Walking on thin ice
I have three sons. All are grown, married with kids, and gainfully employed. They genuinely like me, and I genuinely like them. In all of these things, I am very, very lucky.
That said, navigating the waters with an adult child hasn’t always been easy.
First came college. Actually, the trouble began not when my guys left home, but when they returned home for things like long weekends, holiday breaks, and the summer. They wanted to go out at 10 pm and return at 2 am, which was fine and good when they were living in a dorm, but not when Mom and Dad were waiting and worrying. It took some talking to, a few slammed doors, more than a little attitude to slog past and some complex negotiating before we compromised on the idea of phone calls, a slightly earlier curfew, and the occasional night spent at a friend’s house.
Next came – ta da! – the graduate. A college degree is big stuff. But what commenced then was laziness, and I kinda, sorta understood. After applying themselves through high school to get into college, then through college to get that degree, the pressure was suddenly off. They needed downtime. They’d earned downtime. But how much? One week? One month? Two months? After that, lazing around watching daytime TV was too much for me to bear. Our oldest son claims we “kicked him out of the house,” when we forced him to put into action his post-graduation plan – i.e., to look for a job. BTW, despite his unhappiness with us and the tension it caused at the time, he now says it was the best thing we ever did.
Next in the storm of co-existing with adult children came marriage. As different as my three sons are from one another, all three pushed me away during their first year of married life. I understood that this was necessary. We had always been close, but now they had to focus on being close to their wives. And I was fine with that. Lord knew, I had enough to do in my own life not to micromanage theirs. Besides, they did come back, perhaps not all the way, but in a way that was appropriate and comfortable all around. What I learned during this rocky stretch, though, was that I had to take my lead from them. Relationships change. My kids were grown up. The more I pushed myself into their lives, the more they would have to push me away. I had to give them space – which was actually good preparation for their next step
Parenthood. This is where we are now. I do have to say that being a grandparent is a joy. My mother died young and never saw her three daughters as teenagers, much less married with kids. How fortunate I am that I have! My career is a help in this regard, too. It gives me purpose apart from the grandchildren, so that my life doesn’t depend on theirs.
Here, though, the tricky part really kicks in, because there are rules.
Rule #1. Keep your mouth shut. Times have changed. Child-rearing is very different today from it was 30 years ago.
Rule #2. Keep your mouth shut. Unless someone asks for your opinion, do not offer it.
Rule #3. Keep your mouth shut. Unless you see serious harm being done to a grandchild, you have to let the parents do the parenting. Sure, they may make a few mistakes, but unless those mistakes are catastrophic, the kids will survive.
As I said at the start, I’m the mother of sons. That immediately colors all of the above. My sons do change diapers. They do help around the house. Still, their wives are the leaders when it comes to child care. For that reason – and because the older I get, the more I miss having had a daughter – I’ve worked hard to create an open and honest relationship with my daughters-in-law. I don’t criticize the way they cook, keep house, or dress the kids. When asked my opinion, I give it gently. If they disagree, I let it go. I do not offer criticism. A major rule here? I never complain to one of my sons about something his wife has done. The fact is, if I make my sons choose between mom and wife, mom will lose.
Is it easier for mothers of girls? I’m sure that depends on the nature of the mother-daughter relationship up to that point.
One thing is for sure. I agree with a wise friend who kept a sign on her mirror that read, “You had your turn. Now it’s theirs.”
Let me repeat, here and now, that I am lucky – and I’m knocking wood as I type this. My family hasn’t had the major health issues that can strangle lives. We haven’t had alcohol or drug problems. Our jobs have held steady; we’ve remained economically secure. Some of you reading this haven’t been as fortunate, and I feel for you. If, for instance, one of my boys had had serious problems, I’d be writing a very different blog.
Still, despite the different experiences we may have had with adult children, I’d guess that you and I share bits of the frustration, the hurt, even the anger or loss that comes when a child grows up. Do they ever truly leave the nest? I’m not so sure. That’s what walking on eggshells – a.k.a. thin ice – is about.
What are your thoughts here? Feel free to post a comment below or, better still, join the ongoing discussion at my website. Know who’s been posting? Caroline MacAfee, from BLUEPRINTS. Join her!
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I have 2 sons and a daughter. I walk on thin ice with my boys when they are with their spouses. I have come to near falling in many times. My daughter on the other , keeps me in check. It is nice to know we are not alone.
I think daughters are harder. I have one daughter who has never allowed the umbilical cord to be cut, despite the fact that she lives in Florida and I live in Oregon. She calls multiple times a day. She is the mother of my only grandchild who is now a freshman in college himself.
My second daughter is single at 40 and has no plans to ever marry or have kids. This daughter has never really grown up and loves to stay out late and party. I bite my tongue all the time because I want to shout GROW UP every time she does it.
