What Do I Owe You?
I was recently listening to someone who was expressing how hurt, disappointed (and outraged) he and his wife were because their daughter had let them know (several months in advance) that she wouldn’t be attending Christmas dinner at their house because she and her new husband wanted to establish their own traditions and rituals. She had invited her Mom and Dad (Along with her husband’s Mother and Father), to join them at their new home for dinner. He went on to say that they had declined the invitation.
“After all I have done for her!!!!” “She has no idea the sacrifices we, as her parents, have made to give her such a good life.” “I know it is her new husband, she would never make that choice on her own.” I didn’t like him from the beginning!” And seems that Mom and Dad, being so hurt and disappointed, said they weren’t going. Seems he tried to talk to his daughter to get her to change her mind, to no avail. Seems that this dad feels like his daughter owes him certain things. Seems that his sense of loving his children comes with some expectations attached, though my guess is that he would say that he loves her unconditionally. What does it mean to be a Dad or Mom? A son? A daughter? What do we ‘owe’ each other?
Some of us believe that it continues to be our job, as parents, to parent our adult children. Tell them what WE think they should do. Remind them, sometimes subtly; sometimes not so subtly; sometimes knowingly; sometimes unknowingly, that they haven't quite arrived, haven't quite got it, that they need us to continue to be parents like we were when they were young. Even when their brevity on the phone, or lack of returning our cards, letters, e-mails and texts might suggest there is a problem in the relationship, we, instead of wondering what our part might be, decide that they are being selfish and self-centered, and ungrateful.
Some of us seem to believe it is our earned right, "after all we have done for them". That they owe us, for all the sacrifices we made on their behalf. Some of us come from strong cultural traditions that bind us to each other. Some of us believe that our children should continue to be subservient to our needs and expectations.
Here's what I believe. Our parenting opportunity and obligation has a time limit. There comes a point where we get to keep the title, "Parent Emeritus" perhaps, and it is in everyone's best interest that we let go of the role. We've had our chance to tell them, teach them, monitor them, expect of them. If we don’t like what we see…… Our new role might be best defined as “invited guest”, because that's exactly what we are. They can, and quite often will, exclude us from the parts of their lives they think we have no business in. Not returning phone calls, or letters, or texts, or hanging up when we begin to tell them what we think they should do about their business, are but ways of letting us know that we're overstepping our bounds as their "guest".
This perspective assumes we have no parental “rights” to further parent our children, just because they are our children. We have no right to their bodies ("When are you going to give me a grandchild"), their homes, their relationships, or their lives; unless invited.
If we choose to behave as if we have a perpetual right, because they are our children, we, and they, will pay a price. They will be there, perhaps, but because of a sense of obligation.
Even when invited, we need to tread very carefully because the words we use will have an effect much more powerful than anyone else’s words. Ever and forever. Especially, if those words are negative and judgmental.
That means, for those of us who have lived for our children, whose purpose in life has been to give them a good one, will be challenged to find a new focus, a new role with them. As friend, as confidant, an elder, a source of unconditional love. For many of us, a new role. A new relationship with our children.
I was once told, "The book you are writing will never be finished, at some point in time you will just have to let it go". I believe the same is true with our parenting. We wouldn't wander into and go rummaging around in the private places of a friend's home, life, or psyche without permission, I believe we need to give our adult children the same respect.
A poet, Kahil Giban says it well,
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.