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Follow the Leader: Your Adult Child

Last week, my daughter and I were standing in a maze of alleys in Venice, searching for—what else—a little jewelry shop we had passed earlier in the day.  “This way!” my daughter said confidently.

I pulled out my map.

“I remember the way,” she insisted. “Don’t you trust me?” Sure enough, after a few twists and turns we arrived at the shop with the silver necklace in the window.

Trust? It wasn’t so much a matter of trust as a question of giving up control.  After decades at the helm of mission-control for my family, it’s hard to let go and follow someone else, especially the youngest child. It doesn’t help that I am the oldest of five children and actually like being in charge at home, in the classroom, on vacation, even in the car dealership (a particular struggle, I admit!).

After the Venice expedition, I made a big step in letting go of the controls and eventually learned to follow the leader: my daughter on her semester abroad in Parma, Italy.   It was a surreal feeling letting her take the lead in the grocery store (flashing back to her as a toddler running up and down the aisles) as she chose the ingredients for the special  dinner that she was cooking, and watching her converse in Italian with the counterman about how much parmigiano (not parmesan) cheese she wanted. I watched her make dinner, and restrained from telling  her how to grate the cheese.  A few days later I needed a train ticket to the airport in Milan and felt displaced when she took over the computer to do the online booking; the website was in Italian but I was determined to struggle through.  “I know what I’m doing,” she said, taking my seat as I was relegated to looking over her shoulder as she typed away briskly.

I’m not alone in finding it difficult to relinquish control, as I found chatting with friends. We agreed that as multitasker moms many of us had become quite proficient at doing everything involved in running a household. We had learned tricks of economy of time and money over the decades and it was frankly easier to do everything ourselves.  Yes, our husbands sometimes tried to help but were often happy (and wise) to defer to us; the children,  too, found it easier to “let mom do it.”  Fortunately (as one friend observed),  these same children seem to function perfectly well on their own turf as adults, even if they tend to revert to “let mom”  when they come home.

The Venetian street navigation brought back a memory of decades ago when I was travelling in Ireland with my parents and two small children. After touring Kilkenny castle,  we drove out of the parking lot and faced an incomprehensible signpost.  “Left or right?” my father pressed. I said right; he turned left.  My father didn’t trust my sense of direction, which, in truth, was much better than his.  After a few miles he realized he had gone the wrong way and turned around.  I was so furious that he didn’t listen to me that we didn’t speak for two days.  I long ago knew this was an overreaction on my part, but only now – as a parent following around the child I’ve always guided  – do I truly suddenly understand both perspectives.  

On the long plane ride home, I mentally sifted through scenes from the trip.  All her adventures have helped my daughter become more independent and self assured. That’s one big step toward adulthood. There’s another equally important step both for her and me. By letting go of the controls I demonstrated my confidence in her ability to determine the way—sometimes—for both of us.

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