My youngest is my son. He married at 33 to someone that I felt was totally wrong for him and who I believed was an alcoholic. We went through much turmoil right up to the day they got married and then I just accepted it. It took over a year to get close to my daughter-in-law and then after less than 3 years they divorced because low and behold, she was an alcoholic, always partying, driving after drinking. The stress on him was enormous. He has since settled into a relationship with a single mother of two boys and they have been happy for almost two years. They own a home together and are doing well and we get along great.
My grandson was a joy. He used to come and spend every summer with us from the time he moved to Florida at age 5. When he hit high school, this stopped because of sports. He so wanted to come to Oregon for college but the out of state tuition was just unmanageable.
My daughter and I have always been very close. Four months ago, she and her husband had their first child (a joy and a delight – yummy baby). But, to listen to them and what they do, it appears that it is a miracle that my daughter survived childhood in such a careless environment. 🙂
I love your blog. I too have 3 sons! As an only child I am envious of the relationship my “boys” have. I agree with the keep your mouth shut rule you posted. I have one of my own to add..let them always know your Yes is yes and your no is no. Even adult children need boundaries.I am fortunate to have 4 beautiful grandchildren..3 girls and a boy. I love them to the moon and back. Unfortunately, my oldest son passed away last June (kidney failure) and my heart aches in a way I did not think possible. Unmarried and without children his legacy continues in his nieces and nephew. Life is a gift!! Thanks Barbara for sharing. Your books give me comfort as I retreat to the world of your novels and forget the issues of the moment!
You sound like my wonderful Mom-in-Law. I admired her style of mother/MIL so much that I loved being around her and happily handed my third leg (my daughter) over to her on visits. My daughter, now 25, says the love she felt with her grandmother is part of the reason she is secure in her life today.
So, in the idea that parenting continues into old age, I’d like to offer one of her secrets: Treat every blood child’s spouse as your own child. That means listening carefully and complementing often about things that are done well. Big to tiny things. If the child or spouse feels “seen” for what they are doing right (even when they are doing almost everything wrong) they will ease up on the negative behavior. My MiL was a genius at this. She was so good at it that I willingly took her into my home for the last year of her life, and while that was a difficult year, she reveled in me taking over the parenting role from her because she knew I’d treat her as she treated me: with love and respect. Of course, now that she’s dead, she’s parenting me again, but am I ever benefitting! Her past confidence in us each as individuals has carried her son and me through 6 years of difficulty in this spiritual way. Hope I can do as well for our daughter.
Leigh, thank you. It’s good to hear from someone with your perspective. I can feel the love in your words, and have now taken your MIL’s secret to heart. I have no doubt whatsoever that you will do every bit as well with your own daughter as your MIL did with you and your husband!
I envy anyone who has a relationship with their daughter in law. I only have one and she has been in this family 10 years. She is very career oriented and thinks we are uneducated because we only have high school diplomas. ( She has a Masters). My son has practically raised our granddaughter by himself because she is either busy with work or has a headache and has to lay down. She is liberal with us having our grandchild because it gives her free time to work on” lesson plans.”
When my son told us he was getting married I was so excited. I had 3 brothers and a son so I was excited about having another “girl” to hang out with and go to movies with or share recipes with. But alas that hasn’t happened. She comes over only on holidays or birthdays even though I cook once a week for my son and grandchild. She just wants me to send her a plate home with them. My heart breaks because I truly want a relationship with the whole family and I have tried so hard. I finally decided that I would just have to be satisfied with what little she is willing to give. So those who have good relationships with DILs cherish every minute. It’s a special gift. I have keep my mouth shut so much at times I think I have lockjaw but I never want to put my son in the middle so I just enjoy him and my grandchild.
Great posting. Thanks for doing it.
Barbara, I love your books as always. I have 3 children, two daughters and a son. My son is married, has 3 boys, and lives in Anchorage, Alaska. All three worked their way thru college, married and have their own families. I try to “KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT,” even though it’s hard sometimes. My son in particular is married to a girl I feel close to, but her housekeeping is atrocious. I never say anything to her, even though I’m tempted. She’s a good mother and a good wife. She’s had everything she wanted all her life and tries to do that with her 3 boys. Two are doing great, but one isn’t. I think he’s been given everything all his life and at 17 still expects it! I talk to my son about him, and offer what I can, but otherwise, I keep out of it. I do keep my mouth shut!!
I am so happy that your cancer is gone. I recently had a friend with breast cancer. She is 75. Her husband had prostate cancer. They went to Scripps Proton Therapy Hospital in San Diego. There is no tissue loss except the cancer. They look wonderful. There is no chemotherapy. So you maintain your health. It was in an article in our local paper. the Record Searchlight in Redding, CA it ran December 2015 I am sure there are places all over the country that have this therapy.Such great news for everyone.