The Third Third

Adult Children: An Oxymoron

Adult Children. This is an oxymoron.

Or at the least, “adult children” is a term that just doesn’t work anymore.

I had children. But they’re not children anymore. They’re 36 and 40, and 43 and 46; they’re adults.

To call them “adult children” gives us all far too much permission to regress, to revert back to when they were children and when they were mine and to behave accordingly which, frankly, isn’t working for any of us anymore. They get angry, and I get frustrated. Their anger derives from (and I realize this is something I should ask them about and let them tell me honestly where their anger comes from, which I will do if we ever move beyond this stunted and fraught adult child stage), but, anyway, their anger seems to derive from the judgment or criticism they infer from anything and everything I say. I confess: Judgment, criticism, direction, encouragement, support, and high expectations were the “love language” of my parenting style. If I had it to do over, I’d do it differently, more gently. But parents don’t get a do-over. Still, I have since their childhood learned a new vocabulary, and I have developed the self control to keep my mouth shut.

My frustration comes in part from my having to keep my mouth shut, from being rendered invisible and irrelevant, but mostly from my inability to make an emotional, i.e., intimate connection with any of them, individual adult-to-adult. I love them dearly, and I believe they know that and believe it. And they love me and have shown it generously through the years. We’ve reached a stage, however, where I’m not sure we really know each other very well, where we seem unable to see and hear, fully accept — and trust — the selves we inhabit at 35 or 45 or 70.

This is painful. Moreso, I think, because I experience it as personal failure. I vowed not to repeat the ways of my parents who never acknowledged my adulthood and treated me as if I were eternally 12.

I find my daughters and son as adults to be relentlessly interesting people who engage life in creative and meaningful ways, men and women I truly enjoy being around. The parents among them are stunningly loving, creative and gentle (and, yes, their kids have manners and do well in school, too); and each has admirably had the courage and persistence to pursue love, their careers and their passions. They are caring and compassionate, fun and funny. I do not experience the fact that they make different choices than I made, or than I would make, as rejection or rebellion or repudiation of what my husband and I did (although, admittedly, it can cause more than a few sleepless nights until I acknowledge the absolute irrelevance of my anxiety and uncertainty about how things might work out, or not). They are adults. It’s their turn. It’s their lives. I have retired from parenting. And it’s funny, if in the past they have from time to time tried to fire me from my parenting job — adolescence comes to mind — they haven’t really gotten totally on board vis-a-vis my “retirement.” Sometimes they still want my approval. And sometimes, I am sure, I can convey the opposite whether or not I say a word. (As I read on a greeting card recently, “Oh, did I roll my eyes out-loud?”) But I had thought  that retiring from parenting would invite us into different, grown-up adult relationships, and it hasn't yet.

The problem with the “adult child” label and identity is that it perpetuates an imbalance of power that jeopardizes and stunts these healthy adult relationships. In my experience, it makes it sometimes excruciatingly difficult to discuss, disagree or to honor differences, as if our love is conditional, when it is not and never has been. For the relationship to be real, to be fulsome and honest and healthy, we need to remove all adult-child power from the equation. I’m not talking about the conventional role reversal, when the child has to start parenting the parent whose faculties have diminished, making decisions for her, convincing her what’s the safe and prudent thing to do, making sure she is well-fed and tended. That may come. But now, right now, I would love to embrace my son and my daughters simply as equals, as adults, all of us with strengths and vulnerabilities, and to pursue a better, more satisfying relationship with each of them.

I hope they’d want the same. I’m going to ask them.

I’m also asking a psychologist I trust to help me work through these new relationships. And I’m asking you: how do you navigate your grown-up family relationships?

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