A son who lives and works few hours away comes home for the weekend, grumbles hello, gives a quick hug, grabs a drink, and plops on the couch in front of the big screen TV. Something is clearly wrong but he’s not talking. A daughter, halfway around the world, calls to say her fiancé is killed in a freak accident but orders her parents to “stay home.”
Remember that outdated adage that children should be seen and not heard. Sometimes adult children give their parents that same message: I have a problem but I don’t want your advice.
The friend who related that her son was clearly upset but didn’t want to talk is a psychologist. She called it a “push-pull reaction.” Her son wanted to be home near his family, in effect pulling them close, but he also didn’t want to talk about what was bothering him, pushing them away.
What’s a mother to do? Our instinct is to bandage that scraped knee, kiss on the head, give a hug and reassure that everything is going to be okay. But both we and our adult children know that it’s not so easy to soothe disappointments, failures, anger and make the hurt go away as we did when they were kiddies. Our inability to solve all their problems is part of growing and separating and letting them lead their own lives. Sometimes that’s not so easy to do.
This message was conveyed in a touching article “Lettting Go” by novelist Karen Joy Fowler in the December Real Simple magazine. Several years ago, Ms. Fowler’s daughter, Shannon, was in Thailand with her fiancé when he died suddenly after being bitten by a jellyfish. (Shannon wrote her story for Real Simple several years ago; her mom’s story is available only in the print edition.)
The Fowlers had missed their daughter’s initial phone calls with the devastating news. When they finally connected their first instinct was to go to their daughter’s side but Shannon told them “I don’t want you here.”
When they finally did see her at the funeral in Australia Karen Fowler writes,
“I had my own irrational guilt. I am her mother; it’s my job to keep her safe. Clearly I hadn’t done my job. I hadn’t even been home when she called.”
The first Christmas after the death, Shannon did not want to go home so her family joined her in Spain, at her side and on her terms. Years have passed and after traveling around Eastern Europe Shannon is writing a memoir, a task that her author mom can help her with.
What has Karen learned from this difficult experience? She writes,
“I no longer feel it’s my job to protect her from all the bad things; I’ve seen too clearly that I can’t. She is my daughter and the only expert on the way to live her life. I am her mother with all the love and limitations that implies.”
Giving love is easy, accepting those limitations is the hard part; it’s a work in progress, something perhaps our children will understand when they too become parents.