Friday, August 17, 2012

When Adult Children Become Strangers

The anguish is palpable in the comments to my post about parents and adult children "Finding The Balance."

Even though I wrote the post a year and a half ago, it is still by far -- every day -- the most read post I've ever written. And the comments continue to come in:

I cry as I read the posts....My husband and I suffer a semi-estrangement from one of our daughters...Our daughter seems content to have little contact with us...It is one thing to be loved, even better to be liked. That is where I would like to be. This is an unending grief....

Both of my children live far away and are busy with their own lives. I am fighting depression because I feel like such an outsider.  l limit my calls to once a week and sometimes she doesn't return my call. I understand that she has her own life and I can't expect to be a major part of it. I just want to know how to cope with these feelings I am having of being such an outsider in my daughter's life...

I loved having my father and mother in my life...I was blessed beyond measure with the joy they brought into my life and all of the memories we made together. Now I'm 62. I put my life aside for my children who have lots of medical issues. They call wanting me to drop everything to aid them. I have and did. Now I am older and going downhill aging. My daughter said to me yesterday "I have my own family now."

I am very perplexed about my daughter's inability to call me every once in a while. But when she needs babysitting, she'll call immediately. I'm not asking for that much contact -- just an occasional phone call...I feel used and not loved...

I'm tired of the excuses I read for adult children. Hog wash. When are adult children going to wake up and visit their mothers? My kids live two miles away. They never visit, rarely call and I learn information about my grandchildren on Facebook. How inconsiderate and cruel is that? They are not mad at me, they say. They say they're just busy. I just can't believe my  children can be that uncaring. I raised them right and they are wonderful children in so many ways, but too busy to even give me a call. Wake up 30 year olds! Mothers aren't here forever!

The dream, of course, is close and warm relationships with your independent adult children, perhaps as you had with your parents (or wish you had had with your parents.) And there are some young adult children who are truly wonderful about maintaining close and warm ties with their parents.

But reality, for many, is quite different.

Why are loving parents -- who seem to ask so little -- so shut out of their adult children's lives?

Barriers to Closeness

Young Adult Developmental Issues:  Noted psychiatrist Lee Robbins Gardener once told me that parents of adolescent and young adult children not only experience the empty nest, but also the battered nest when the young adults may devalue, in a number of different ways, home and family of origin in order to ease their passage out of the nest and into the world. It can be a painful time.

One friend, who had enjoyed a wonderful relationship with her daughter growing up, found herself feeling embattled and rejected when her daughter went away to college. They fought horribly during her daughter's vacation periods at home and her daughter maintained radio silence when she was at school. It wasn't until the daughter was nearing 30 that she rediscovered the joy of close ties with her mother.

I've seen other friends and patients blind-sided and baffled by sudden hostility from adult children who, as they mark their new independence, start complaining about their parents' deficiencies in parenting. Again, this can be part of their working to convince themselves that they haven't left so much behind and is often quite temporary.

Still others may be stuck in the child role -- on the receiving end of parental giving -- and haven't developed the empathy and skills to be givers as well as takers. For some, this is a temporary passage. For others, very happy to take from their parents and not at all inclined to give of themselves, may make themselves invisible to their parents until they need something.

And there are many young adults who equate independence and freedom with being an adult and frequent contact with parents as reverting to childhood and so they stay away, not realizing that to be fully adult is to feel the freedom to be on one's own, to care about parents and family, to embrace both adult responsibilities and the joys they may associate with childhood.

Conflicting concepts of family with new spouses.  One of the major tasks of early marriage is to create a sense of family with each other and with extended families. All too often, young spouses come into a marriage with conflicting ideas about what that means.

One young couple I counseled years ago was in constant conflict about her family.  Her mother called every day to chat. This was part of the routine she and her daughter had followed for years before the marriage. But the young husband was outraged at what he considered his mother-in-law's intrusiveness and demands on his wife's time. His own family-of-origin style was quite different, with family members loving each other dearly, but communicating much less often. In time, the young wife began to cut her phone chats with her mother short or not pick up the phone at all because her daily conversations were her mother were causing such conflicts.

The young couple -- and, for one session, the wife's mother -- came to therapy to find ways to resolve this ongoing conflict and, working together, were able to do so.

In many other cases, young adults and their parents simply struggle, feeling hurt, torn and confused about the changing roles and rules that new marriage and new parenthood bring into the family dynamic.

