We love our children-but they inevitably grow up. The child we held in our arms and whose diapers we once changed is now an adult, or very nearly so, and this raises a number of difficult issues for all involved.
A father of a college student daughter was in great suffering. He kept asking his daughter, “What do you need?” and when she answered, “I am fine, Dad, thanks, I don’t need anything,” he became frustrated, unhappy and depressed. It turned out that he was accustomed to expressing his love for her by satisfying her wants and needs; that is how he loved his daughter growing up; so long as she needed him he knew he was a good dad, that he loved her and she loved him back. Now she was grown and off on her own. He was confronted by, “How do I love my beloved daughter now that she has grown up into an adult, the adult I always hoped she would be?”
The difficulty he was facing was not only his. His daughter had her own dilemma. She knew she loved her father but she wasn’t sure what her relationship to her father and mother should be now that she was out on her own. How was she to include him in her new adult life?
Another couple had a grown son who had successfully left home but had returned to live with them out of economic necessity. His parents had unhesitatingly and lovingly welcomed him back into their lives-but their new household of adults was in an uproar. Communication was breaking down and love was swiftly evaporating in a mounting heat of anger and frustration.
There were a number of thorny issues for this family. On one hand, there were parents rebuilding their lives and enjoying new freedoms. On the other, there was an adult male child who had already escaped his parents’ loving care and concern who is in the uncomfortable position of having to compromise his hard-won freedoms and independence. He had returned home to find that his parents were treating him in much the same way as they had before he left. What he once endured as loving parental care and guidance-now felt like unwelcome parental domination. Ouch!
The six challenges: How do we love our children once they have fledged and left our nests? How do we love them once they are much too big to pick up? How should we relate to them when they come to visit? What are our new roles and expectations? How do we move from being a family of cute, cuddly dependent children-to become a community of adults and children united in mutual love? In an age of “boomerang” adult children who return home out of economic necessity, how do we live with one another?
The three tasks: These are three tasks to midwife a new family of adults. Please remember that this may take some time to achieve and to install. Rome wasn’t built in a single day. Please plan enough time for this.
1. For the parents: your task is to distinguish for yourself that you already have won the parent game. Hooray! The source of your discomfort stems from a need to progress beyond parent-of-child to become a parent-of-adult. Your parental turn at bat is past and the game has changed. Not only that, it’s your adult child’s turn. If you handle the transition well you may get to be a member on their team. You will root for them from the sidelines. Your final task is to become wholly comfortable sitting in the bleachers of their lives-while living your own life. You will need to discover new ways to love your children that work for all concerned.
2. For adult children: distinguish for yourself that the source of your discomfort stems from your evolution from child of your parents to being an adult child with your parents. In a sense, loving you was far easier for them when you were small. Everyone knew what to do; they made sacrifices and worked day and night to get you out the door. Now that they have succeeded, they will need some time to step back and get that an important chapter in their lives has come to an end and a new chapter has begun. Your task is to recognize, appreciate, and acknowledge your parents who held you in their hearts for a very long time, who did the best they could, and who may not have prepared themselves for you to be grown.
3. For everybody, the family: Your task is to schedule and hold a number of family gatherings together, gatherings devoted to listening to one another and talking it all out loud. There are two phases to this process.
a. First phase: Awareness of the new family Past.
i. Appreciate each other’s strengths and accomplishments. Share what you like about each other.
ii. Acknowledge the family past and share fond memories. Remember and celebrate the past together. You have all succeeded at becoming adults, some older, some younger. It’s an achievement, so hold a graduation.
iii. Speculate: Freely imagine what the future will bring.
b. Second phase: Inquiry into your new family Present.
i. Inquiry: Take turns asking each other: What has changed? What is the same? What is different now?
ii. Exploration: What new agreements and covenants need to be made?
iii. Commitment: After all members have been listened to and heard, and when all have signed onto the new family community, rise together as a new family.
It is a fact that all families will achieve balance and a new equilibrium over time. Sometimes it can take a long time until the new family community is in place. Even when things go well and speedily, the process will include considerable uneasiness as the old family model is retired.
Expect some healthy nostalgia as the new family model starts up. Lastly, do not be surprised if your new model requires a bit of tweaking and remodeling as new adults and children enter the family.
With a little forethought, listening, and communication we can shorten the family rebirthing process and generate an extraordinary loving future for a new grown-up family of adults.