As I hustle down the streets of New York City, I’ll often notice passersby dressed for wrong season. Sometimes a little old lady with a fur-collared coat…in May or a stylish dude with a blazer and scarf… in January.
Parenting spans “seasons” too and some of us are still dressed for the wrong one. While we have spent our children’s entire lives adjusting to their different maturity levels many of us get to a point—college age most commonly—where we stop recalibrating our roles. That’s when problems can arise, says psychotherapist and author Catherine Hickem, who has spent decades working with parents and adult children.
Dr. Hickem is the founder of “Intentional Moms,” a group that “helps women to think differently about their role as a parent and their relationships with family.” The mother of two 20-something children, she is also the author of “Regret Free Parenting: Raise Good Kids and Know You’re Doing It Right.”
Dr. Hickem offers a provocative perspective on parenting: She believes that we need to face the reality that we are not the center of our adult children’s lives. Then we should grieve that realization and move on to form a positive, supportive relationship. We spoke to Dr. Hickem in her home in Delray Beach, Florida, as she prepared to take a vacation with her daughter to celebrate her graduate degree.
Q. One great difficulty for parents of adult children is realizing that we need to readjust our relationship. Why is that?
A. We are not moving with our adult children as they’re moving through life. We’re still parenting at the stage where we are comfortable because we don’t want to change. If you don’t change and keep trying to parent them like they are 17 instead of 25 that’s where you get into trouble. When we fail to adapt to their stage of life that’s when the wall begins to build instead of the bridge.
Q. That realization that you have to step away and honor their decisions and choices—even the ones you disagree with– is difficult for many parents. How do you handle that?
A. We have to recognize the sadness we feel because that season of parenting is over and give ourselves permission to grieve. We put so much of ourselves into these kids and then, as they grow, they need us differently. They will never love us as much as we love them. Yet we still want to have that place of importance and it’s not the same because they’ve moved on. They still need us but perhaps not in the way we want.
Q. Why is it important to go through that period of mourning?
A. Because if we don’t grieve, we punish them. We almost get bitter because we are hurt and take it so personally. Yet it’s not about us, it’s about them and letting them find their way in life. It’s about them loving us but not being the center of their lives. We need to accept that place with gratitude instead of with disappointment.
Q. Some parents believe that because they “sacrificed” so much for their children that now, as adults, they “owe” them. You say that’s an unfair expectation. Why?
A. There is an expectation that our kids will love us as much as we love them and invest in us as we much as we invested in them. It’s not true. You share their history but they do not share yours. It’s not their job to know you the way you know them. It was our job to pay attention and to know them. Their job was to grow up and be a good person and be healthy. The way that they can “pay us back” as parents is to pay it forward with their own children.
Q. You also believe that parents, especially when there’s a difficult relationship with adult children, need to stop letting their children pass judgment on how they were raised.
A. You need take back your happiness and stop putting it in the hands of your children and letting them determine if you’re a good mother. My definition of being a regret-free parent isn’t based upon how my children turned out. It’s knowing that I’ve been diligent at trying to be a really good parent, and crossed the all the “T”s and dotted the“I”s . What the children do with that is out of my hands.
Q. That’s the polar opposite of that popular saying “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.”
A As parents if you take responsibility for their failures, then are you also going to take ownership for their successes? Of course not! However they’ve succeeded, they earned it themselves. That also means they have to take responsibility for the mistakes. It’s a matter of re-framing the way we look at being parents.