Parenting the Adult Child-- Where's the How-To Book?

4 years ago

She put her hands on her hips and gave me that “parent smile.” You know the one, kind of smug and slightly condescending. With an exaggerated sigh she said, “You can’t micro-manage your kids.”

I looked at her son and thought to myself, rather ungenerously, that perhaps he could use a bit more “micro-managing”, as she called it.  Who was she kidding? As far as I was concerned, that’s precisely what you did when you parented young children.  You corrected, guided, disciplined and taught the kind of behavior you hoped would make your kids good decision makers as they grew older. After all, I certainly didn’t want to be doing this kind of work when they were teenagers.

When my kids were little, there was no shortage of parenting books—from how to socialize your kids, potty-train, home school, communicate with or creatively discipline your little ones. As they grew older, the books thinned out. Still, it was possible to find a book or two on parenting the teenager—ways to connect, communicate and, heaven forbid, what to do if they should take the wrong path with peers and find themselves participating in self-destructive behavior.

What I’d never seen, however, is a book titled, How To Let Go Of Being A Parent With Your Almost-Grown Children and Yet Still Be A Parent.  OK true, perhaps the title would be too long for good marketability, but the point is, you never quit being a parent, even though there is a time when you are no longer “raising” your child. Let’s face it, by 17 or 18 the foundation better be instilled, the decision-making skills solidified. Chances are, if you’ve done your job well, they won’t be living with you much longer anyway, at least not full-time.

Here I am, at 49, with almost-adult children and no guidebook to help me negotiate this vague territory. I am forcing myself to step back as my daughter, a senior in high school, experiences her last year before college. Will she get college applications completed on time? Did she finish her essay for English class? What if she didn’t study for her history test?

She might fail.  And she might learn from her consequences. Or she might figure out her own path to success. 

After all, I won’t be with her next year at college (assuming she gets those applications in); she needs to learn to make her own, intrinsic choices for her life, not because Mom says she has to. I've been through this phase once with my son; I can grasp this aspect of parenting. There may not be a manual for it, but I get it. Raising a child to independence, and even healthy separation, is part of the natural progression of life.

But, recently parenting—my entire concept of being a mom— took a whole new twist I never anticipated. When my son, recently graduated from college, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, all of our lives changed. Suddenly, just when he was hoping to find his first full-time career and moving out permanently, maybe even to another part of the country, he found himself at home for at least another year preparing to undergo chemotherapy and radiation. There’s no how-to book for this.

He hasn’t had me butting into his life for years, and now, here I am making doctor appointments, keeping medical notes and lengthy lists of medications. In my fear and concern I ask, “How are you feeling? Did you take your nausea medication?  Are you tired again? How are your migraines?”

And sometimes, even though I know he’s trying to be patient and appreciates the care, I can tell he’s growing impatient. “I’m fine, Mom,.” Or he offers an abrupt, “Yes. I took my pills.”

 I don’t blame him. As if standing outside my body, I can see it. I’m hovering.  But I struggle to find the balance.

 “What time is your blood work tomorrow?” I asked him several nights ago.

“I don’t know,” he says as he watched TV. “It’s in your date book.”

Where is the balance between helping and caring, nurturing and yet still treating him like the adult he is—the one I worked hard to raise to be independent and self-sufficient?

I thought about this conversation and his expectation that I had it all covered. Which is it? Does he want me to back off and give him his space or keep track of his appointments? That’s when I realized I needed to step back and allow him to step up, regulate his medications, take responsibility for letting me know when he’s not feeling well or, yes, to start keeping his own appointments.

The next day, he got up and out of bed without my prompting, showered, and got ready to head to his appointment. “Do you want me to go with you?” I asked.

“Only if you want to,” he replied, his head in the refrigerator searching for the maple syrup.

“Would you feel better if I was there?” I asked again.

He didn’t miss a beat. “Would you feel better being there?”

I didn’t go. I stayed home, reveled in a quiet house and worked out. Later, after he was home, he told me all about the appointment, what the doctor had said about his headaches and symptoms, about the medication adjustments. He even changed the dates and times in my datebook of a few appointments that had been rearranged—all that...without my help. Imagine.

We’ll get through this unexpected path in our fate. I’m sure I’ll have to remind myself to step back a few more times before all is said and done, and I’m sure he’ll have to remind himself to be patient with my over-worried mommyness.  But we’ll make it. It looks like I may have done a pretty good job parenting, after all. 

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