It usually starts when your parents retire. The clippings arrive in the mail—articles about 401(k)s, the dangers of Botox, the energy rating of your air conditioner. These well-meaning bulletins, carefully cut from newspapers and magazines, often have a note from your mother or father scrawled across the top, saying "Just in case" or "Worth a look." The further you find yourself removed from your parents' care—both chronologically and geographically—the faster the notes pour in, and what starts as a trickle becomes a flood when you reach your 30s.
By then, of course, you actually are interested in clutter-busting hints and how to prevent bone loss.
All of our friends have a story: One receives clippings from her in-laws culled from The New York Times
—the very paper where she works as a senior editor. Adam, a screenwriter, gets dispatches from his father on health issues with comments written on the top: "If you don't take potassium supplements," his dad jotted on one, "you are only fooling yourself."
In our informal survey, the clippings break down into just a few categories:
These articles feature an unlikely but potentially fatal risk, like "Gum Disease: The Silent Killer," "The Perils of Throw Rugs," or "What You Don't Know About Pâté." Lisa, a pharmaceutical salesperson, was puzzled when she received a note in the mail titled "Hepatitis: The Insidious Spread of a Killer Virus." "In case you're thinking about getting a tattoo," wrote her mother on the top. (Lisa hadn't ever contemplated any form of body art.) Our friend Erica, a nurse from Chicago, remembers, "One time my mother sent my husband a clipping about tea tree oil healing toe fungus. Let's just say he was a little embarrassed that I'd told my mother about this."
Your Inevitable Financial Ruin
These are the flashing red lights of parental clippings—usually sent by our fathers, dealing with tax shelters, investments, and retirement planning. The tone of the notes are doomsday-slash–smiley face. Jancee recently received an article about a Roth IRA, with a Post-it that read "I know you don't want to die old and broke! Love, Dad." Julie's father sent along a cautionary tale from his local paper about a man who filed his own tax return rather than entrust it to a professional and went on to owe the IRS $1.5 million. (Her father tucked his accountant's phone number in the envelope.)
From our parents' perspective, ordinary life is one vast minefield, and they are ever vigilant. We'd never leave our house if we took seriously every bulletin our parents sent: ads for carbon monoxide tests, tips on fire prevention safety, the dangers of standing in front of the microwave. (Actually, after reading these clippings, we wouldn't feel safe in our homes without a hazmat suit.)
But when our parents really mobilize is in times of crisis. And for many parents, your being single—no matter how happy you are—qualifies as a hazard. Jennifer, who's unattached in a big city, says that her all-time favorite parental clipping is about unmarried women: "Single, Successful & Dateless!" "What's most disturbing is that it's from a Dallas newspaper," she says. "And my parents are in Oklahoma City." To this day, she doesn't know how they found it.
Some parents feel that their missives are too urgent for ordinary mail. Tracy, a recently divorced mother of three from Connecticut, received a fax machine from her parents so their clippings could arrive at lightning speed. "I never imagined that my personal travails would turn into a hobby for my parents," she says. "As my marriage started to sour, they barraged me with articles ranging from how to detect a cheating spouse to how to protect your assets. They even sent me articles on the divorce of former GE chairman Jack Welch." On top of that fax, Tracy's mother suggested that she contact Mrs. Welch's attorney, presumably to keep her off skid row.
Next: More common clippings and what they mean