Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Letting Go

So much of mid-life and beyond means letting go...

Letting go of the burdens of youth. You go from feeling that "Everyone is watching me!" to the freedom of no one watching you. You're no longer wondering if you'll ever find that one special relationship. By midlife, you've found and experienced love. You may have lost that love by divorce or a breakup or by death -- and have experienced all the anguish that has gone with it -- and yet you have survived. Perhaps you're optimistic that you can find love once again, but you know that you can survive, even thrive, on your own.

Letting go of children as daily responsibilities. Of course, you'll always love and care about your adult children. But there comes a time in midlife or beyond, when you relinquish daily responsibilities, financial responsibilities. Many people I know have one adult child who isn't doing well on his or her own and who continues to demand or expect parental help. There comes a point, however, when loving parents stop rescuing and start encouraging self-sufficiency for the good of all concerned.

Letting go of old dreams. When you turn 40 or 50 or 60, you no longer have a shot at being a young prodigy, of playing professional sports or aspiring to the New York City Ballet. Those old childhood, adolescent or young adult dreams have become outdated and irrelevant to the person you are today. Letting go of the old dream to be a star in a now impossible field or even your current occupation can make room for new dreams and strategies for achieving them.  As you mature, your dreams begin to line up with new priorities: personal growth and learning new skills; finding new, more effective ways to achieve professional goals; finding new satisfaction in who you are now, in family, in friends.

Letting go of outgrown needs. Think about how your needs have changed in the past few years. Are you traveling with less baggage in life? Perhaps when you were younger, you needed more stylish clothes and a greater variety of outfits. Maybe you spent a lot of time and money on makeup, hair color, and shoes. Maybe the concept of sitting home with a good book on a Saturday night was just too depressing to imagine a few years ago -- and now seems not such a bad idea. Maybe, only a few years ago, if you weren't the life of the party or the center of attention, you felt that you had somehow failed. Now, though you still enjoy lively discussions, you're more likely to listen to another's point of view or hear about their achievements without feeling diminished.

Letting go of judgments. This can be a major life-enhancer in mid-life and beyond.  Perhaps you're finding that you're more tolerant of differences, that you can be friends with people whose worldviews and life experiences are quite different from yours.  Maybe you find yourself enjoying people you would have found tedious or worse when you were younger, seeing the goodness under the annoying or eccentric or alien-to-your-way-of thinking veneer. It could be that you've let go of your desire to change the world, to convert everyone to your way of thinking and come to the conclusion that you enjoy people more when you leave them alone and allow them to be the unique individuals they want and need to be.  And you find yourself learning from many of these differences.

Letting go of old hurt and anger. This means finding your way past old grudges and decreasing the burden that carrying old anger or hurt can place on you.  Even in extreme cases, this letting go can be a blessing.  Even in recent years, I could feel the anger rising whenever I thought about the husband of a dear college friend of mine.  My friend Marie Traina -- an award winning young journalist who had incredible enthusiasm for life, who sang and played the guitar beautifully and loved her family and friends unconditionally -- was murdered in her sleep by her husband, a young lawyer suffering from bipolar disorder.  Because he was found not guilty of her murder due to temporary insanity, he has had a full life -- practicing law, remarrying and raising a daughter.  Marie, who was 28 when she was killed, has missed all these years and experiences that we have all enjoyed. She would have been a wonderful mother, an outrageously great Italian grandmother.  She would have achieved so much professionally and would have continued to bring so much joy to her family and friends. But one can't be angry forever. Anger won't bring her back. I've made efforts in the past year to let go to the bitterness I feel toward Marie's husband. It isn't forgiveness and it isn't for him. It's for me and for Marie.... so I can stop thinking with anguish about all she missed in this life and go back to thinking of her with the warm and joyous memories she so deserves. Whether the pain is an old grudge, a slight, or the untimely loss of someone you love, letting go of old hurt and old pain can greatly lighten your load and bring new energy to your life.

Letting go does not mean giving up.  It means opening up your life -- to new dreams, to new possibilities, to new hope -- as you let go of what no longer fits the person you've grown to be and
welcome all the joy that is to come.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Giving Your Children Roots and Wings

The phone call, coming in early one morning on the telephone line I used for my part-time Northwestern University admissions work, was startling in its urgency and insistence. The caller was a woman I'll call Patti, whose daughter Madison I had interviewed a year before. Madison was now enrolled as a theater major at Northwestern.

"Kathy, I have to ask a favor of you," Patti said, her voice tense. "Madison has a problem. The acting teacher in the class she was assigned this quarter is not top notch. This is unacceptable. I have issues with the way she is being taught. I need you to to fix this."

