Mother Rebecca had lunch with her dear friend, Mother Amazing, the other day. Mother Rebecca and Mother Amazing met many years ago in a gymnastics class for infants. They bonded while their respective offspring were busy blowing bubbles, going down slides, and making goo goo faces at silly clowns. Baby Amazing is now Attorney Amazing, but she still calls Mother Rebecca “Aunt Becky” (don’t YOU try this at home, however.)
The other day, as it happened, Mother Amazing was not in a happy frame of mind. “Dear Mother Rebecca,” she intoned, over Something Scaloppini at the Manufacturing Emporium for Highly Caloric Desserts.
”How do I manage to continue to be a part of my adult children’s’ lives without stepping on their toes?”
“What is the best way to get along with my daughters-in-law, now that my sons are grown?”
“How can one avoid showing favoritism among one’s adult children?”
“How can I make the most of the time I have left to spend with my teenagers still at home, especially considering that we have no common interests, they are glued to their electronic devices, and they roll their eyes any time I walk into the room?”
“Mother Rebecca,” asked Mother Amazing, imploringly, dabbing at her scaloppini delicately with the edge of her napkin,” what’s a mother to do?”
What’s a Mother to Do?
One thing a mother could do, as it turns out, is move to a foreign land. (And no, I do not mean “move to a foreign land while leaving one’s children at home”. We may want Calgon to take us away… but not THAT far away). However, moving WITH one’s children TO a foreign land, could prove to be a salubrious tonic for what ails you, namely: their adolescence.
On a recent sojourn in foreign parts, Mother Rebecca discovered with astonishment that there is no international consensus on how to raise a human. There is nothing like going abroad for gaining perspective on one’s own values, and those of one’s countrymen. And what could be more central to the values of any country, than the manner in which it raises its young?
It turns out that adolescence, or, in parent-speak, “the tenth circle of hell”, does not exist in foreign lands the way we know it here (“here” meaning, in the US of A, if you, dear reader, are currently IN a foreign land).
What IS this fresh hell?
Adolescence, American style, turns out to be an American invention, and a fairly recent one at that. Prior to this century, the years from ages 12 to 22 were not known as adolescence. They were known as adulthood. And there are places in the world today where these ages are what we here in River City would currently refer to as childhood, in the sense that persons of those ages do not rebel against their parents but rather continue to idolize them fondly and cater to their every whim.
For example, in the mythical country of Isheetany (not its real name) where Mother Rebecca spent several enchanting years, she observed the following shocking (to her American sensibilities) norms of child-rearing:
Please excuse Mother Rebecca while she retires to her chambers to flagellate herself with limpid pasta for having had the temerity to become a Person of the Parental Persuasion here in the so-called “West” (West of WHAT, one must continually remind oneself to ask). Here in the “West”, we have a very different view of child-rearing than what Mother Rebecca observed in dear Isheetany, whose lemon-scented floor wax she still misses to this day.
How do we, as American parents, raise our children?
Realizing that we have a mere 12 years (if we are lucky) from the time our progeny emerge from the womb to the time when they cease to acknowledge our existence entirely, we hurry to stuff their pre-pubescent consciousnesses with the principles they will need to sustain them for a lifetime. As American parents we have a mere decade, give or take a few years, to inculcate not only the basics such as how to eat, eliminate waste products, read, write and do math, but also the deeper values of our culture.
And what are those values, dear ones? What is the pre-eminent value for which America is known? (Wipe that smirk off your faces. The answer is NOT “MTV”). The correct answer of course, for which we are reputedly hated (but in fact, envied and admired, worldwide) is “FREEDOM”. Oh yes, Darlings. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…”…and do you know who has nothing left to lose, once you have adolescent children and are knee-deep in the thick of it?? YOU, American Mom and Dad! That’s who! Bwa ha ha ha ha haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.
Phew. Please allow Mother Rebecca to compose herself, while loosening her whalebone corset just a smidge to allow space for howls of ironic laughter to escape from somewhere deep in her belly. It’s not a pretty picture, and yet the truth must be told.
American adolescence is an ugly, painful, thing. For a parent, it is the equivalent of holding a dance floor up over one’s own head so others can stomp on it.