Conflicting Expectations -- Theirs:  There are some adult children, always on the receiving end of parental largesse, who expect that nothing will change as the years go by.  Even when you retire and are on a fixed income, they ask for and expect financial help. They imagine that babysitting your grandkids is a privilege -- at their convenience -- and too often don't think about how lovely it would be to simply have family time together. They figure that as long as things are humming along in their lives,  why call you with any details? You're there if they need you. Otherwise, oh, well... has it really been THAT long since we talked?

And, for many just starting out in young adulthood with its endless horizons of possibilities, there is a tendency to deny the limits of time. They think that their parents will be there forever, that there will always be time to get together, to do this or do that together someday.  When you're 20 or 25 or 30, unless you've had the misfortune to lose a parent at a very young age, it's hard to imagine not having your parents around for years and years to come.  And so a young adult can be quite casual about keeping in touch during these busy, self-involved years.

Conflicting Expectations -- Yours: Maybe you have this dream of duplicating what you had with your parents in another generation. You and your parents were close and you considered them a joy and inspiration in your life. And it's painful when your children don't seem to feel the same way about you or to share the values that kept you close to your own parents.

It can hurt a lot when you think about how much you gave your kids, how many sacrifices you made over the years, the countless times you put them first and now they can't even bother to call you occasionally.

It just doesn't seem right.

And so your feelings of hurt and anger and disappointment come out in a number of ways -- comments that start with "Is it asking a lot....?" or "You should...." or "You owe me...." And then you feel dismissed as a guilt-mongering mom.

Or you may try to recapture the closeness you once shared by making comments and observations about your adult child's physical being or lifestyle or choices the way you used to when they were younger, only now these observations or unsolicited opinions sound like criticisms to him or her -- when that isn't what you meant at all. You just wanted to participate in, to be part of, his or her life.