Before letting her know that, as a part-time regional admissions representative, I had no power -- or business -- in trying to influence academic assignments, I asked the question most on my mind: "How does Madison feel about this class?"

There was a sigh on the other end of the line. "Oh, she likes this teacher a lot," Patti said at last. "I just think she could do better."

"As long as Madison is happy in the class and feels she's learning something, do you really want to try to change things?" I asked.

Another pause. Another sigh. "I thought you would understand and be more helpful," she said, before hanging up the phone.

I thought about her bright, talented young daughter who, after a rocky, tearful first quarter of learning she was one among many talented young people in her class instead of an automatic star,  was beginning to settle in, eager to learn and grow. And I thought about how hard it is for parents to let go and trust that all will be well with their young adult children.

I thought back to the day that I left home to attend Northwestern. It was a radical concept. I had never seen the campus, never known anyone who went there, had never flown before, had never traveled alone. My parents couldn't afford to accompany me from Los Angeles to Chicago.

My mother kissed me and hugged me tight, then stepped quickly away as my father and I left for the airport. My father, true to form, regaled me enroute to LAX with one of his famous melodramatic Irish father "death speeches": "You know I'm not well and I may die before you come home for Christmas. If I do, I just want you to know that I love you and am proud of you." I squeezed back my tears and willed myself not to cry. As the plane was boarding, he held me one last time. "My baby," he said, his voice breaking slightly. Then he let me go.

Once on the plane, I broke into wracking sobs.  A kind older woman -- an angel for sure -- moved from two rows behind to sit beside me and hold me, reassuring me that college would be a wonderful adventure, that I'd just love Chicago, that it was O.K. to be scared. My spirits rose even more when volunteer Northwestern students greeted me warmly in the baggage claim area of O'Hare and transported me to campus. Once I met my roommate Cheryl, a kindred spirit, I cheered up considerably. Together, we went to a welcome address given by the Dean of Students, who concluded his comments by saying "In all the excitement of starting your new life here, don't forget the people who made this possible by letting you come here. Your parents are missing you tonight. Go back to your rooms right now and write to your parents. Tell them another Dad said 'Hello.'" I thought about what it had taken for my parents to let me go....and went to my dorm room immediately to write a letter thanking them and telling them how happy I was (leaving out all the crying stuff).

The scenario is somewhat different today. Young adults are, in general, more sophisticated, more well traveled. And yet, it seems harder for many to leave the nest. During my 20 years of part-time college admissions work, I spent a lot of time before and after college fairs trading stories with reps from other schools about the separation difficulties that students and parents seemed to have. And at Northwestern -- as with most other schools these days -- there was talk of the dreaded helicopter parents who, in some extreme cases, would want to sleep in their kids' dorm rooms for the first week or, like Patti, seek to influence class assignments or call professors about a problem instead of letting their sons or daughters resolve the matter.  Such over-involvement was actively discouraged, though parental concerns were respected. It was a delicate balance.  And, at the same time,  Student Services was reporting an expansion of student mental health services.

For some young adults, going to college or getting that first tiny, shared apartment is a step down from the way they've been living. For someone who has always had his or her own room, laundry and meals provided by Mom, dorm living can be a shock. For someone who has been praised non-stop by proud parents, arriving on campus to find that just about everyone they meet has similar if not more stellar achievements can be a tough dose of reality. For young people leaving home to work and live on their own, adjusting to work schedules, employer expectations, the realities of living with non-relatives and doing all the tasks of daily survival oneself can be, at least initially, daunting. But it's all essential preparation for the demands of adult living.

But many young adults today seem stuck in childhood and, at times,  parental collusion is obvious.

Not long ago, while visiting a friend who is well known for her independence, competence and general "I don't take any shit from anyone" attitude, I was shocked when her 19-year-old daughter (still living at home, taking an occasional community college course and vague on her plans for the future) came into the kitchen, interrupting our conversation and barked one word at her mother: "Artichokes!" Her mother got up immediately.

"Oh, you want artichokes," she said. "I'll make some right away."

My mouth fell open. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And I wondered when, how or if this young woman would ever fly free of the nest.

Even though economic realities make independent living more challenging for young adults today who may face the triple whammy of low-paying first jobs, high student loans and steep rents, leaving home emotionally can be even more of a challenge.

As parents, we need to love our kids and trust their competence enough to let them go. We need to recognize the consequences of holding on.

My childhood friend Mary, the mother of three adult children now on their own, told me recently that "it can be very painful to know that your children don't really need you anymore, at least not on a daily basis. But I didn't want to do to them what I've seen too many people doing to their children -- insisting on remaining the center of their universe -- which can really limit their lives. And so, as hard as it was for me,  I let go."

