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.