Building New Closeness with Your Adult Children
  • Realize that each relationship is unique. Maybe you were or are best friends with your Mom and are grieved that your daughter doesn't seem to feel the same way about you. Keep in mind that people differ in their capacity to be close. No relationship is ever going to be quite like another. Even among your children, there will be differences linked to personality and to their differing perceptions of what it meant to grow up in your family. My mother used to shake her head when talking about the differences between my sister and me even when we were young.  I would come home from school, eager to share all details of my day with my mother, whether my day had been good or a disaster. More often than not, my sister would come in the door and go straight to her room to brood, blowing off our mother's greeting and questions about the day, emerging hours later to talk over what was going on. The differences persisted in young adulthood: I kept in daily touch with our mother and my sister had a somewhat more distant relationship with her. But she loved our parents just as much and, when they were ill, she was very much there for them, caring for them with great love and with special skills that eluded me. As we age, my sister is not in touch as much as I would like, but when she does call or visit, she brings such warmth and caring that all that time in between melts away. It's important to realize, too, that one relationship doesn't replace another.  For example, if you lost your parents much too soon in life, you may feel special urgency in wanting closeness with your own adult children, the chance to share times you never could with your parents. But some needs can't be met by our children. Some residual grief is better resolved with professional therapy or with spiritual counseling.
  • Clarify what you want -- not what you expect.  Being specific about what you would like in your relationship with an adult child -- not what you expect -- can be a game-changer. Letting your child know that you would like to feel included in his or her life for the joy of it -- not because you expect it as a parental right -- can help. Being clear about what you would like can also help to stave off adult child fears of being enveloped by your needs.  I remember Aunt Molly saying to me once that she had savings and some excellent insurance policies and was confident that she would never need us for financial support or daily care. But she told me that she greatly valued emotional support from us and felt that would be a great blessing as she aged. And that was something we all felt ready and able to give.
  • Respect boundaries.  Don't expect that it's okay to just drop in on your single or married young adult child. Your free time may not be their truly free time. They may want to spend time with you but also feel the need for private time with their own spouses and children. Respect the fact that their home is truly theirs -- even if it isn't decorated to your taste or up to your personal standards of cleanliness. I remember, with some residual shock, my introduction to the mother of a man I was dating many years ago. She descended on him from her home in Ohio for a week's stay. His apartment was spotless. He was beautifully organized. His floors and countertops and bathroom sparkled. And yet her first words on entering the place were "How can you live in this pigpen???" He stomped out to take a walk, leaving us alone together. Timidly, I asked her what she found so appalling about the apartment. She stared at me as if I were a visitor from another planet. "Well, the window screens, of course," she said. "They're filthy! I bet he hasn't cleaned them in at least two or three weeks!" I shuddered inwardly, glad that she was visiting his apartment and not mine, and I wanted to scream "SO WHAT??? Aren't you glad to see him?" But I maintained a polite silence, understanding, with new clarity, why he didn't like or encourage visits from his mother. And that was sad because they loved each other very much.
  • Set limits with your adult children. Just as important as respecting the boundaries of our adult children is making your own limits clear, particularly with adult children who expect ongoing help. Especially when our ties are tenuous, it can be tempting to give help when it doesn't truly benefit either party. Bailing adult children out of financial trouble repeatedly or offering financial help you really can't afford to give or feeling used with constant babysitting demands is no way to build a loving bond. Healthy adult relationships hinge on our ability to say "No" as well as "Yes" to each other. Love and closeness can't be bought, but can be earned by taking the risk of being authentic with each other.
  • Stay positive and work on being a person your children really want to spend time with.  Instead of using guilt as a weapon, tell your adult children how much you enjoy being with them or staying in touch or hearing about their lives. It is much easier to call or spend time with a person who is joyful and fully in the moment rather than someone who is ready to lecture one on their responsibilities or who is sullen about not spending more time together. 
  • Work on letting go of unmet expectations: Hanging on to expectations that aren't being met keeps the hurt going. We have no power over the choices our adult children make. However, we do have control over our reactions to the choices. If we can let go -- even a little -- of our expectations that our children will be more attentive, we can give ourselves the freedom to enjoy life without them or to enjoy them more when they do call or visit.
  • Don't expect your child to be your best friend.  There are some things that adult children really don't want to hear, some things best shared with a same-aged friend or with a medical professional. Maybe you feel you can say anything to an adult child, but that doesn't mean that you should. You may find more useful feedback by discussing sexual dysfunction, for example, with your doctor. You may find a more empathetic ear regarding age-related issues with a peer who can truly relate. 
  • Make plans to get together or to talk on the phone when both of you are free.  It's not as spontaneous, true, but you may feel more satisfied with your experience when you have scheduled an in-person or on-the-phone talk as free as possible from conflicts and time constraints.
  • Use time-saving ways to keep in touch. A text message is not nearly as satisfying, at least for those of us who are a certain age, as an in-person visit, but it's a way of keeping a warm connection between you and your adult children in between these experiences. Maybe your adult child doesn't feel time allows for daily phone conversations, but daily text messages may be a way to keep your connection and to feel more included in his or her life. And if you're becoming aware that your adult child becomes restive if you stay on the phone more than a few minutes, set a limit yourself and announce it: "I only have five minutes to talk -- if it's convenient for you -- but I'd just like to check in with you and see how things are going." If an adult child knows you set a time limit and mean it, he or she may be more receptive to talking on the phone more often.  And some older parents communicate and get warm feedback from their kids on Facebook.  I smile every time I see my friend Tim's Facebook page, with many expressions of love from his four adult children. There are many ways, indeed, to be connected with each other.
  • Build an inclusive life for yourself.  It's so sad to see an older person living with overwhelming sadness about children who don't call or visit. We have so many ways to be happy and so many reasons for gratitude in our lives if we fill our lives with purpose and passion, with dear friends and pets, with hobbies and new interests, and, not so incidentally, with the blessing of adult children and grandchildren when possible. When our happiness and well-being doesn't hinge entirely on family, we may find ourselves enjoying those times of closeness and connection even more.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Geriatric Spats

The spat begins on one of two themes:

I am deaf.

I am losing my mind.

And Bob is frantically worried about both possibilities.

I have to admit: I don't hear well in my left ear. I have trouble hearing at all in a crowded room. I am concerned.

"So I don't understand," Bob said the other day while our friend Kim was visiting. "Why don't you go to Dr. Carter and get a referral for a hearing evaluation? Why do you keep putting it off?"

Kim and I answered as one: "Because Dr. Carter would make us weigh in and we're both feeling fat-- and don't want to get in trouble with her."

Kim sighed. "My husband thinks I'm deaf, too," she said. "But I won't go in to see Dr. Carter until I've lost 10 pounds."

Bob shook his head, stunned at our insanity in unison.

The losing my mind spat has a bit more urgency. Bob gets concerned when, lost in my thoughts, I walk right by someone I know without seeing him or her.  "I'm so worried," he said. "Sometimes, you just don't pay attention to the world around you."

It happened again yesterday on our way into the local supermarket.