The old saying about the necessity of giving our children roots and wings is so true. Giving children a firm sense of values and a sense of who they are and where they come from before sending them out into the world is critical.  And so is giving them wings to fly.

There are many elements that build these wings.  There are independent living skills to learn when they're still at home, increasing responsibilities for their own daily survival so that doing for themselves is second nature.  There is the growing sense of competence in fighting their own battles, resolving their own problems -- perhaps with your encouragement and advice but no more than that.  There is the gift of your letting go, letting them know that it's O.K. to go, to be scared, to be unsure, to be excited as they venture out of the nest.

My sister Tai, who is ten years younger than I am, recently told me that my departure for college was one of the most vivid memories of her childhood.  It was interesting to hear about that memorable day from her perspective: how our mother had cried after I walked out the door, how our father had wondered aloud if he would ever see me again, how in awe she had been of my resolve to go to a college 2,000 miles away.  "I thought that it was the bravest thing I had ever seen anyone do," she said. "When you walked out of the house to get on that plane for Chicago, I thought it was just incredible. You were so brave!"

I thought back on the moment and, with the perspective of time,  just how much it had cost my parents emotionally to let go and let me fly away. I felt the love and tears in my mother's hug. I heard the love and fear in my father's unique goodbye.  And I thought about how brave my parents had been, how trusting in my competence, to let me go.  And, all these years later,  I whispered a heartfelt thanks to them both.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Parents and Adult Children: Finding The Balance

I spotted a bitter letter to the editor in The New York Times the other day. Commenting on a proposed new law in China that will require adult children to visit their parents regularly, a reader wrote that she had long "railed against the way the best of parents become 'bit players' (if that) in the lives of their adult offspring".  She referred to adult children's neglect of parents as "this most heartbreaking and also unjust 'family apartheid.'" The pain in her letter made me wince -- and wonder how she came to feel the way she did.

I also thought of friends and acquaintances with happy relationships with their adult children and of patients who have complained of either intrusive, nagging parents or patients who were parents feeling left out of their adult children's lives.

And I remembered a tearful conversation with my own mother years ago, when I was a busy and occasionally clueless twentysomething.  A close relative had suggested, with more than a trace of anger,  that I should be doing more, much more for my mother -- then in her fifties -- who had a stressful life.  I rushed to my mother and apologized to her for my thoughtlessness.  She dried my tears and embraced me. "But you're already doing so much," she said. " It brings me such pleasure to see you happy and hear about your adventures. The best thing you can do for me is to be happy and live your life. If I need any help down the road, you can be sure I'll ask."

I see many friends who are like my mother: my friend Georgia, who dearly loves her two daughters and the grandchildren they have given her, but who has built a new life for herself hundreds of miles away and my friend Tim who is tremendously proud of his four incredibly talented, accomplished adult children, but who also finds daily satisfaction in his own life and pursuits.

And I hear, especially from patients, about the dark side of parenting an adult child.  One patient I'll call Diana has a number of challenges in her daily life -- an ailing husband, a toddler,  a disabled child and a demanding home-based business. Her situation is complicated by an elderly widowed mother who lives nearby and who calls multiple times a day, not with offers of help or support, but with demands of her own as well as unsolicited advice and opinions on every aspect of Diana's life. Diana struggles to find a balance. She loves her mother and wants to be helpful, but she also feels besieged, criticized and unappreciated. There is so much love and so much pain between this mother and her adult daughter that a reasonable balance of needs and expectations is, so far, elusive.

What can help keep adult children from feeling besieged and aging parents from feeling like they are, as the New York Times reader complained, "on a socially accepted ice floe when it comes to offspring"?

Limit your expectations

The fewer expectations you have for your adult children, the less likely you are to be disappointed when they're so busy with their new lives that they don't call or visit as often as you would like.  

Think back on your young adulthood for a moment.

How much time did you spend with your own parents? 

Even young adults who feel close to their parents can get so busy with the demands of building an independent life that they don't notice the time passing. 

What to do?

Keep in touch in ways that are meaningful to them.  

My friend Sharon has two delightful and busy adult children in their thirties.  "But we keep in close touch because I communicate their way," she says. "I'm good at texting. I had to learn in order to keep up with my daughter Carrie."

And my friend Tim, whose four children range in age from 27 to 35 and lead busy lives far away from home, keeps in touch by phone and email and also on Facebook -- which he set up at their urging. The loving messages posted by his kids on his Facebook page warm his spirit -- and also the hearts of his friends reading the messages.

Reframe feelings of being on the sidelines.  

