I Thought I'd Be DONE by Now
Hope and Help for Mothers of Adult Children
Searching for Peace

Excerpts

Samples Essays from I Thought I’d Be Done by Now  


Conspiracy of Silence
   

There is a conspiracy of silence in our culture about the emotional pain often associated with being a parent of adult children. We are not alone. There are countless mothers and fathers suffering silently due to strained relationships with their adult kids. We worry about our children’s issues, including financial irresponsibility, lack of motivation, poor choice in partners and active addictions. And we feel guilty because we blame ourselves for their shortcomings. There is another way, a path that will lead us out of our suffering.

It is the inhuman expectation of perfection in our society that causes mothers to suffer in silence. We believe that we can avoid censure or pity only if we have raised perfect children with no problems. And so we pretend that our children have made successful and easy transitions into adulthood, that they have achieved exciting careers, financial independence and loving partnerships. For some of us, this may be true. For many others, this is a dream, not reality. 

“Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about what seemed like such a taboo before,” a mother of two young adults still living at home told me. “I think I really felt like I was the only one who fought with her daughter or whose son couldn’t hold down a job. I feel like I can breathe deeper now that you’ve told me how many of us there are worrying in silence.”

Now we can breathe a collective sigh of relief, knowing that we are in excellent company: the sisterhood of mothers who have all done the best we could while trudging along the rocky road of parenthood. This is the human experience. We can stop hiding now. We can hold our heads up high and come out into the light.

We are relieved to know that we are not alone, and we will no longer suffer in silence about our adult children or our relationships with them.


The Myth of “All Grown Up”                                                              

One of our widespread cultural myths is that our mothering job ends when our children reach adulthood. I well remember being involved in a parenting class when my kids were toddlers. All the mothers there were feeling overwhelmed by constant whining and diaper rash. We reassured each other that, if we could just hang in there for another 16 years or so, our jobs would be complete and we could relax!

What I didn’t know then is that parenting never ends; it just evolves. Therefore, in order for me to remain effective, I must constantly re-invent myself as a parent in order to meet my children’s ever-changing developmental needs. Prevailing wisdom used to be that development stopped when a child became an adult. Now psychologists know that the stages of growth continue into old age, so that parenting adult children in their 30s requires a different set of skills than parenting adolescents or even young adults in their 20s. 

A corollary of the myth that our jobs end when our kids reach the legal adult age of 18 is that they will be fully functioning by this time and no longer need us. Our children also buy into this myth of having it all together and often can’t admit they still need our support and, at times, our guidance. This makes our job as mothers even harder. Lastly, because of the lack of societal compassion, we are given little information or support and find ourselves parenting in the dark, certain that we are the only ones feeling dazed and confused.

It is time to shatter the “all grown up” myth! We can shine a light on the challenges that face mothers of adult children and give ourselves permission to keep searching and learning. We can start by admitting that it is sometimes even harder to be an effective parent when our kids are 30 than it was when they were three!

In order to parent effectively, we must evolve right along with our children.


  Grief: Allowing Our Dreams to Die                                   

When our children were born, we had such high hopes for them. We wanted them to experience the best that life had to offer, to embrace adventures and opportunities that we couldn’t have dreamed of. Everything seemed possible. Today, many of us find that they have not lived up to our dreams. We may not approve of their lifestyles. They may have embraced values or beliefs that run counter to what we taught them. Or they may have serious problems, such as addictions or financial issues, which cause us to lose sleep from worry.

We ask, “How could this have happened? This is not the path I envisioned.” Whether we feel sad, angry, disappointed or worried, we are grieving for what we see as their lost potential. We can take responsibility for this grief and look at it as an opportunity for our own growth. To accomplish this, we must allow our dreams for them to die. We must move toward accepting the way things are, instead of the way we wish they were.

Susan’s daughter Jenny had wanted to be a pediatrician for as long as anyone could remember, “from the time she could pronounce the word,” her mother always said. Susan was understandably proud when her daughter entered a prestigious pre-med program. Then, during her junior year in college, Jenny fell in love and graduated just two months before her first child was born.

Jenny was so excited about becoming a wife and mother that she didn’t seem disappointed about giving up her plans for medical school. Susan, however, was devastated, distraught about the loss of her vision and ashamed of her lack of enthusiasm about becoming a grandmother. Slowly, Susan realized she must accept that this was Jenny’s life, not hers. A little wiser today, she has fallen in love with her grandson and hopes to support whatever his dreams may be.

As we allow the dreams we had for our children to die, we can heal ourselves and help them.

Whose Issue Is It Anyway?   

There are three types of issues that interfere with our having optimal relationships with our adult children: ours, theirs, and ones of shared responsibility. It is up to us to determine which one is before us at any given time and to learn to attend primarily to our own.

The set of skills needed to accomplish this feat includes observation without judgment, discernment, respectful silence and the ability to admit we’re wrong—in short, maturity and wisdom. Learning these skills requires diligence, patience and perseverance on our part, and nothing on the part of our adult children. If we want to have the best relationship possible, we must become willing to stretch and grow, whether or not our children do the same.

During a vacation trip with my adult children and their families, my daughter told me that she was annoyed with me because I was complaining so much about small things, such as how old the fresh corn on the cob looked. Before I began taking responsibility for healing my relationship with her, I would have made this disagreement her issue by saying things like, “Well, it is old, and you should have checked it before you bought it!” Or, “I have a right to express my opinion.” Or even, “I’m not the only one around here who complains!”

But this time, I stayed silent while I reflected on the above options, eventually rejecting them all as defensive and beside-the-point. I even had to admit that my daughter was right: I was complaining too much instead of enjoying being with my dear family at the beach. I then vowed to cut down on my griping. In a perfect world, I would have also have apologized to my daughter, telling her, “You’re right. I’ll work on that.” But I’m a work in progress, and I’m just looking for progress, not perfection.

We can empower ourselves by learning to discern which issues belong to us and by thoughtfully responding, rather than by automatically reacting.

“Is Everything Okay?”   

“She never returns my phone calls!” Sandy lamented about her 25-year-old daughter Emily during our session. “Never?” I asked. She answered, “Well, I call her every day, and I only hear back from her once or twice a week. Then we have a good talk, but I worry so much in between. I just wish she’d call more often.” Because Sandy was in therapy to work on parenting issues, I suggested she invite Emily to join us for a session.

Previously, this mom and daughter had fought a lot about this issue, with all attempts to address it leading to hurt feelings and no resolution. They both seemed relieved to have someone neutral facilitate their discussion. Emily told her mom, “You worry too much, Mom. I don’t have time to call you every day. But even when I do have time, I know the very first words out of your mouth are going to be “Is-everything-okay”? You say it really fast, like that question is all one word, and you sound all panicky, and then I have to spend the first ten minutes reassuring you that I am okay. That wears me out and makes me not want to call you.”

To her credit, Sandy did not become defensive during this confrontation, and, instead, took responsibility and expressed appreciation to her daughter for her honesty. This mom knew that she fretted too much and that most of her worries never amounted to anything. She also realized that it was unfair to expect her daughter to manage her anxiety. Together, they worked on more appropriate ways for Sandy to begin their calls. Her daughter told her that asking a simple, “Hi, honey. How’s everything with you?” would feel caring rather than controlling. At Emily’s request, mom also agreed to limit her calls to three times a week. They left my office arm in arm.

Rather than expecting our adult children to make us feel better, we mothers must learn to process and soothe our own anxious feelings.

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