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

A Usable Past

As in many families, mine fought to determine the lineage of each of its three children.  It was decided that I was my father’s child.  I was said to look and act like him and to have cornered a large share of his genes.  My brother was my mother’s child and my sister was a shared treasure.  My parents may have initiated the selection process but, almost from the start, others joined in—aunts and uncles, friends and business associates.  Everyone had an opinion.  “No doubt,” they said, “Barry is just like his father.”

My place on the paternal side of the ledger was established early, often, and powerfully.  If I or anyone objected to the genetic coding, for instance, we were scolded and told to get in line: “You’re blind,” they intoned.  So it was with my siblings, even though it was clear that we all shared characteristics and influences from both parents and their extended families.

I may have been fifty years old when I looked in the mirror and decided that I didn’t look anything like my father.  I didn’t act that much like him, either.  In fact, my mother seemed more familiar to me, but my brother wasn’t ready to concede his place, even though he had inherited many of my father’s traits and would have loved to claim some of the currency of being the first son.

Researchers tell us that we have amnesia for life before the age of three and a half and that the memories we have from that time on are clearer and stronger when our parents help us to organize them.  They take the fragments of our own memories and weave them into a coherent story—like the story of how I would carry on my father’s intellectual aspirations.  Even what we experience as our private memories are really collective creations.

The stories we create are not random but purposeful, and in this sense, and odd as it may sound, remembering is also purposeful.  That purpose varies from time to time and, of course, person to person.  But each person and each time includes purpose.  Some people paint sentimental pictures to comfort themselves in the present.  My father and his sister, for example, were abandoned in early childhood by their tuberculosis-plagued mother, and painted a highly romanticized portrait of her almost saintly kindness and generosity.  By painting her that way they virtually created the mother they needed when they were alone and lonely—and in addition, painted a less shameful picture to the world.

Others tell stories of harsh and painful childhoods to illustrate the difficulties they have had to overcome—or to justify the limitations they feel in the present.  By inheriting my father’s mantle, I could virtually own for myself the horror of his upbringing, and this story supported me as I struggled, feeling like a poor boy from a poor school during my first years at Harvard.

It’s not that we are inventing these stories out of whole cloth, and it’s not like we are trying to deceive anyone.  We believe the stories we tell in creating what Van Wyck Brooks once called “a usable past.”  And we learn to overlook where the stories diverge a little from memory or credibility and to weave the discrepancies back into the story.  For instance, I never thought that my childhood difficulties rivaled those of my father but I did come to believe that his problems showed up in his parenting, which in turn means that, in some way, I shared his childhood.

Even though we feel the stories we tell about ourselves are highly personal, even individual, other people’s stories are woven into them.  And large cultural themes make their way in, as well.  There is hardly an American, for instance, who has not been influenced positively or negatively by the Horatio Alger narrative about going from “rags to riches.”  We all judge ourselves according to this tale, even if we have just stayed in place.  Hence the pleasure we take in telling the story about rich people: They are born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.  We, on the other hand, have had to earn our keep.

In traditional societies, there are ritualized ways of telling our family histories in order to create a sense of continuity and connection.  You see that in the Bible, where Adam begat Seth and so on down the line.  And there are often specific individuals in each community assigned to do so.  In modern society, we have neither the rituals nor the designated story tellers and must do so ourselves.

In fact, it’s possible that our lack of a clear path backwards as a way to explain the present, combined with a vague and general sense of social isolation, are the reason for the current mania over genealogy. Websites like Ancestry.com and TV shows like Finding Our Roots have emerged to remedy the holes created by lost rituals.  According to an ABC News report, “genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening.”  Ancestry.com, alone, has over two million users and recently sold for $1.6 billion.  It seems we are all in search of a past to enhance our lives.

We may be looking backwards so much because we, as individuals and as a society as a whole, have lost faith in the future.  I don’t think that ours is a forward-looking culture.   Better to find a sentimental or proud connection to the past.  The search for our roots can build pride and confidence, but I don’t think that people are taking the next step: truly translating their heritage into a usable past, one that points energetically and optimistically in the direction they need to go.

As for myself, I believe that distance and old age have finally freed me from my family competition.  I can put aside that story about who I am and where I come from.  I don’t experience the “forces” of history, familial and societal, as strongly as I once did.  I am a person with many influences, yet distinct in myself.  Sometimes, standing alone feels less sturdy but it also feels more free.

New wine in new bottles: the freshness of old age

The biggest surprise of old age is how new, how fresh, things feel.  Far from the prescribed cultural narrative—continual, inevitable decline or frantic efforts to reverse the decline and the fall from youthful grace—my experience is better characterized by discovery, uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery.   As Philip Roth said, when asked about his unexpected retirement, he asserted, without resignation or sadness, “I’m in a different stage of life.”

