A lot of things I believed to be true when I was young have not played out. At 18, I moved beyond my parents’ reach but discovered I still couldn’t do everything I wanted, whenever I wanted to do it. Despite the optimism of the speakers at my graduation, I couldn’t be anything I wanted to be, either, mostly because I didn’t know myself well enough yet. Over the years, I have learned that love doesn’t conquer all, that my dad was wrong about — well, a lot — and that no moisturizer yet invented will get rid of wrinkles.
Here’s another one. Several years ago, during our kids’ adolescence, I clung to the idea that if I could just get them to their 18th birthdays, my work would be over. This notion, too, has proven false.
Our three younger children are all living away from home. One more is married with children of her own. I imagined I’d be wiping my brow and calling this a job well done by now, but truth be told, parenting is not over. It’s just different.
One of the hardest things about adult children, at least for me, are those minds of their own, which we intentionally fostered. Mike and I have over a century of wisdom and hard knocks between us. We can see pitfalls from a mile away because we’ve already fallen into them. We could save our kids a lot of pain and aggravation if they would only learn from our mistakes. But guess what? Our insights are worth exactly nada. The kids still call us for advice. They even listen to our opinions when they haven’t asked for them. But unless we are confirming what the kid already believes, our great advice goes nowhere.
To adapt to this new phase of parenting, Mike and I have devised a strategy. When we feel frustrated by our adult children’s choices, we ask ourselves, “Does this decision affect me directly?” Usually, the answer is no. If a kid takes a job that doesn’t pay enough, then s/he will have to find a way to supplement that income. When one of them decides not to take antibiotics as prescribed, I give a brief warning about superbugs and then try to remember whose health will be affected — as in, not mine. After one of them adopted yet another dog, I had a few things to say about priorities, but then I let it go. Why? Because that extra dog doesn’t affect me directly. Car registration lapsed? Not my car. Sheets not changed for months? Gross, but still not my problem.
Much as we’d like to save our kids the trouble of learning everything the hard way, the hard way seems to be a necessary part of becoming an adult. Despite all the knowledge we have to share with them, they have to experience the grownup world for themselves, not just take our word for it. I am positive that their lives would be infinitely less messy if only they would follow our helpful suggestions, but I also know it would be weird if they did. We want our adult children to stand — or fall and get up again — on their own, without looking back over their shoulders for our approval.
One of our sons is currently mourning the end of a long-term relationship, going through all the misery that comes with that kind of loss. A few days ago, I offered some (solicited) advice about how to meet new people. He came over for a little extra moral support last night, and I heard myself repeating what I had already suggested.
“Hey, I’m getting deja vu here. Didn’t I say all of this the other day?” I asked.
“Yeah, probably,” he said. “I don’t remember.”
I was a little peeved. “Why should I even bother talking to you if you’re not paying attention?”
He grinned. “I don’t know, Mom. Maybe I feel better just listening to the sound of your voice, as it goes in one ear and out the other.”