For a child, it means morphing from the sweet, obedient, loving son or daughter one once was, to a snarling spike-infested metal-clad monster dripping black mascara from the corners of one’s mouth.
Prior to her sojourn abroad, Mother Rebecca assumed that this warp in the space-time continuum of the parent-child relationship was built into the fabric of human development. Her time in Isheetany showed her it is not. Adolescence, as we know it, is not an inevitable part of growing up. It is however an inevitable part of growing up AMERICAN.
And why is that, dear ones? Because: FREEDOM.
Adolescence, American style, is as it turns out a somewhat unnatural breaking of the parent-child bond. In many countries of the world (do you hear me, Africa, the Middle East, India, and China?) grown up children continue to live with their parents until the parents die. Even if the child is married and a parent themselves. There is no shame, in these parts of the world, in living with one’s parents. Indeed there would be shame in NOT doing so, in not proving one’s filial devotion by daily interaction and intergenerational care.
In Isheetany, for example, in many homes the equivalent of an American Thanksgiving dinner is eaten EVERY DAY. Yes, darlings, it’s shocking but true: the entire family (parents, grown children, spouses, etc.) gathers around the table (or, if the table is not big enough, sits on the floor) and consumes heaping platters of homemade food. On the one day a year we do this in America, the entire country is so stressed out afterwards that we need mass psychotherapy, a gym training membership, and a full year to recover. That’s because it is not natural for us to live with our parents (or, barely, eat dinner with them) as adults. And while many American young adults DO live with their parents, for economic reasons, both parent and child speak of such arrangements with mumbled shame, knowing they have failed to live up to the cultural norm of riding off on one’s own into the sunset and securing one’s own home on the range, or at least, a studio apartment in a neighborhood that still has water, electricity, and some degree of police protection.
But Mother Rebecca…why?
Why is this so? The reasons for this state of affairs are rooted in our history. What was the very first thing that America did, to assert its identity as a new country? It broke away from its parent country, hurling large quantities of tea into the harbor as it went. “So much for your bourgeois beverage-consumption habits, you irrelevant wig-wearing snobs!” our Founding Fathers said, declaring their independence from Mother England.
We expect our teens to do the same, as they break away from us and assert their own emerging adult identities. While the process is painful for parents and teens alike, it is a necessary step in allowing our teens to separate and become their own, adult, persons of the American persuasion.
Mother Rebecca observed with some trepidation what happens to those raised elsewhere, who attempt to emulate our freedoms without having first experienced our adolescent tea-hurling rituals. What happens is that young adults who have been raised not to separate from their parental units, lack the gusto and gumption needed to make it in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. While they LOOK like grownups and indeed are so in their own societies, they are not truly grown up in the American sense. Nor are our own children, until they reach the age of 35 or so.
To be an adult in the American sense, means to break away from one’s family of origin and become increasingly independent of it. To be an adult in Isheetany, and many other parts of the world, on the other hand, means to become increasingly enmeshed in, and assume greater and greater amounts of responsibility for, ever larger sections of one’s family tree.
What does this all mean for Mother Amazing?
Mother Amazing is raising three amazing children, darlings. And they are all, God bless them, Americans. (USA! USA! USA!). Don’t get Mother Rebecca wrong, she loves all countries and adores inhaling the multifaceted aromas of the international bouquet of rainbow goodness. But Mother Amazing is suffering through the trials of raising AMERICAN teenagers (and American young adults, by which one means, anyone up to the age of 50). Mother Amazing is being squeezed in a tortuous vice between the Scylla of helicopter parenthood and the Charybdis of letting one’s kids run amuck. Not to mention the Gorgon Medusa of being treated like a hideous, unwelcome, monstrosity by one’s own flesh and blood. It is not fun, raising Americans, but someone’s got to do it. The alternative is to raise children who continue to live with us forever, which would be perfectly normal, if only we lived somewhere else.
Can you be more specific?
