How do I know thee: relations with adult children

Last week, an acquaintance told me that none of his four children really knows who he is. The distance is partly or largely his fault.  He hadn’t shared very much of his inner, nor, for that matter, his professional life.  That had been natural when they were young but it had built into a habit.  By the time they were adults, just when he really wanted them to know him, the habit had hardened and outlived its original purpose—or what he thought was his purpose—protecting them.   When Sam was with them now, he felt trapped within himself, unable to touch or be touched by the people he loved most.

A month or two before Sam’s mournful confession, his wife, Sarah, had shared her own. Hers was a different story but in the end, added up to the same thing.  Sarah was Sam’s opposite.  She was an open book with just about anyone who would listen, and she readily shared her feelings with her children, especially as they grew into and past adolescence.  With each passing year, though, they seemed to distance themselves from her by keeping conversations short and practical.  Now she feels unknown, too.

There’s nothing strange, certainly nothing pathological about these experiences; they are shared by vast numbers of older adults and very hard to avoid.  But the distance, the yearning, the ache is palpable.

Even for those who “know” that this is a time of life when adult children are busy, occupied with their own lives, need to do what they are doing, need to pursue their own goals, it can be hard.  Even as loving parents root the “kids” on, applaud their successes, admire their capacity—the marriage, the work, the children, the friends—it can be hard.  Even as the grown children fulfill parental dreams, parents miss them.  Even as parents enjoy the freedom from the constraints that children imposed on their lives, even as they luxuriate in their (relatively) tension-free homes, they miss their children.

Much of what they miss is admittedly unrealistic: the cuddling, the play, the soothing of egos…especially being the most important people in the lives of their children.  And it’s not just unrealistic; it’s unhealthy.  After all, it is imperative that adult children act like adults.

By the way, I am not suggesting that parents are fully occupied or preoccupied by their children.  Many prefer some distance.  Many don’t wish to spend more actual time with their adult children.  Most people that I know love their empty nests.  And yet, and yet…there’s the remembered children and the remembered relationship.  That’s sometimes harder to relinquish.  This is the location of the ache.

But the cause of the ache is frequently hidden from view.  Parents sense it but can’t quite pin it down.  As a result, parents and adult children may play out the drama in indirect, even disguised ways.  Below the surface, for example, the theme of unrequited love plays out through addictions that both divide and join parents and children.  It plays out in fighting when children marry the “wrong” spouse, the husband or wife who keeps their child away or who comes with the wrong religious or political persuasion.  Add in the sustained financial dependency and renewed co-habitation that is common today, and often confused and confusing exchanges ensue. And, of course, there are the mixed feelings about how to raise the grandchildren, those potential substitutes for the grown children.

These struggles have probably intensified because we live in a time of cultural transition, during which the traditional, extended family has largely receded to into history for Americans of European origin—but new forms have not fully gelled.  There are few prescribed and universally accepted ways for children to grow up, leave home, and return as well-formed adults.  There are few prescribed cultural norms for how parents and adult children behave towards one another, no less feel about one another.  Are they equals?  How can that be when they spent so many years being unequal?  How do you make a change as fundamental as that?  Are they friends?  How can the intimacy of parent and child be transformed into something as relatively simple as friendship when so many deep currents run through their relationships?  Our culture gives us few guidelines for success in these profound and often fraught passages.

There is one aspect of the relationship of parents and adult children has been particularly interesting to me of late.  When I think of what is most meaningful about parents to their adult children, often it isn’t the person they see in front of them.  It is the person who held them and helped to shape them—in good and in painful ways—when they were young.  It is the historical, not the present parent.  In other words, it is an image and often inchoate feelings that are strongest and that stand between “real” interchange and connection.

The same is often true in the reverse direction: Parents relate to their adult children based on who the children were when young.  Much of the friction comes from children wanting to break out of what they feel is the imprisoning imagery their parents have about them.  Often the break has to be extended enough for the adult child to feel that s/he is being seen as s/he is now, as an adult.  Even after the “return” of the adult child, s/he rarely feels well known, known from the inside, known for the thoughts, images,  and needs that course through her.

This is strange stuff.  Relationships built around imagery from days gone by, negotiations in the present bearing the weight and meaning of decades past.  It’s easy to see how parents and children talk by one another and, in the double sense, how they miss one another.

It is not a problem to fix. The form it takes is partly shaped by cultural forces but it is also universal.  Children grow into adults.  As they grow, parents gradually let them go, knowing and balancing their own extraordinary pleasure and sadness in their flight.  There is honesty in the knowing.  There is integrity and generosity in the commitment to the children at all stages.  Naturally, the balance and the integrity are best achieved when parents live fulfilling lives of their own.