One of the biggest transitions life brings is when our children reach adulthood. While it is obviously a gradual process, it can feel as though it happened all at once.
When my daughter (and only child), Claire, was born I had an epiphany that is as true today as then: motherhood is a perpetual process of letting go, beginning with that first instance, letting go through birth. This was all too quickly followed by leaving her with someone else for the first time, putting her on a school bus when she seemed so tiny and vulnerable, sending her away to summer camp. Throughout her childhood there was a steady stream of occasions to let go, right up until she left home to build her own nest, far away from mine.
The roles of parent to a child and parent to an adult couldn’t be more different.
We’ve all heard the old saying about the importance of being a parent rather than a friend to our children, but when they are all grown up and on their own we need to reverse that notion. The kindest thing you can do for your adult offspring is to become a friend and stop trying to parent them.
It came as a revelation to me recently that I have nothing to offer Claire in the way of child-rearing advice. As the competent mother of three, her experience is vastly greater than my own. She has weathered more childhood illnesses, coped with more childcare dilemmas and changed more diapers than I ever did. It naturally follows that I defer to her wisdom when I’m with my grandchildren.
I’ve stood by at various times while my daughter and her husband made decisions I feared were mistakes. I bit my tongue as best I was able and recognized that they own all their choices, mistakes or not. And while they’ve stumbled a few times, they’ve never fallen and now are well ahead of where I ever dreamed of being at their age, financially and stability-wise. Letting go of the need to advise them or offer my own opinions was the right thing to do.
But what about this new role of mine, that of Ex-Parent? It’s rather fabulous, actually! I enjoy my pride in Claire’s achievements and take a tiny measure of credit for her turning out well, which is very satisfying. But mostly I go on with life and my own pursuits, embracing the freedom that comes from being done with that responsibility. I relish the friendship I have with my daughter and respect its boundaries, and if possible I love her even more than when I first held her. But I also recognize that our friendship relies on my restraint-she needs an older friend rather than a parent. She feels free to ask my advice, share her world, and be herself with me and I am able to do the same. While I’ll always be her mother, she no longer needs me to mother her.
Mutual respect for one another’s privacy, boundaries and individuality has served me and my daughter well. By embracing my new role in her life, I’ve been privileged to gain the closest friend ever, and as age continues its ruthless assault on me, I have the comfort of knowing she’ll be there when I need her as I was for my own mother.
Of course, for those of us so lucky, there is the bonus of grandparenthood, which contains every bit of the pleasure of parenting without any of its obligations. But that will be a topic for another day.