you, and he values his time with you and the rest of the family.

Can you respect him for this? Or do you have issues of your own that interfere? I think it would be helpful if you considered some questions. Did you harbor your own ambitions for your son? Did you wish he would follow his dad's path? Do you have an immense and understandable emotional stake in the hard work, probably unacknowledged, as the wife of an important lawyer? Do you perceive that your daughter-in-law is not supporting your son in the same way that you supported your husband? Do you resent that?

Your son appears to want to begin a new phase of his life, or at least to consider some alternatives. Many sons of successful fathers find it difficult to compete with the image of dad, to achieve what their fathers have. And, for their part, many fathers find themselves unconsciously competing with their sons. How often have we heard children complain that their fathers are withholding the support or freedom they need to succeed in the family business? In other words, this delicate and complicated father-son relationship often entails an unspoken and unacknowledged competition in which the success of one often is seen as diminishing the success of another.

Sometimes a father and son (or daughter, but that's a different matter) can work through their seemingly inherent compulsion to compete and instead take pride in each other's accomplishments. But, sometimes the father tries to hold down the son. In that case, the son may simply avoid going one-on-one with his father by keeping himself from being successful.

But your son is apparently taking a different path. He's decided not to compete -- not because he can't, but because he chooses not to. He may not want what your husband has. It may not be this thing. He's thinking things through. It's possible that your boy wants to create his own path to success and fulfillment and not tread the one his father has taken. This does not mean he is rejecting either you or your husband but merely becoming the man he wants to be. If he didn't do that, then maybe he would become depressed. As it is, he's anything but.