Our Adult Children: Celebrating the Arc of Their Lives

When my daughter was still a little girl, we would move through long periods of calm,  punctuated by cycles of comfort and struggle.  It’s hard to say what set off the struggles.  Some might say that Jessie was disobedient or that she disappointed me—by not trying hard in school, for instance, or refusing to do her chores.  Then I’d criticize and she’d push back.  Others might begin the sequence with “unnecessary” demands I’d make.  No matter where the tiffs began, the cycles of misbehavior and correction, rejection and recrimination followed with dull and disheartening regularity.

At a certain point, I realized that something else was at work.  Jessie didn’t seem to be growing up “exactly” as I wanted her to.  Eventually, I understood that I was interpreting her actions in terms of being-as-I-prescribed—being me—or not being me.  This is a very common form of parental narcissism that blots out the obvious: Often, she was just being herself.

When that realization dawned, I saw my daughter very differently, as a separate person, with a personality and trajectory of her own.  Not that she was in charge of everything.  I retained rules for her and I protected her, but I also grew curious: Who is this child of mine?  This whole little person?  Once my curiosity and respect were aroused, I grew less controlling, Jessie felt the freedom, and whatever fight we were having at the moment dissolved.  Distance yielded once again to closeness and love—and a protection, not of who I wanted her to be but of who she was.

Psychologists might say that we both matured through a form of differentiation.  For many years, I thought it was I who managed the process but I have come to think that Jessie and I did that together.  Her stubborn refusal to be another me—I don’t think she yet knew who a distinctive her would be—was as crucial as my realization and backing off.

My journey with my son brought that point home.  In adolescence, he wrenched himself free, touted his independence, insisted that he both knew what he was doing and, most tellingly, maintained that he was well.  He wanted to be the person who judged him well or ill.  We all know that 15-year-old boys don’t know everything—their brains aren’t fully formed, for god’s sake—and can’t be completely in charge of their lives.  We set limits, maintained rules even when they became mutually understood fictions, hoping that they would somehow guide him in the present and eventually be internalized.  But in a deep sense, Gabe may have been right.  He would set the direction of his life, figure out what was important and how he wanted to be.

He has been utterly persistent in this belief.  Franny and I eventually yielded to it.  And, since I surely love and respect the outcome—he’s 39 now and, like Jessie, now 47, a person whom I love and respect—I have to believe that his ability to define himself has been a good thing.

I consider the recognition of my children as distinct and independent people as one of the most important achievements of my life.

But there is a second theme that runs through our relationship that is equally important and, at this point in my life, maybe more so.  I have wanted to see the arc of their lives, who they are and who they are becoming over a long period of time. The differentiation continues through the years and I want to witness how my children keep evolving.

My father died at 50 when I was 26.  We never really knew one another as adults, man to man.  I was very much a work in progress and, while we were extremely close during my childhood and well into adolescence, we grew more distant after that.  I suppose I’m not just talking about knowing one another in the sense of having a close relationship, though.  I’m talking about being known, about feeling that an important person has born witness to my life, knows me as separate person—and affirms me.

To an extent, we internalize this feeling of being known.  Most of us can say, “My father would have liked that, disapproved of this, laughed, if he were around, at that episode.”  This sense of presence through the years is critical for our well being.  My father gave this to me and, I hope, I have given it to my children.

But bearing witness to the lives of our children over a long period of time, as they move well into adulthood and parenthood, and through professional achievements of their own—that is something else, something more concrete, an experience for parents and children almost as important as all that internalized parenting that we provide.

My mother knew me as an adult, as I knew her.  She died at 87, when I was 64.  We talked regularly, shared at deep levels, laughed together, vented about political triumphs and disappointments, even shared some friends.  This was one of the great pleasures in my life.  Even the uncomfortable times:  when she married again—without  my “approval.” And when she attended a lecture I gave in Washington, DC, and she embarrassed me by proclaiming, amidst a number of people who had admired my talk, “I didn’t know you were funny.”

My mother witnessed the person I had become, not just my early promise and her own hopes.  Often she resisted my successes because they somehow suggested that I had inherited more from her than she could acknowledge in herself.  “Don’t get a fat head, Barry,” she would say.  “You’re not that good.”  By which she mostly meant that she wasn’t that good.  We joked about this and I like to think that witnessing my life raised her own self-assessment at least a little. Most of all, we reached a point where we knew one another and, to the end of her life, could still discover things about one another.  Our relationship was never entirely dulled by the ritual knowing that many relationships fall into.  I believe that we continued to surprise one another.

Being known by her, being appreciated by her, have been invaluable to my sense of solidity in the world.  But I’m a father and it’s my father’s inability to bear witness on my adult life that I’ve missed.  And it’s my capacity to bear witness to my children’s life that means so much to me.  To have what he could not have, to give this to myself and to my children.  This is what I mean by seeing the arc of their lives.

I’m pretty sure my adult children know my love and respect—even though they no longer depend on it in concrete ways.  They live their own, very full lives.  Day to day, I am a footnote to their children, work, and even friends.  Certainly the current version of me is a footnote, not nearly as strong as the historical version that lives within them.  Nor, of course, do they figure as much into my day to day life.  Often enough but not nearly as often as when they were children, they move me in that primitive, powerful way that our children touch the deepest corners of our hearts.

We are close, my children and I.  We talk and laugh and share many values.  This, along with my marriage, is life’s greatest gift to me.  And my continuing ability to observe—and participate in—the arc of their lives continues to nourish me.

I’ve seen them, known them, for a long time, watched them move through stages in their own lives—childhood, youth, early adulthood, marriage, parenthood, professional development, owning their own homes, having and sustaining friendships.  With each new stage, their story seems more and more distinctive.  I’ve seen them struggle and I’ve seen them solve problems.  Just like I did.  Just like Franny and I did and do.  In other words, I see them as I see myself and my friends.  As whole people with complex lives of their own.

I watch them now with appreciation and curiosity, wondering what’s next. I watch their children, too, with so many years ahead of them.  The span of years, hundreds of years, from my grandparents through to my grandchildren, amazes me. It is almost too many to contemplate. But I do and I will.

Advertisements

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.