Grief is the price we pay for love...
C.S. Lewis used this line to open a sermon. He could have been talking about any of us who are parents and understand that the joy of having children goes hand in hand with the occasional pain our children bring. Recently, a child psychologist, Susan Engel, wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that drew sharp criticism from dozens of parents when she suggested that having adult children actually was more difficult than having kids. Most of the critics said, "Your job is done. Just enjoy them." However, her argument was that as children mature, you let them go, which means that you have lost that power to rush in and solve the problem or assuage their pain. I can speak from experience about adult children who, even while being a source of great pride, struggle to find their way. No matter how well we do raising our children, there comes a point when we can no longer "Serve and Protect." When that moment arrives, the powerlessness a parent feels merely intensifies the grief when our children suffer pain or go awry.
As parents, we want to smooth the path to adulthood as much as possible for our children. It begins with responding to the cries and coos of our babies and doing as much as we possibly can to keep the cries to a minimum while augmenting the coos. We feed them, change diapers, cuddle them when they are sick, encourage their smiles and laughs, swaddle them against the cold and cover them against the sun. We watch them like a hawk lest they fall, eat something they shouldn’t or touch anything hot or sharp. We are set up to be hyper-involved in keeping them safe and happy. So it’s not surprising that as they begin to take those steps away from us, it’s difficult to let them go without attaching a leash or holding their hands.
In loving our children, we want only the best for them. We become fierce mother and father tigers at the slightest hint of injustice for our children. When I encourage parents not to get over-involved in a soccer game, I am advising against the natural instincts we all have to make the roads our children travel smooth and straight. While they eventually will have to navigate tangled, bumpy roadways, we try as long as we can to give them an easier journey. Finding the points at which we begin to back off becomes not only difficult but highly subjective. Yet our children’s confidence, problem solving, and ability to overcome obstacles depend on us giving them the latitude to work out things without our input. When our children are young we can back off, watch and then swoop in if we feel our assistance is needed. But as they grow older, we play less of the role of rescuer and more of the role of listener. Our ability to see clearly what solutions will work doesn’t diminish as our kids age, so our pain increases watching them make errors that cause them to stumble or endure heartaches.
I wish I could simply shut away any emotional involvement in my adult children’s lives. How blissful it would be to simply treat them as distant friends from whom I get a yearly holiday card with a list of events and accomplishments I read and then file away. I could avoid tons of heartache. Yet, I know that until death separates us I will be completely in love with my children and therefore vulnerable to sharing the pain of their problems. In the movie "Parenthood," there’s a wonderful line from Jason Robards to his son, played by Steve Martin: "There is no end, you never cross the goal line, spike the ball and do your touchdown dance, never... I'm 64 and Larry is 27... and he's still my son,... you think I want him to get hurt?... he's my son." This certainly hits home. Even if I don’t offer protection or solution, I still feel acutely any pain my children feel.
As you guide your children through the maze that is childhood, keep in mind that while the smaller things get easier, the big issues never waver. Eventually, kids get toilet-trained, learn to tie their shoes, avoid putting things up their noses, ride bikes and understand that traffic is dangerous. At the same time, the real crises get more complex: being bullied at school, developing good study habits, getting cut from the soccer team, deciding on a college, having a car accident. It’s no wonder we have a tricky time cutting our children loose. We realize as they grow older the difficulties they face grow more complex and require heightened abilities of maturity, intelligence and resources to resolve. We know we possess these abilities, so we want to provide our children with the protection and solution they offer.
So when do we remove this bubble? I have no idea. I know it was different with each of my adult children. My daughter recently took a business trip to London for her company where she is an executive. Her flight was canceled in Chicago, so she caught a red-eye to San Diego and from there flew to London. When she arrived, her luggage had not followed. When my son-in-law told me, my immediate response was to go into solution mode — how could we get clothes to her quickly? Did she need money to pay for clothes? And so forth… Here’s a grown woman with two kids who found her way out of the travel dilemma, yet my natural mothering mode kicked in. I never even spoke to my son-in-law or daughter about my thoughts. I was able to just let things unfold, but I recognized how quickly that instinct to protect appears and how quickly the inability to act on the instinct created powerlessness, worry and pain on her behalf knowing how much she hates these situations.
As parents, we have to be able to not only endure the grief that love brings, but to suffer in silence. When asked, I am more than willing to give advice and help, but I also know that if I do it too quickly or too often I am doing my kids a disservice. The best thing I can do is gently encourage them to problem solve and find their own way out of a dilemma. I’ve learned that throwing money at a problem or over-protecting just leads to more grief because our children get too dependent upon the quick fix those solutions offer and end up getting tangled up again and again. I think that is what Susan Engel was hoping to tell parents. In her experience, we parents are hard-wired to wrap our wings around our children rather than being the ruthless mother birds that push the kids out of the nest. In recognizing that part of our nature we can better control it. Yet, it doesn’t diminish the grief we feel as we perch on the edge of the nest watching our "babies" cascade toward the earth until they finally figure out to open their wings. Find those teachable moments and use them to give your children more power to solve their own problems and to give yourself permission to feel grief without needing to minimize it by overprotecting.