As my previously delightful daughter became sullen, surly, and withdrawn as she approached adolescence, I asked an older and wiser friend if the fun part of parenting lasted only a scant dozen years, and then was all downhill. Her response was elucidating. “It’s hard for a few years when they’re teens,” she said. “And then they start doing things that make you proud of them.”
Thankfully, my own kids are passing through the difficult teen years, and they are indeed beginning to do things that amaze me and make me proud. I can imagine how delightful it will be to see them spread their wings in young adulthood and begin to live their own lives.
Yet I know there is no guarantee that I will continue to feel pride or pleasure in my kids once they are adults.
Although we rarely speak about such things in our culture, it can’t be taken for granted that a relationship with our adult children will be mutually satisfying. Indeed, research suggests that tensions between adult children and their parents are the norm. This research corroborates my own experience as a therapist.
In some cases, adult children and their parents become estranged. Estrangement is often initiated by the adult child. This can be a bewildering experience for a parent. In other cases, adult children may struggle with addiction or serious mental health issues. In many cases, such struggles may extend the caretaking period, as parents help adult children navigate these difficulties. Both estrangement and mental health issues are extreme cases where the relationship with the adult child may be a difficult or fraught one.
In addition to these more serious concerns, many relationships with adult children may suffer for more mundane reasons. Our child marries someone whom we don’t respect, or have difficulty getting along with. Or perhaps he espouses values that are inimical to ours, and we find ourselves feeling disappointed or distant. Perhaps our adult daughter makes one poor decision after another, and then inconsiderately expects us to bail her out.
It can be lonely and confusing to find ourselves disappointed, frustrated, or angry with our adult children on a regular basis. And yet it isn’t uncommon. Some parents of adult children take these vicissitudes in stride, accepting what is good in the relationship, without burdening their children with their disappointments. For others though, learning to let go of bright expectations for that relationship can be more difficult. Some parents have a hard time releasing their children to their own fate, allowing them to live their life even though it is not the one they would have wanted for them.
Stan and his wife Alison had adopted Meghan at birth after finding that they were unable to conceive. Meghan seemed like the answer to their prayers when she arrived, and Stan tells me that she was always an easy-going and pleasant child. But as Meghan finished college and set out on her own, tensions increased. Stan and Alison are highly educated, and value scholarship and knowledge. Meghan was not particularly studious, and struggled throughout high school and college. Stan and Alison had always hoped that Meghan would go on for a PhD or at least a master’s, but that was not a goal that made sense to her. When Meghan became a nursery school teacher, Stan had to manage his disappointment that his daughter’s career trajectory would be very different than the one he imagined for her.
Stan did eventually come to terms with this disappointment, but as he and his wife aged, a new unmet expectation surfaced. In my work with Stan, it became clear that there had always been an unconscious assumption that Meghan would bring meaning to his and Alison’s life. They were quite demanding of her, expecting her to spend much time visiting them, and hoping to see their own worth and value reflected back to them in Meghan’s choices as well as her loving care of them. Meghan, of course, could not live up to these super human expectations. As Stan and Alison put increasing pressure on her, she began to try to distance herself from them.
In his work with me, Stan was able eventually to identify the unrealistic hopes he had pinned on his daughter. He came to see how he had unconsciously assumed that being a parent would assuage all kinds of desires, and make up for many previous hurts and disappointments. A turning point in our work occurred when Stan was able to identify that parenting Meghan had indeed been the most meaningful thing he had ever done, even though Meghan herself could not be the source of all meaning and purpose in his life.
Together we arrived at the image of a sand mandala, a beautiful, intricate creation that takes hours and hours of work, only to be swept away upon completion. He arrived at a new sense of satisfaction when he began to appreciate that he had been the very best father he could have been. With me, he reviewed the parts of parenting Meghan that had been most meaningful and pleasurable to him. Knowing that he had shared these moments with her, and given the best of himself to this important project became enough for him. He no longer needed the adult Meghan to be the ongoing source of meaning in his life.
In time, the new attitude he brought to relationship allowed father and daughter to find new footing together. The new relationship did not live up to the picture that Stan had once had, but it had its own unique pleasures.
Stan’s reappraisal of his parenting experience and his relationship with his adult daughter calls to mind for me the poem Ithaka by Constantin Cavafy. The poem encourages us to find joy in the journey, rather than the goal – advice parents would be wise to take to heart.
Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.