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Unfinished Business: No End to Childhood

older familyWhat happens when adult children drop in for a visit and revert to old behaviors and expect mom to be—once again–the great Comforter, Advisor, Director and Controller!

I have a headache. All my children came home for a holiday and I got my head caught in the generations gap.

There are four of them — all adults now. In fact the shock and unreality of time passed makes it feel as if they”re older than I am. They don”t think so. As they walk in the door they drop their adulthood like a wet raincoat and leave it lying crumpled on the doorstep to be picked up later on the way out. And I understand that. Adulthood? Civilization? They are, at best, flimsy cloaks. It”s so nice to think dependency, Mommy, chicken soup, warm hugs and please take care of me.

I”m not the only one. I”ve checked. A friend of mine says her 33-year-old daughter walks in with her own two young children, settles in on the couch with a magazine and from that moment until she leaves her vocabulary shrinks to only two words – “ask Grandma.” The children sense immediately that she has now joined them as one of their peers and since she”s the sibling-come-lately to this role they have seniority. If Grandma says “ask Mommy” they smile smugly and say “she doesn”t know” and the ball bounces back to Grandma who, for one ambivalent moment, remembers that she”s graduated out of the decision-making role. Then temptation wins and she becomes the star player in the game – in control again.The holiday. Alice arrives first. I”ve changed the names of my children so no one will know who I”m writing about. They can be very angry if they think I”m invading their privacy. And I understand that. They think privacy is their birthright. However, anyone born to a parent who writes is in imminent danger of being exalted, deflated, used, abused, quoted, misquoted, glamorized, criticized, teased and exposed to the world.

Eventually the other three, Hank and Michael and Kathi straggle in, one by one. They are happy to see each other and excited about being together and sooner or later they start talking about old times, old friends, old neighbors. Then Alice makes a teasing remark pushing old buttons and triggering old hurts in Hank. The fight is joined. He”s furious. And I understand that. He”s nowhere near senility yet so why should he have forgotten his childhood. It”s true. He was small. She was big. She was first on the scene and for several years she had the world to herself. Then he came – this total stranger – and forced her to share so she knocked him around whenever she could – until he got big enough to fight back. Then she stopped. He could never slot machines really get even. Unfinished business burns somewhere in his guts and when the wrong buttons are pushed the left-overs from childhood are warmed up and re-served. The punches, though, are all verbal now.

A woman I know invites many people to her holiday dinner. Invariably her children make sure they get to the table first and take seats next and across from each other. Then they are polite and friendly to the other guests engaging them in conversations, etc.–for a while. As soon as the other guests are busy speaking to each other the WALL closes. This is not the Berlin Wall or the great Wall of China. This is the SIBLING WALL which is inscribed “We are in our own world. We have unfinished business – don”t enter! Maybe now, maybe finally, we”ll even that score” (which can never be evened). They are hungry for the nostalgic food but they are also hungry to get on with the fight.

All our lives we are haunted by things that happened when we were babies. We can”t re-do it. We can”t go back and make it happen then the way we want to remember it now. But they try.

It happens in her house. It happens in my house and when it does an old instinctive knowledge envelopes me. They want me to take sides I think. And I understand that – but I sense danger. Somewhere between their babyhood and my maturehood I became a feminist, a protest marcher, a believer in equal opportunity kitchens, a late entrant into the professional job market. When they”re away, individually, they are encouraging and proud of me. When they come back however, they acknowledge this briefly and then they develop selective memory. They want to keep me in the old role they remember. Watch out I tell myself when I see this happening. Their slide back to childhood can trigger a parallel slide for me back to Mommyhood – not motherhood (that’s a forever) – but Mommyhood and I could hear myself automatically saying “It”s alright, I”ll make it better” and “pick up the towel, hang up your clothes, apologize to him/her/them/” — Mommy, the great Comforter, Advisor, Director and Controller!

Suddenly, though, out of the corner of my eye I see little glimpses of old scenes from their childhood. Out of the corner of my ear I hear little children”s high voices laughing. Then I realize that it”s not just a remembered safe haven for them. There”s something also tugging at me. There”s a longing to go back one more time to when they were small and I felt needed and connected and in charge. And I understand that. I am part of a slowly disappearing generation of women who, for the most part, stayed home and made the children the centerpiece of their lives. Even those of us who made careers after the children left can still be pulled back (kicking and running!) into old nostalgic roles in a moment – for a moment.

As parents live longer today there is no end to childhood – on both sides. I live in a community where the residents must be 55 or older and they still refer to their grown children as “the kids.” Once upon a much shorter time the older generation, for the most part, weren”t here any more by the time the children were middle aged and those children didn”t have the opportunity to step back into childhood by going home to visit Mother. Today they”re not sure when they become “the older generation”

An 88-year-old aunt of mine died recently. She was the last of my parents” generation. After the funeral we cousins stopped for lunch. There was a dead silence as we all looked furtively at each other. Then someone finally said “We”re the older generation now. We”re nobody”s children anymore.” I guess that”s what out children are waiting for without realizing it. When it reaches their consciousness it scares them and they try to push back time by pushing back roles and settling scores.