The woman writing to the New York Times complained about being a "bit player" in her offspring's lives.  There does come a time when our children grow up  to enjoy busy young adulthood: they're building careers and relationships, starting families, reveling in their independence. It's their day, their moment, just at the time when we're feeling that some major parts of our lives are beginning to wind down.  Instead of feeling diminished and left out, one can get in tune with the rhythm of life. We can reframe being a "bit player" to "having a front row seat" or "cheering them on."  Letting the pleasure of generativity flow over you as you marvel at the accomplishments of your children and grandchildren can be life-changing.

Reclaim your life. 

As a parent, you've devoted many of your adult years to nurturing your children. And, as long as you live, they will always be central to your life.  But now that your kids are grown and on their own, you have opportunities you haven't had in years to pursue interests long neglected, to enjoy new intimacy with your spouse, to imagine and create your own future.  While you may feel pleasure watching your children find love and success, they may also feel pleasure watching you thrive in your own way.  A dear family friend, Orlie Laing, who lived next door to us when I was growing up, was a particular inspiration.  After retiring as a college professor and seeing his two children into independent young adult lives, he devoted himself to music, learning to play the violin, and to re-discovering his passion for figure skating. He became a competitive ice dancer and enjoyed the sport into his nineties.  His children -- and those of us who also loved him -- were thrilled for him.  Having your own life and interests can be a great gift not only to you, but also to your children.

Let warm memories sustain you as you make new ones.  

Remembering your son or daughter as a baby or toddler who considered you his or her whole world can warm your heart. There may be times when you miss being so central to your children's daily lives. There may be times when you feel life passing you by.  My Aunt Molly used to say that, as you age, "you're welcome at the party, but the party isn't for you."  That can be a matter of perspective. But participating in the party, minus the burden of being the central focus, can be even more satisfying. Now is a time to let go of old responsibilities and expectations.  It is a time to celebrate your own independence. It is a time for new adventures of your own. Life isn't over by any measure.  When your life is full and happy, your children will be even more inclined to want to share time with you and to cheer you on, too, as you all explore your new phases of life. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Gift and Challenge of Time

They were a study in contrasts: a woman in the locker room at the gym this morning, who gasped as she changed to run from dance exercise to water exercise class "I've never been busier than I am in retirement! How did I ever find time to work?" and the woman who lingered over a leisurely game of solitaire at the local cafe this afternoon.  She smiled when she saw me though we had never met. "Want to play cards, hon?" she asked, hopefully. "It sure helps to pass the time if you know what I mean."

We all have highly individual concepts of time.

For some of us, there is never enough time to do all we want to do. For some, energy and interests combine to create a perpetually busy schedule. For some, being busy is a habit and activities expand to fill all the hours in a day.

There are others who drift through life, bored, listless and searching for something to fill the long hours of the day. While chronic boredom can manifest itself throughout life, it can particularly evident after retirement when the old structure of commuting, working, and free time give way to a new concept: creating a new structure for your days. Time hangs heavy for some and is never enough for others.

If you find time hanging heavy, feel bored and dissatisfied and don't know quite what to do with yourself, see your doctor for a check-up, especially if these feelings are new to you. Depression can slow your days to a crawl -- and, conversely, sitting rooted in a lounge chair getting no more exercise than clicking the t.v. remote control is depressing.

What can you do when days seem endless? Discover or re-discover some new or renewed passions. Did you love making music once upon a time? Enjoy a sport? Were you handy with needlework? Dust off your equipment and try it once again.  You might also focus on giving some of that too abundant time to others as a volunteer -- in your community, in a local hospital, or schools or in animal rescue or a political cause that interests you.

If you're finding you don't have time to do all you want to do, stop and think for a moment. Are you enjoying life? Or are you feeling trapped and stressed with a lockstep schedule? If you're starting to feel stressed, practice saying "No" when you feel the need. Limit activities -- as much as possible --to those you really enjoy. Make sure you have enough time for yourself:  quiet time to read, to think, to meditate.

Finding a healthy balance between time alone and time shared, between time spent working and time to relax and replenish your spirit, is a challenge whatever your time of life. In our younger years, huge chunks of time were devoted to building our careers, raising our children, nurturing our relationships as well as our evolving selves -- and, too often, there wasn't enough time for relaxation and self-care.

As the children grow up, as our careers begin to wind down, we may find ourselves bewildered by the sudden infusion of time in our lives and the need to re-balance our priorities.  Some of us may continue to have our time filled with the need to care for aging parents or an ailing spouse -- and find ourselves struggling for a bit of time for respite and self-care.  For others, this newfound free time is a precious gift or a formidable challenge -- or a bit of both.  The challenge is to fill your days with a balance of responsibilities and pleasures. The gift is having the freedom to determine for yourself just what those responsibilities and pleasures will be -- and how these will balance in this very special time of your life.