I had one of those WOW moments the other day as I was talking with a long-time friend about our relationships with our children. She had just returned from visiting her daughter, who is a very successful professional. She had experienced a lack of clarity in her conversations with her daughter. The daughter seemed impatient and unwilling to talk about the unpleasantness both felt.
My friend called me, first to inquire about my well-being, since she was aware of the difficulty I was having with my own children, especially my son. Then she shared her own experience with her daughter and asked the question, rhetorically, “Why do they act this way toward us?”
As we mature and as our bodies change, becoming a little less agile, hearing a little less clearly, and our responses generally a little slower, we may be seen differently by our children. While we were raising them we may have been seen as all-powerful, all knowing and as a protecting refuge from the difficulties of life. Now, suddenly, our own vulnerabilities are exposed. Where we may have been seen as strong, now we appear weak. Where we appeared to be wise, we may now be seen as foolish. Our children may not be prepared for this. Unconsciously, most children realize the time will come when their parents begin to decline in some ways. I suspect, however, that there are few who are really ready for it when it happens.
As I look back on the last years of my mother’s life, especially after I had asked her to move in with me so I could better provide some care where she needed it, I now realize I was unprepared for the experience. My sense of who she was and how she had managed her life and provided for her children turned out to be quite different from who she was now. Or, was it that I just didn’t know her as I thought I did? Without attempting to judge her or myself it is clear that I was impatient because she could not seem to respond as I expected her to. She was not able to do or be at that late stage in her life the same as in younger years. I was not clear about these changes and I just did not manage well the effect that brought about in our relationship.
There is an inverse scale to the relationship between adult children and aging parents. As the child matures into his or her own life the parent is beginning to experience a decline. At the crossing point of these two lifelines everything is still copasetic. However, at the same time our experiences begin to grow apart and differences begin to appear. I do not think this is as fully understood by either the parent or the child as may be necessary if challenges in the relationship are to be successfully handled.
That WOW moment that I experienced was this realization: Our children suddenly feel they are “raising” us and they are impatient because we are no longer, in their minds, who they thought we were. We are not perfect. We are not invincible. Even though we may be functioning perfectly well for our own lives, we may not be seen that way by our children, who now have their own value system, their own priorities, and their own needs for fulfillment. These will inevitably be different from our own.
For me, it was a moment of enlightenment that helped me to understand not only my relationship to my mother, but also my relationship to my son. Though I cannot be certain as to what is going on in his own mind in this regard, it seems clear to me through our discussions (or lack of them), that the measure of his impatience and critical view of my behavior is largely influenced by the “sudden” realization that I am not who he thought I was. I am in some degree of natural decline, which he may not be prepared for or willing to accept. My own values and priorities may not be what he assumed they were. It is also true that his emerging values and priorities are not what I assumed they were. This changes the whole dynamic of a relationship. For the relationship to survive there must be a willingness to consider these possibilities and to find ways to communicate about them. As these differences develop without the benefit of conversations we may be getting farther apart than we realize until some strategic event explodes in our faces.
We need to understand the broader issue of individual growth and our growth as a society. If our children do not surpass us in their understanding, in compassion and in creativity, then our whole world experiences the beginning of a decline. As parents we must let our children be who they are becoming. The major period of our influence over them may well be past and they must build upon the foundation they have been given. At the same time our children must realize that we, as their parents, are now in the process of taking on the next phase of our lives—enjoying the fruits of our labors, seeking new freedoms to do things differently than we might have been able to do as we raised our children.
Just because we are 60, 70 or 80 years of age or older, we are not necessarily through learning or growing or enjoying life. We may simply be finding different ways of doing that. Certainly our relationship as children and parents can continue to develop positively into these new life conditions. It does require an awakening individually to who we are becoming and who our parents/children are becoming and a willingness to accept those changes.