I watched my youngest son drive away, his car packed for college. I was sad and empty and raw. I was lost.
“Well, I guess you’re not a mother anymore,” said the tall, usually very wonderful person standing beside me.
Grabbing the nearest butter knife, I pointed it at him and growled, “Take it back.” That, I must admit, was one of the lowest points in my 25 years of motherhood.
But days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, and I’m proud to say I grew more rational and less emotional. My husband and I began settling into our quiet, empty nest, and I started thinking about what he had said.
I had to admit: I did have a number of questions about my new role, or lack of one, as a mother of three. Yes, of course I was still their mother, but how involved in their lives should I now be? Should I still offer my opinions and provide guidance? Should I speak up if something bothered me? Was it still my responsibility to fill those Easter baskets and Christmas stockings? As I rolled these questions around and searched for an answer, I found it necessary to consider several more.
When is a child an adult?
The answer to this question, like most that involve parenting, is subjective. At 16, a person can legally travel alone. At 17, they can legally go to an R-rated movie. At 18, they can vote, register for the draft, and enter into a legally binding contract. At 21, they can drink and smoke pot and gamble, legally. But most states in the U.S. consider a person an adult at age 18, which is tied to the voting age, which is tied to the Vietnam War. And while this is what our government has decreed, I would beg to differ.
I think we all agree that becoming an adult is a process that doesn’t conclude on one’s 18th birthday. So the question remains: When should a parent consider their child an adult? My thought is that when a person is able to take care of themselves completely, including and especially financially, they’ve arrived at adulthood. Clearly, the age will be different for every person, and there are always exceptions to any rule, but in general, when a person becomes self-sufficient, childhood is over.
Now that my child is an adult, what is my role?
After getting the answer to this question wrong a (great) number of times in recent months, I think I may have found an acceptable answer: Let the adult children define and decide what their parents’ role should be. Too one-sided? Maybe.
But I think in order to rip that Band-Aid of control off, we parents have to take an enormous step back from our adult children’s lives, at least in the area of decision-making. Will our children make bad decisions? Yes, and so did we. Will they screw up financially from time to time? Yes, and so did we. Will they have regrets? Yes, and so do we. But that, my friends, is called life. And thankfully, we humans do learn from our mistakes, and that learning leads to something wonderful. It’s called wisdom.
But what about my adult child’s decisions that oppose mine morally, politically, or religiously?
Okay, this is a tough one. We’ve all raised our children according to our belief system or lack of one. But what if we’ve brought up our son to be an open-minded liberal, and the next thing you know, he’s joined the Young Republicans? Or what if we’ve raised our daughter to believe in conservative values, and as an adult, she takes a hard left and refers to herself as a “nasty woman”?
What if our children choose the very things we’ve taught them were unacceptable? Then too bad. For us, not for them. It’s their life now, not ours, and it’s not acceptable to judge them or shake our heads while clicking our tongues. How they live their life is suddenly — drumroll, please — their decision. So while we don’t have to agree with all their choices (and we’ll never agree with all their choices — I guarantee our parents didn’t/don’t agree with all of ours either), we are still responsible for loving them unconditionally and making sure they are confident of that love.
What if they want guidance/advice/direction?
Then by all means, give it! Just wait to be asked. And if you’re not asked, zip it, Grandma Gilmore. If your daughter wants to talk to you three times a day, then lucky you. But if she only wants to talk to you occasionally, you’ll have to make the most of that very important occasion. I’m quite sure that the more we support and love our kids, the more conversations they’ll want to have with us.
So if you’re joining the ranks of mothers-of-adults, put down the butter knife, rip off the Band-Aid, and calmly enter this new and fascinating phase. Remember, bad decisions, screw-ups, and regrets will turn our children into lovely, mature adults. And how beautiful it is to watch these new adults create for themselves the most wonderful kind of lives: lives of their own.