Let us review the specific questions that Mother Amazing asked:
1. How do I manage to continue to be a part of my adult children’s’ lives without stepping on their toes?
Even though our adult, or semi-adult, children may be snarling at us like rabid hyenas,
they really do want us to be part of their lives. Part of their vehemence towards us as we attempt to approach them is their own attempt to arouse the inner fierceness needed to make it in a competitive society with ever shrinking resources. It’s tough out there today, and our kids need to be tougher if we don’t want them lounging about on our couch at the age of 40 scarfing the remnants of old Cheetos from the bottom of the bag. The first place they apply their new-found toughness is towards US, darlings. Snarl, snarl, snarl. Think of your late adolescent/young adult child as an adult Bengal tiger (like the one in the movie Life of Pi) and realize that your mission is to survive the boat trip of his or her adolescence without being eaten alive. A kind of détente may be reached by throwing large chunks of raw meat in his or her direction on a regular basis. And by raw meat I mean, groceries, advice and money. Your child still needs your help but doesn’t want to admit that or ask for it. Hence, the snarls. Mother Rebecca’s suggestion is to figure out what kind of help your child is likely to need on a regular basis, and then accustom him or her to the idea that in order to get that help, he or she will have to tolerate your presence , converse nicely, or even have lunch with you, on a regular basis. Then offer the help as dessert.
2. “What is the best way to get along with my daughters in law, now that my sons are grown?”
Ah, daughters in law. Mother Rebecca made the mistake of being a mother in law (of sorts) in the “West” and a daughter in law in Isheetany. This is completely backwards, darlings. Do not try it at home, abroad, or anywhere in the known universe. The best way to get along with one’s daughters in law is to move to a country, like China, where being a daughter in law is a form of domestic servitude and these young ladies will have to bend themselves to your sovereign will as Reigning Matriarch. Bwa hah ha hah aha haaaaaaaaaaa. Oh wait. This is not China. We are American mother’s in law, doomed to do what another of Mother Rebecca’s dear friends described, sighing, at her son’s wedding as “I’m just the mother in law. I smile and wear beige.” And there is your answer, dear Mother Amazing. Your choices in the daughter in law department are:
Part of the process our children, and especially our sons, go through in breaking away from their parental units and becoming independent adult Americans, is forming a new nuclear family that puts itself ahead of the one they grew up in (i.e., yours). In some parts of the world that does not happen… daughters in law are absorbed into their husbands’ mothers’ household and have to toe the line. Mother Amazing and I made a serious mistake, more than 29 years ago (cough cough) when we were born: we were born into a country that does not allow mothers to dominate their grown sons’ lives. While this may be a bad thing for us personally (one does tire of wearing beige), I think it is, on balance, good for America. And it is certainly good for our sons. So smile and wear beige, dear. Be happy that your sons HAVE wives, who will hopefully keep them off your couch and not eating Cheetos (that YOU have to clean up) when they are 40. Sometimes that’s as good as it gets.
3. “How can one avoid showing favoritism among one’s adult children?” The unspoken corollary to this question is, “How can one avoiding treating one’s adult children differently, when they are all so different, and when each of them treats YOU, their parents, so differently?”
Mother Rebecca recalls reading a book in Barnes and Noble, a few years back that addressed this issue with wisdom and perspicacity. (Unfortunately, she cannot recall the name of the book to give it proper credit…. If you can shed light on this please do so in the comments). The author made the interesting point that treating all of one’s children EQUALLY does not mean treating them all THE SAME. Instead, it means giving each child the type and amount of attention, guidance and resources that he or she requires. If one child has a quiet and reserved disposition while the other is a social butterfly, treating them equally does not mean insisting that both enjoy going to a loud party filled with noisy relatives. Treating them equally would mean acknowledging their unique personalities in ways that let each of them be themselves while encouraging them to be all they can be. If the family party is a must for everyone, then requiring the social one to spend a quiet evening at home playing board games with his or her more reserved sibling, would be equal treatment for having dragged the shy one to the loud party, for example. Or, let the shy one stay home and the loud one attend the party. There are many ways to handle any specific issue, but the point the book made was that treating your children equally means giving EACH what they need, while acknowledging (and pointing out to them, if necessary) that they do not all need the same THING. This principal can be applied to parental attention as well. If one child seems to crave and welcome your attention, while another is distant and rejecting, them treating them equally means respecting the wishes and boundaries they are each communicating about how much they want to interact with you.
