Remember when you first held your newborn? The love that flooded your heart in that incredibly intense moment is wordless to describe. It washes over you and fills your whole being. That love sustains me as a parent. Love is the guide through all the childhood decisions, the effort to raise my boys “right,” and the on-going truly enormous amount of self-sacrifice of being a mother.
My two boys are in their 30’s. I look back on their younger days with affection. Hugs, love and laughter warmed our home. Yes, there were difficult times. School, grades, neighborhood bullies, clicks at school, sports, fighting, the list can go on and on. But the home was at the center, and everything had a way of working out. After they left the warm cocoon of our home, I was shocked to experience parent agony. Not from the empty nest, but from the life decisions they made.
With adult children the same bottomless love still floods your heart, but the delivery needs to be different. There’s a dance going on in your parent heart. Do you go ahead with hugging, making good food, listening, and giving all your insight and direction on what to do? Do you do action steps they should do, just to make it easier for them? Do you completely back off and watch them go down the wrong path that will hurt their life and future? This agonizing dance is a struggle of how to support and show love. It’s very easy to overstep. You ask too much, you express opinions too much, you interfere too much, and the message from them is, "back off." So, you pull back and watch as they make their choices. Some are terrible, and you suffer through them as if you made them yourself.
One parent shared with me how her son and fiancé drove over to her home to tell her they wanted a baby, NOW. They didn’t want to wait until they got married and settled down with financial resources in place. They said, "Life is short and now is the time for a family." In that moment, the parent expressed her thoughts openly about the difficulty of that choice that could await them, then worked hard to be neutral and to support them with love through their choice. She could see her son was not ready for this lifelong commitment and the challenges of parenting. The road since that day has been difficult. Their little girl, her dear granddaughter, is growing up with parents who are divorced. She bounces between homes and parents as her lifestyle. This parent feels ongoing agony of her son’s choices.
The other day I spoke to a father who has a beautiful adult daughter. She has never settled into a career that would support her well. Waitressing and odd jobs were her career choices. Recently, she packed up and moved to another state. The work she had set up there didn’t come through, her new living conditions were below expectations, and her finances suffered. This dad tried to stay connected, encourage and listen to his daughter on phone calls. The return calls are few and far between and texts or voice mails go unanswered. He is consistently left wondering if she is okay, has enough money for food, and what exactly is happening right now with her? He feels the agony.
My first-born son is an adult now with a family of his own. A few times in social situations he’s delivered a verbal gut punch, bluntly describing what he thinks were my parenting mistakes. He blames those mistakes for how he messed up some events in his life. We have different memories about those same parenting events of our past. I put time and thought into those parenting decisions! The agony caused by his reflection on my mistakes burns deep within me. Because he’s a parent now, I know he will understand this truth as time goes on, there is no perfect parent. We all do our best with what we know.
When I was in my 20s, my mom said to me, “I wish I wouldn’t have had children.” Boy, that gut punch HURT and took me forever to understand. She had six kids, and we all loved her, actively taking time out of our lives to show love to her. Now I understand what she meant. In hindsight, I know at the time she was struggling with our adult choices that were very different from what she would do. My mom was going through the painful agony of parenting her adult kids.
If you can relate to this, you're not alone. This stage of parenting adult children comes with powerful emotions of helplessness, fear, and worry. Some of us are going through the absolute agony of being abandoned by adult kids. We may or may not know why. We look at other families who have thriving successful adult children and wonder if we have been a failure in some way. What did we lack in parenting them when they were little? How could we have done better? The truth is that we have messed up at times. We are parenting as human beings. We aren't perfect, and neither are other parents and families. I believe that we do the best that we can, with who we are. We can’t give out more than what we have or know.
The key to surviving the agony is summed up in one word, surrender. Now as our children are adults, let go and surrender control of their situational choices and outcomes. For me, there are two phases of surrender. The first is, (when asked), do my best to express my opinion in a non-threatening, non-judgmental, clear way. Then I surrender within myself, and to them, their choices, and outcomes. Once I’ve given them another viewpoint to consider, I can step back. They are in this world for their own purpose. They are adults who need to make choices that sometimes work well and sometimes flop so badly that profound lessons are imbedded for them to learn. It’s their journey, and they need to live it.
What about you? How have you found to continue with care and love when parenting adult children brings agony? We could all learn from your story, so please share. Add your comments in the comment section below.