It is a difference that makes a difference.  Simone de Beauvoir once wrote that “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.”  I take that idea literally.  In old age, we are in unexplored territory.  Being an explorer in that territory is a privilege I never expected to have.

In a previous essay, I wrote young people seek independence.  For older people, freedom comes almost unbidden when the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities take flight  Let me begin by counting some of the ways, small and large, that that freedom comes to our doorsteps.  There is the freshness of each, unscheduled day.  I can ask: What shall I do?  What do I want to do?  At last, the weather plays a role as it hasn’t since childhood.  If it’s sunny, I’ll take that walk.  If rainy, I may read more, or call a friend.  Or a friend might call me, and I can usually respond positively.  Spontaneity is my friend again.

There is the greater stillness in my body, so that I take more notice of the lilacs in bloom and the pine-scented paths on my walks, sights and smells that I had barely glanced in the rush of adult life.  The natural world is more alive to me at this stage of life.

There seems to be more uncertainty in old age.  It’s not just your schedule that’s flexible.  You can’t count on your health as much.  Friends, too.  They get ill, become infirm, die, move away.  I mean this not so much in a sad or depressing way but as a fact of life, one that changes almost as much and as rapidly as during any time since early childhood.  It can make you anxious and unsure of yourself.  There’s a temptation to draw inward and to limit yourself in an effort to ward off bad things.  But, in the purest sense, there is change to challenge your adaptability and this can awaken you to a life painted in brighter colors.

I am surprised to be alive.  My father died at fifty and I was long filled with the kind of magical thinking common to children.  If you think a plane will crash, then it will.  I imagined that my genetic heritage would bring me down at 50.  It didn’t, and I’ve had all these extra years, years that I didn’t expect, no less deserve—years that seem a heavenly gift.  I don’t appreciate that gift each day, though I wish I would, but I do so often enough to feel the last 24 years as a bonus.

I had imagined that old age meant playing out a relatively prescribed script.  The sad part of the script—of course not the whole of it—included physical decline, nostalgia for my lost youth and vitality, and a narrowing of my social circle.  Now that I’m almost 75 see that I was wrong in so many ways.  Like others, for instance, my ideas and images about old age have continued to shift.  As a young man, 60 seemed old.  By the time I was 45, it was 70.  At 60, it was 75.  Now, at 75, I feel so much more alive than I imagined I would. The ground of expectations keeps shifting and the shifting keeps me on my toes.

Of all the things that change in old age, history seems the most unlikely.  I mean your personal history, your life story, which by this point is extraordinarily well-rehearsed, as you have told it to others and mused about it inwardly for decades.  Instead, my narrative keeps changing.  My father, who felt like such a rock, now seems such a troubled man.  My mother, who felt more like a peer, a friend, now seems like an inspiration.  I’d like to tell you that, with the perspective of years, I see them more clearly ,but it may be truer to say I see them differently.  I see them now in light of my current life.  I see them now as younger people.  I see their lives more in terms of the choices and drives and changes they faced, and less in relation to me, their child.  In ways, that makes for a more interesting story.

As my image of them changes, so does my self-imagery.  For example, I was said to be my father’s child.  Supposedly, I looked and acted like him.  I was his heir, meant to carry on his dreams.  With each passing decade, though, I discover how much I have taken on my mother’s restless energy, her defiance, her wish to explore new territory.  One day last month, I looked into the mirror and saw, not a reflection of my aging father but a dead ringer of my mother and her side of the family.  I keep “discovering” things about my childhood, my family, my neighborhood—not because they have actually changed but because I keep seeing them anew.

You can say that these aren’t such major discoveries, but they are because they shake up everything.  If I’m really more like my mother—or even equally like her—then that “realization” changes how I view the rest of my family.  It changes how I feel about gender, about my purpose in life, my destiny.  I put the word realization into quotes because I can’t be sure if my new insight is, strictly speaking, true, or if it’s just another view of the same phenomena.  But it feels new.  And when you jostle your sense of reality, it stimulates a scramble to reorganize everything.  That’s what has happened to me.  I am scrambling.

Historian that I am, I have begun to re-imagine the flow of events and relationships in my life.  Since I’m pretty comfortable with myself at this point, the project is more a source of fascination than anxiety.  I have begun to give up on the idea of a coherent narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Like others, I have a great desire to pin down the definitive story of my life.  But there is nothing of the sort.  Rather, it is a story that has been invented and reinvented many times throughout my life.

There is freedom in this realization.  A long time ago, Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan taught me about this kind of freedom.  The more others think they know about your past, he said, the more they think they can predict your behavior in the present and future.  These predictions become expectations, and expectations limit possibilities.

When we slip off the straight jacket of cultural narratives and family expectations, of social prescriptions and proscriptions, even for a while, we enter a world of radical possibilities.  In that world, we can experience the sunshine on our faces and the scent of the forest, the smiles of friendship and the embrace of lovers as if for the first time.  That is the possibility of freedom in old age.