Let’s face it: life-cycle changes are humbling. Even happy changes, like becoming a grandparent, force us to face certain realties that we may not be ready for. After all these years at the helm, we’ve gotten very accustomed to our leadership role as The Parents. Oh, sure, we’ve been practicing the fine art of “letting go” from the first time we put our kids on a school bus! Still, it’s tough. Because NOTHING can change the fact that for as long as we live, we will always be their parents, and they will always be our children.
Even with all the years of changes and adjustments in our parent-child relationships, the arrival of a grandchild signals a new era. The circle of life has turned and now there are two sets of parents in the room: them, and us. The profound delight we evince as we gaze upon this new being, also carries with it some fear and loss we’re not used to thinking about or expressing. Suddenly we feel old, no longer in charge… and there are so many unknowns. How welcomed will I be into the life of this new family? Have I done a good job in transmitting my most deeply felt values; do I even have a right to care whether they’ll be upheld – or is that too controlling? If I help them too much, am I infantilizing them, “enabling?” And what will happen to me as I age? Will I be able to take care of myself? If I ask for help, am I weak?
We’re not the only ones who are feeling like we’ve aged overnight. Look deep into your children’s eyes; sure, they’re over-the-moon, sleep-deprived – and scared. Do I have the maturity to be a parent, a partner, a provider? If I ask my parents for help, does it mean that I’m dependent again, and they can treat me like a child, exert dominance over me? I mean, I’ll always be their kid! But what if they get sick? Can I care for them, and for my growing family?
What often happens then, in too many families, is that the fear wins. Parents and adult children institute a knee-jerk, misguided “Declaration of Independence” because they believe that’s what’s supposed to happen now. Don’t share what’s troubling you. Don’t ask for what you need. Don’t tell Mom! This leads to mutual frustration and guardedness, futile attempts at mind-reading, personal implosions and interpersonal explosions – events that breed miscommunication and distance, at precisely the times that frankness and durable connections are needed most.
I think it’s more true than ever, these days: families must make an active commitment to discuss important issues openly and respectfully, or they may find themselves in a most unpleasant predicament: struggling fiercely to maintain some semblance of independence, or succumbing to “interdependence” that is filled with nonstop conflict – i.e. a situation that could really spiral into the kind of unbalanced dependence that most families want to avoid.
The first thing to do (if you fear you may be headed in that direction) is to take a deep breath. Acknowledging our changed reality – that we’ve all entered a new stage of life – and talking about it, is a first step to defusing the fears that accompany it. This does not happen all at once; it happens in, well, baby steps. Patience, compassion, humor and the belief that we are not diminished by interdependent relationships, will keep us strong and secure as individuals and as a nurturing family unit.
My own family’s interdependence was certainly put to the test on a number of occasions. There were periods during which family members became unemployed, and Margaret and I helped financially – paying several mortgage payments, buying a used car, making sure the grandkids could stay in school or have child-care. When Margaret became ill, we were the ones who had to ask for help. I spent eight years as a caregiver and there were situations in which I felt I needed additional support from my children and grandchildren. Twice-a-year Family Meetings became our forums for discussing the new normal that now prevailed in our lives – meeting that sparked conversations that would continue and evolve in the intervening months.
We all had to learn to ask for what we needed.
How do you navigate this in your family?