One thing we can never lose sight of is the difference between being a parent, and being a person. As a person, one is free to follow one’s personal tastes and instincts as far as who to spend time with, who to like, etc. A parent, however, is not a person. A parent is a pillar that holds up the world (or that holds up that dance floor on top of which one’s teenagers and their friends are stomping their feet as hard as they can while they hurl tea overboard , all the while precariously balanced on YOUR head).
A person in the delicate position of world-pillar-balancer is not free to simply wander off in pursuit of their personal interests. Such a person must realize that despite the commotion and stomping going on above one’s head, one is serving a very important function for these carousing teenagers: one is holding up their world. The pillars that support this world cannot be lopsided or the world will start tilting like the Tower of Pisa. Children will perceive that support to be balanced if they know that they can each get what they need from their parents in the way of attention, understanding and time… even if what they need (or require, or insist on) is different from what their siblings require.
That having been said, darlings, parents are people too, and it is only natural to have more positive feelings towards someone who is being nice to you than towards someone who is snarling at you through clenched teeth. And perhaps it is part of one’s parental duties to make children see that snarling is not conducive to getting what one wants, such as positive treatment and goodies. At the same time, it’s important for children to feel that the love their parents have towards each of them, is equal, even if parental approval and liking for some types of behavior exceeds that elicited by other types.
4. “How can I make the most of the time I have left to spend with my teenagers still at home, especially considering that we have no common interests, they are glued to their electronic devices, and they roll their eyes any time I walk into the room?”
It’s ironic, isn’t it? The last years that parents have left to spend with their children at home, which should be a time of precious connection, instead consist of family members on both sides of the generation gap staring at their watches thinking “How long till this is over? How long, Lord?”
Coincidence? Perhaps not. In a culture where, as discussed above, the approach of legal majority means that children are expected to leave the nest, how better to prepare for this huge change than by acting in a way that makes your parents WANT you to leave, and that makes you want to leave THEM?
That said, Mother Amazing’s question contains the seeds of its own answer. If you have no common interests with your children, now is a good time to get some. It’s unlikely they will come around to YOUR interests at this time in their lives, so find out what their interests are, and get involved. (An added bonus is that if your children’s interests consist of things you don’t consider savory, such as piercing their entire bodies, or having ancient symbols of dubious meaning tattooed on their shins, then any genuine interest that you as parent show in such activities will serve to make your children run screaming from the room and never want to be involved in that subject again. Touché. ) If your children are glued to their electronic devices, then you, Mom, should be glued to yours. Don’t try to talk to them. Don’t respond if they talk to you verbally. Only respond to them if they contact you by text message. And only contact them by text message as well. Then when they complain loudly, “Mom, I was late to school because you didn’t come into my room and wake me up” you simply text them back that you texted them three times this morning at 6 AM telling them to wake up.
As for rolling their eyes, did you know that it is actually written in the scripture of one of the world’s major religions, that teenagers are prohibited by Divine decree from saying ”oof” to their parents? And a very wise dictum it is. (Extra points for quoting not only which of the world’s scriptures this comes from, but also chapter and verse. Put it in the comments if you know the answer). From this we can see that the eye-rolling issue is not a new one, but has been going on ever since there were parents, and teens. Your children were not the first to have ever thought of this. There are many ways to address this, some more effective than others. You could have an “oof” jar where teens have to deposit some designated fee, every time they roll their eyes at you (of course, getting them to comply might just result in more eye rolling). You could just decide from here on in, never to walk into their room for any reason (such as, to wake them up in the morning, to give them medicine when sick, or to let them know that dinner is ready). When they eventually notice this and ask why, you could point out that their eye rolls made it clear your presence was not welcome, so you are honoring their wishes by staying away.
Yes, darlings, call the little buggers on their bluff. They are all piss and bluster until someone needs a shirt pressed, or money for Disneyland, or a ride to the store. Perhaps in the delicate dance of raising a teenager, a Mother might employ some of the same strategies that worked in getting the father of said teenagers (who was perhaps, at that time, a teenager himself) to court her. Play hard to get, dear. Make them come to you. Keep them guessing. Keep them off-balance. Keep them wanting more.