Getting along with your parents as an adult, part 1: The parent's responsibility

So I've been putting this off for years. Literally. Years. I get emails occasionally from people asking how to navigate the relationship with their parents (usually their mothers) and I haven't known exactly how to address it, because it's not like a simple three-step process and all of a sudden everything's good. So I'm going to devote the rest of this week to the parent-adult child relationship so we can really chew it over and maybe have some personal revelations.

It's my opinion, based on observation of my own relationship with my mother as well as observation of my adult friends' relationships with their own mothers, that there's only so much an adult child can do if their parent didn't/doesn't lay the groundwork for a good lifelong relationship. So today and tomorrow are going to be about reasonable expectations of the adult child's parent. I'm hoping some of my commenters with adult children of their own (Kathy B and Sharon Silver, in particular) will toss their own thoughts into the comments. (Thursday we'll talk about responsibilities of the adult child. Friday will be controlling the repercussions of your relationship with your parent to create an even better one with your own kids.)

For this week: parent = parent of the adult child, and child = adult child.

What's the responsibility of a parent to an adult child?

I called in two guests, since I'm not a parent of an adult child. Today's guest is my friend/mentor Num-Num (not her real name), who is the parent of an amazing, wonderful 40-year-old man* who voluntarily lives within walking distance of her (with his brilliant wife and their above-average preschooler). Num-Num says:

"I’ve answered the questionfor those of us who love mothering. For those who have felt burdened by it, it’s a whole other story, and it’s more about responsibility than love.

Mothering never changes. Boundaries change, responsibilities change, resources and life circumstances may, but mothering doesn’t.

There are few boundaries at birth and each separation is a brick in a wall of independence, both for you and your child. Long before adolescence, a child’s body has been turned over to her to care for. (That’s when you might think about the wisdom of criticizing her hair.)

After adolescence, her mind and heart gradually separate from her mother’s. But just as your own mother is more important to you than you might have imagined when you were a rebellious teenager, your children will feel the same way. It is shocking, sometimes, how much weight a casual motherly comment will carry. (You’re using cloth diapers? All I can say is thank God for disposables.)

At each major stage in your child’s life, she goes through turmoil that resembles leaving the womb, especially when she exits out into the world. For those of us who have loved being mothers as much as we’ve loved our children, the last is the critical time. You never stop being a mother, but you back off, gradually, while she tests out who she is and what she wants from life. You keep one hand lightly on the small of her back and send brownies.  Be prepared for a certain disdain for your opinions as she adapts to her own generation and a world that is new to her, if not to you.

She ought to be able to count on you to remind her of the constant thread of her gifts, of the track record of her successes, and of how much you believe in her. Don’t worry about setting her straight about her faults; she’ll encounter others happy to do that.

Some common interests, developed over the years, help you spend your time together without the need to examine every inch of your personal lives, or chew your child’s small and large decisions to pieces. Is there any decision anyone ever makes, from when you start feeding a baby solids to which spouse or profession to choose that can’t be challenged?

Recognize that as your child becomes independent she needs you less, but when she does,  she may startle you by turning into the ten-year-old you had almost forgotten about. Unnerved as you may be, when you hear that desperate cry, drop everything. It’s been said that soldiers call for their mothers in the heat of battle. It’s primitive.

Children also have a duty to establish their own families. Loving them often means waiting to be called on to help; believing that if you figured out how to raise your children, they’ll do the same; trusting that you’ve given them a good road map and, even if they’re off on a detour, they know the way back. Most important in families is for the grandparents to understand (and to call on memory) that their grandchildren do not belong to them. Parents get to decide when and how you see them. There is nothing to beat the enchantment of grandchildren, but they are someone else’s children.

Mothers of adult children also have some realistic expectations as well. Your children need to know that you may not be able to help them in ways you could when you were younger. You ought to tell them, really you should. When you need your children, it’s also a natural thing for families to sacrifice for one another and give each other love and comfort. There is no time limit on that. But the hierarchy of needs that’s been mentioned should have everything to do with the seriousness of the need, not the person who has the need.

I haven’t talked about specific situations. But I’d be glad to, if it would help make the principles seem more real. If you have an endless series of conflicts with your Mother, decide  what your self-respect requires you to do for her. Then look for role models and semi-surrogates in your life. You have only one Mother, but there can be multiple motherly influences.

With all my instructions about holding back, mothering with a light hand, being positive and rarely interfering, I have always told my children that I reserve the right to pull them back if I see a Mack Truck coming their way. I get to judge whether or not it’s a truck."  

I see Num-Num working constantly to get it right with her son and DIL, to be close enough without smothering them. I think this is particularly important: "the hierarchy of needs that’s been mentioned should have everything to do with the seriousness of the need, not the person who has the need."

What resonates with you in what Num-Num says?

Tomorrow's guest poster is going to be my mom. Get ready, because it's a loooong post.

* Cute, funny, smart, a provider, does his share of night duty, enjoys being around women. He's not perfect, I'm sure, but she really did a great job with him.