So they come home once in a while and step into a kind of twilight zone where they become enmeshed, enveloped, entwined and seduced into old memories, old fantasies, old longings. Then it”s hard to untie all those knots so before they leave they all manage to remind me of what I did wrong when they were children. I favored that one. I didn”t encourage this one. I didn”t listen enough. I listened too much. I didn”t give them advice. I gave them too much advice. They”re picking little fights with me before they walk out the door. And I understand that. It”s hard to separate again once you”ve stepped back into childhood closeness. If you pick a fight you can hold back the tears. I understand that.

So why does my head hurt? I don”t understand that.

Helen Oxenberg, a social worker, writes two newspaper advice columns: “Senior Solutions” and “Ask Helen.” Her email is helox72@comcast.net

This piece was originally publishsed in the Sandpaper in Surf City, N.J.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Cyndi Greening October 19, 2009, 12:16 pm

    Funny and so true! Wonderful observations about the desire for both sides to return to an earlier time. My son turns 22 this week and I am just now beginning to notice this return to childhood when he comes home … and from Helen’s article, I can see I’ve got decades more to enjoy/endure. Great writing!

  • Ruth Hochberger October 19, 2009, 12:42 pm

    A wonderful article! Haven’t we all been there?

  • Ruth Kaminsky October 20, 2009, 1:51 pm

    Interesting article but I am in another world. The world of Mother
    doesn’t know much anymore. My children are part of the sandwitch
    generation. Taking care of both children and parents. I wish I could
    give them advice about something–anything.

  • Judith Sherman October 20, 2009, 2:51 pm

    Helen Oxenberg, your story is my story, and our generation’s story. Please write more – for familiarity, sharing and challenge. I am encouraging (very strongly) our children to read your wisdom- may they read AND ATTEND.
    THANK YOU
    JUDITH SHERMAN

  • Judith Sherman October 20, 2009, 3:03 pm

    Helen Oxenberg – yes, your story is my story

  • Judith Sherman October 20, 2009, 3:10 pm

    Helen Oxenberg
    Yes your story is my story – our generation’s story. Familiar, challenging. Please write more – though light hearted there is wisdom inyour observation and comments. I am encouraging (strongly) our children to read these. Let them read and learn.

    Thank you
    Judith Sherman

  • Gloria Gavurin October 20, 2009, 5:20 pm

    Wonderful article! Amusing, well written and with amazing insight. Every mother will find herself inside this story. I wish that I could express myself the way Helen does. Let’s see more of her stuff.

    Gloria Gavurin

  • Jenocean October 20, 2009, 6:27 pm

    My sister and I–both in our 30s–have been known to squabble over the front seat of the car while visiting our parents. Can you say regression?

  • winnie holzman October 20, 2009, 6:56 pm

    dear helen– jan showed me this piece– it’s so touching and so true! and you’re such a wonderful writer! i really relate to this description of our complex family ties– oh, and i hope your head feels better…much love, winnie

  • sandibaum October 20, 2009, 6:58 pm

    I agree with your statements about the children trying to find the little things that irritate their siblings and pulling their strings.
    they still enjoy all coming together with their children and letting them enjoy their grandparents.I am still Mommy to one of mine too.For the rest of my life I will be MOTHER.

  • Lynn Holst October 21, 2009, 1:51 pm

    This is a touching and funny comment on life among humans in a family as it is actually lived and rarely acknowledged with such insight and humor. . Thanks for this Helen Oxenberg!

  • Rose Weber October 21, 2009, 3:01 pm

    So true! Great article!!!

  • Loraine Despres October 21, 2009, 4:18 pm

    So true.

  • Elly Rakowitz-Helfeld October 22, 2009, 8:57 am

    Dear Helen,
    Congrats! Amazingly on target, clever, full of wisdom, depth, sensitivity (to both generations!) — while entertaining and brilliantly and creatively written. Hits on everyone having “been there.”
    Keep up the great work!
    Elly

  • Isabel Rock October 25, 2009, 2:12 pm

    I am 80 years old now and remember my sister always picking on me looking for trouble. When my mother was 85 and she witnessed my sister at me as always and she said “I wish I was dead already”. Since she is gone, thank God, my 2 girls get along with me and eachother and never fight anytime. Except, my sister is still at it, and now my daughter is my protector, Her 2 daughters never fight either. Strange. All girls, but things are good.
    I try not to clutter my house with “stuff” because after cleaning out my mother’s place, I don’t want my girls to have to throw away everything. Such is life.

  • Jamie Duneier November 10, 2009, 3:38 pm

    Dear Helen,

    This is Jan’s writers assistant. We were just talking about siblings slipping back into their old roles when they return to the nest, and let me tell you, this is just spot on. I say that a a child who moved across the country from his, and so experience this personally trip after trip on very deep level.

    Your daughter is a brilliant writer who I continue to learn a lot from and now I see where she gets the chops.

    Warmest,

    Jamie

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