They May Not Mean To, but They Do - Cathleen Schine

"They May Not Mean To But They Do" is an immersive story of family life, told mainly from the point of view of Joy, a New Yorker in her eighties. Joy has a husband suffering from dementia, two grown up children who keep trying to look after her and three grand children.This is an affectionate but realistic tale that captures the joys and frustrations of family life


The central focus of the book is what it means to be old. What it does to your own sense of identity, your desires, your fears,  your place in the world .


The title is a paraphrase of  Philip Larkin's "This Be The Verse"   that changes "Mom and Dad" to "Son and Daughter"

"They fuck you up, your son and daughter.
They nay not mean to but they do."

Joy's son and daughter each, acting with the intent to care for and protect their mother, keep doing things that undermine her sense of self or ignore or over-ride her wishes. As Joy comes to terms with who she is now, her life is made more difficult by the anxieties and expectations of her children.


The book gives is written with empathy and honesty that is very engaging. I kept finding myself going: "That's EXACTLY how it is". Here are some examples


At one point, Joy,who is struggling not to be angry with the man her husband is becoming as he slips into dementia, finds herself saying: 

"I love you. I've loved you for so many years that I even love you when I don't."

One of the sources of conflict between Joy and her son and daughter is the way Joy deals with what they see a messy piles of paperwork.


Joy sees that messa as her life but she understands that, whe she was her daughter's age, this would have been incomprehensible to her.

"To them it was a pile,. To Joy  it was the  past and the future jumbled together. Some day they would understand. They would feel sad the way she felt sad about her own mother.

.It occurs to Joy that parents and children would understand one another better

"if only everyone could be old together."

I particularly liked the way the book dealt with Joy's grief at the death of her husband and the depression that it causes.


When Joy returns to her New York home after visting her daughter in California, she finds:

The sadness was there waiting for her in the apartment.  "I'm sorry," Joy said to the sadness. "I'm sorry I had to leave you behind for so long but believe me the blue skies never fooled me. You were in my thoughts I'm my heart every minute."

There is also a short chapter that captures the different expectations of the generations

Chapter 41

Daniel asked his mother if she was depressed.

She said, "Naturally".

Joy, newly widowed, newly truly old, struggles with a feeling that she has lost her place, that she no longer belongs.  Visiting a Court to pay her grandson's fine, she finds that she is not sure how to behave, in the company of such a disparate group of people.


She says,

"I have lost touch with normal social behaviour. I no longer know what is expected, When i find out what is expected, I do not like it. I do not belong here.  I do not belong anywhere."

As Joy makes peace with herself, she comes to understand that she does belong. She belongs amongst the frailty, failings, and the unexpected kindnesses that make up humanity in cosmopolitan New York.


This book was my first book by Cathleen Schine but it won't be my last. I'm grateful to her for reminding me that we all have so much in common when it comes to dealing with the things in life.