A dear friend once said that watching her grown kids (ages 20 and 25) carry out their lives was like watching a movie. In this movie you are completely engrossed in the story-line, you are desperately attached to the main character, the consequences of their actions, and the final outcome. Their love interests, their friends, the relationship with their boss, the late nights, the disappointments, the accolades; you drink it in. You’re entirely invested in a happy ending, yet you have as much control over the story as any theatergoer, sitting in the best seat in the house, on the edge of her seat.
In this movie, where would we (as parents) fit in? Certainly not a main character. Remember, this is our child’s story, not ours. Maybe we’d appear briefly on the receiving end of a crisis phone call. If lucky, portrayed as witty, kind and busy with our own envious pursuits (company owner, exotic travel, and artsy hobby?) I suppose if there were a life-threatening emergency, or a wedding, or birth, the parents (in this case, grandparents) would certainly get more screen time. We’d offer some sage advice mainly to advance the story-line. It is plausible that we might briefly appear in a flashback or a cameo. Or not at all. Yes, even though one can argue that the protagonist would not even exist, if not for us, we must admit, at this point, we are a minor character in our children’s pursuits.
But it’s not quite that simple. Many parents of young adults feel simultaneously roped into their kid’s lives and abruptly pushed away. This is especially true when these “independent” people are living at home, or if they need money, or they get a red light camera ticket, or need help moving , or if they don’t know what a city sticker is. We are interrupted from our own little storylines. Yes, we have lives too! Sure they’re not as flashy, but they are meaningful and vital to the people around us, and quite productive too if I do say so myself! We shift from our stuff to attend to their problem-of-the-day, and just as quickly the scene ends. They’ve moved on. We invite them to appear in our perfectly curated scenes, only to learn that our children are either too busy, or their performance is so off-script that we wish it could end up on some cutting room floor.
So we watch. Knowing all the while, that if only they would do it our way, things would be so much easier! Their inefficiency could be maddening, and occasionally we cut the scene and give direction, or worse yet, take over. Now the action is stalled. The show does not go on.
Over the years, our twenty-something children have learned quite a bit about themselves through us. Yet these interactions are behind us. The neural pathways responsible for attachment have been formed. The superego and moral code is fully engrained in their unconscious thinking. Now, our children learn about themselves through the outside world. They learn by stumbling and fumbling and procrastinating and daring.
Bruce Springsteen’s song, Independence Day is about a young man who is leaving the chaos and conflict of his father’s house. It is sad because in the midst of the fights, there is tenderness. In the end, the drive for independence is relentless. I think most of us have learned from the cautionary tales of past generations and have avoided a pure rebellion from our children. More likely, we worry. We anticipate some future failing, and we intervene to prevent our child from suffering. When we do this, we deny them their independence.
What is required of us? Patience, awareness of our fears for them, acceptance of where they are today, trust that they will get there, more patience. This is a daily practice made more difficult if your child is having a shaky launch. Some young adults fail academically or struggle with addiction, anxiety or depression. This makes parental involvement a necessity.
Even if you have a kid who say, actually has a job, a nice boyfriend, career goals and is on the right path, the daily interactions can still be challenging. There are times that unsolicited advice is not only acceptable, but it is vital. An honest reaction (even if it’s not your best moment) can serve as the reality rub needed in the moment. Don’t get me wrong, there are heartwarming times as well. We can find ourselves engaged in easy conversation with this clever young person whom we genuinely admire. It’s delightful.
Every so often, they actually turn to us for advice, and this is the perfect time to offer it. Otherwise, we pull back, with an eye on the goal of independence. Independence has energy and promise. It’s beyond rebellion. It is a feeling of motion toward an unclear, but undeniable, adventure. If we’re lucky, we’ll always be part of the supporting cast in our grown children’s story. In the meantime, we can warmly applaud as they enjoy their independence.
Here’s hoping that you and your family enjoy this Independence Day, and many more to come!