When bad things happen to good parents

Excerpted with permission from “When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us: Letting Go Of Their Problems, Loving Them Anyway, and Getting On With Our Lives”, by Jane Adams, Ph.D., published in June by Free Press. Dr. Adams is an author, journalist, speaker and social psychologist. She has a website at www.janeadams.com

In midlife, a central aspect of a parent’s identity is evaluating how our children have turned out; that is, what kind of adults they have become. The lives of our grown children constitute an important lens through which we judge ourselves and our accomplishments; it is through reconsidering their adult successes and failures that we seek, retroactively, to validate the kinds of parents we were and the responsible caring we provided.

As one unhappy parent told me, “When your kids are little, you know what the norms are. You know that even if Jason isn’t toilet trained at five, eventually he’ll graduate eighth grade without a diaper, and if Jennifer’s telling lies at six, by the time she’s seven she’llrow out of it.  You talk to other parents everywhere from the playground to the pediatrician’s office, and you have no shame about sharing the details of your kids’ problems because you know they all develop differently, at different ages.  But when they’re adults, or supposed to be, you feel like whatever’s wrong with them is your fault. It’s a reflection on how well you did or didn’t do your job as a parent. So if they’re not doing well – if he’s got a drug problem, or she can’t hold a decent job, or they flunked out of college or are living on welfare or turned out to be selfish or mean or have terrible values or something – you just don’t tell anybody else.  You’re all alone with your worries, and your anger, and especially your disappointment.”

It’s not a cop-out or even self-serving to say that we were not the only influence in their lives, and their delayed maturity is not the only measure of who we are or even who they are; it’s true. Bad things happen to good parents, after all, and vice versa. But the fact remains, as this same parent – a successful, respected woman – told me, “No matter what I’ve accomplished in my life, if I can’t say, my kids turned out fine, I will feel like a failure, even if nobody knows it but me.”

Our Dirty Little Secret
Here’s our dirty little secret – a lot of us are disappointed in our adult children. In the ones who still haven’t lived up to their potential, who haven’t grown up and show few signs of doing it any time soon. In those whose lives seem to have come to a full stop just when they ought to be starting, or who’ve dead-ended down dark or dangerous alleys. And we’re not only disappointed — we’re ashamed of feeling that way.

We all have our own ways of coping with our secret shame. We console ourselves by whistling in the dark, which helps for a while. We remind ourselves when we hear of some other parent’s even greater heartache that “shana rayna kapora” which is Yiddish for “It could have been worse”, which usually it could have been. We tell ourselves they’ll grow out of it, and in many cases they will. We arm ourselves with the best information, expert assistance and professional help we can get or afford, which can’t hurt and at least gives us the feeling that we’re doing everything we possibly can, which we are. Meanwhile, we live one day at a time and focus on the future, which may seem contradictory but in fact is how most of us get by.

What we don’t do, though, is talk about the elephant in the parlor. We keep our kids’ problems and our pain to ourselves, out of shame, sadness and self-blame. And that’s too bad. Because it helps to talk, to listen, to learn, to share – yes, it really does.

Next page: How to move on

It may be reassuring to learn that you’re not alone with your disappointment.  To understand why you feel your grown kids’ pain so deeply, why you’re always in psychic contact with them even though you’ve no idea where they are, and why it’s so hard to know where you end and they begin. To know not just what you can do for them, but what you can’t.

What’s surprising to some of us is how suddenly and sharply our kids went sideways after they got through what we always thought were the dangerous years of their adolescence without any major hitches.  Perhaps the problems that plague them now were always there, but we never knew, and they never told us, and until they were beyond our control or even our reach they seemed to be fine.

Maybe we were in denial, or maybe they were managing okay until the challenges of making a life for themselves overwhelmed them. What we have to do now is not let their challenges overwhelm us.

How to move on
It may be very difficult to move away from a job that wasn’t done perfectly, especially parenting, but parenting skills were never designed to work for grown kids. We need to define the limits of our relationships with them and our involvement in their lives, since those are the only limits we can set now. We need to find ways to stay in meaningful contact with them while we work through our own midlife tasks of coming to terms with our gains and losses, reconsolidating our identity, and reclaiming our lives now that we have reached the limits of our parental role.

What sociologists call the “postparental imperative” demands that we make sense of who and what matters when we return to the self we put aside to raise our kids.  Because we’ve done that – whether we think we flunked or passed parenting, it’s over.  We won’t get another chance at it, which is the good as well as the bad news.  Our job now is to come to terms with the choices we’ve made in our own lives, abandon some dreams and commit to fulfilling others, allow the silenced voices inside us to be heard, and make the most of the time that’s left.  We can do that – we must do that – regardless of whether our kids ever achieve what we still believe is their golden, unlimited potential.  But that will only be possible if we start concentrating on our own lives while we’re waiting for them to get lives of their own.

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