What would happen to our world if we said to each child: You are precious to us; you will always have our love and support; you are here to be who you are; try never to hurt another, but never stop trying to become yourself as fully as you can; when you fall and fail, you are still loved by us and welcomed to us, but you are also here to leave us, and to go onward toward your own destiny without having to worry about pleasing us.
James Hollis in Find Meaning in the Second Half of Life
From How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims:
Catharine Jacobsen, a Seattle parent and senior college counselor at Lakeside School, got an important reality check when as a young mother she called her own mother to complain about being cold, wet, and muddy on the sideline at her kid’s soccer game. Catharine’s mother was not especially sympathetic. “I have no idea why you’re standing out there,” she said. “You aren’t showing your kids anything. If you want to show them that athletics are important, you should be going on a run yourself. Or if you want to show them what is valuable to you, go home and read a book, or get together with some of your own friends, or go to a play and then come home and talk about it. Why don’t you do some stuff of your own? That’s you getting a life. Your kids will observe that and think, ‘Okay, that’s how you get a life.’ And they’ll want to go get one. But the way it is, they’re going to get to be twenty-five and think, ‘I never saw grown-ups living a life. I only saw them doing stuff for me, driving around, standing somewhere on a Saturday morning.'”
It is hard to balance our needs for personal freedom and personal kindness with the needs of others—especially for parents with young children. But everyone in a family—child, parents and nowadays grandparents who are often deeply involved with the lives of their children and grandchildren–must carve out an authentic life of their own hopefully supported by all family members–or suffer the consequences of a soul denied.
I grew up in a parent-centered family where my mom and dad set the agenda for themselves and for the family. Along the engaged-detached continuum, they were less emotionally engaged and more detached from their children. That gave me and my brothers and sister lots of freedom to “get a life” of our own. When we couldn’t handle our freedom, dad who believed in “fair but firm,” handled us without drama or violence.
Mom and dad had lives of their own. They did things together and with their friends and unlike the child-centered families of today, the children were not included. I don’t recall ever feeling excluded as I happily went outside to play with friends. I had a life of my own.
I complained of my parent’s flaws as a young adult. My complaints were mostly self-serving. As I aged, matured and saw my own shortcomings, I better understood the context of their lives and forgave them their imperfections. What can we be but compassionate toward our parents when all lives are flawed—even our own? Now they are long gone, and I realize how good they were and I love them and respect them deeply.
As a parent, I tried to model the values my parents taught me—especially accountability and responsibility. I believed my job was to raise children who could leave our home and live a life of their own. If we do enough things right with children as they grow up, they will have the grit and wherewithal to set out on their own and find their own way in life.
Melanie and I have six kids between us. They live close to our hearts every day. We talk about them and the grandchildren all the time. We love to see them and wish we had more time with them and our grandchildren. We miss them but do not cling to them. We forgive them for the suffering they cause us and hope they forgive us our mistakes. We struggle with the delicate balance of how engaged and how detached we will be and where our children want us to be on that continuum.
We take care to not intrude in their lives (we sure want to sometimes) or to obligate them to be responsible for us in any way. We support them and often hold our breaths as we wait to see how things work out for them in the day-to-day ups and downs of their lives. We remain available to cry or cheer with them or provide a bed if they need it. But they remain responsible for their lives as we are for ours. Often we muddle along unsure of how to be parents and grandparents. We do our best and reflect and adapt as we go. Melanie and I have a full life together and each of us has a life all our own. We support each others journey in life and hope we are good role models for our children and grandchildren.
Our job was to raise our fledglings to leave the nest and fly on their own; our responsibility as parents of grown children is, I believe, to model for them a full life lived after the kids are gone.
And, as Catharine Jacobsen learned from her mother: It is always our job to “get a life.”