I had found a small cart -- at a premium in our location -- and was walking into the market shrouded in a barrage of thoughts:

Will I be able to write the books I'm longing to write? To get those proposals in to my agent before he loses interest -- or retires?

Will Bob find help at the Epilepsy Center when we have our first visit next week? Will he have to start a new medication? Is it possible to regulate his epilepsy related mood swings so that he can enjoy life more consistently? Will he continue to be unable to drive for the next few months while he adjusts to his medication? 

Will I manage to drive us everywhere without a major traffic incident or marital unrest over my driving/Bob's backseat driving? It's no small thing. My driving isn't what it used to be. I've had a couple of undeniable near misses lately. Am I reaching the point in life, already, when I really shouldn't be driving?

Will I ever get to L.A. to meet my new little nephew Henry before he gets out of the adorable baby stage and into the screaming stranger anxiety phase of life?

What's happening with my friend Mary and when can I manage my next visit with her?

Is it a mistake to be going to my 45th college reunion in October -- especially now that I've read that Northwestern accepted a major cash donation from the notorious Koch brothers (and so I'm not sure I even like my alma mater anymore)?

What's happening with my sister and her health problems? Why hasn't she called back? What if she's in real trouble and is just too depressed to ask for help?

Can I stand another three months of vitriolic political campaigning and, even more, the smug, omnipresent face of Paul Ryan, my personal pick for most loathsome politician in a very crowded bipartisan field of loathsomeness? Is democracy dead? Are we sliding irrevocably into an era of darkness?

"Kathy!" Bob's urgent tone halted my reverie. "I can't believe it. You just walked by Jake, our Fitness Director you see every day. But this time, you didn't even see him! You're doing this a lot. You're losing it! I'm really afraid..."

Harrumping, I headed for the vegetable aisle. "I was just thinking...." I said, more than a little defensively.

"You don't think there's anything the matter, do you?"

I stopped, suddenly upset. "I don't know," I said.

I don't think I'm losing it.  Of course, neither does a dear friend's husband who is definitely in the tragic grip of dementia.  He can't understand why she won't let him drive or why she has hired caregivers to be with him when she can't be. Am I in similar denial? 

I got an email from Kim this morning: "My husband and I had a spat yesterday and I don't even remember what it was about," she wrote. "I think somewhere along the way, one of us said something about Alzheimer's...."

And I think about the ghosts and goblins of older age. When we were young, we feared monsters in our closets and alligators under the bed. When we were a little older, some of us feared that we wouldn't lose our virginity before a nuclear holocaust would blow up the world. Still later, some of us feared not finding a good job or true love or not making it to retirement.

Now that we're retired, there are new fears: losing our senses, our mobility, our independence.

And so many of our spats and squabbles these days are around those with themes like

Why don't you take better care of yourself?

Why don't you seek medical help for something that could be so easily fixed?

Why don't you keep more active mentally and physically -- so you don't lose it?

Behind so many of these sentiments is an urgent fear: the fear of decline, disease and death, the fear of losing each other in so many ways in the days to come. And sometimes these fears collide with fierce denial or fearful self-examination:

Could I really need a hearing aid?

Am I not as sharp as I used to be?

Is this the beginning of the big decline?

And so we go around and around with our concerns and our fears and our denials -- with a sense of anticipatory loss and grief as we spar with each other.

Bob and I were still discussing my possible decline yesterday as we unloaded groceries from the back of our new SUV. "I'm leaving the hatchback up because I'm going back for the bags of cat litter," he told me as we left the garage. I nodded, still irritated and anxious, wondering if he might be right about my losing it.

Seven hours later, my cell phone rang. "Kathy, are you all right?"

It was the voice of our next door neighbor Judith.  "Carl and I noticed your garage door and car hatchback open when we left the house at 2:30 this afternoon," she said. "We just got back. It's 9:30 and your garage door and car hatchback are STILL wide open."

"Bob!" I called, barely suppressing my giggles of glee. "You forgot to get the cat litter, close the car and the garage!"

"Oh, jeez!" he muttered, rushing past me.

And between my chuckles, the worry sprang up. I wondered "Is he losing it?" Such a minor thing. So easy to forget something like that. It's probably nothing. But still....since we've been talking about losses...

And I made the decision then and there -- as we all do day to day -- to simply feel blessed that today, right now, we're okay, competent and in love. We may walk a bit more slowly. We may not hear each other as well. We may be a little forgetful. But, for today, we're just fine. 

We have no guarantees about next year, next week or even tomorrow. But today, right this minute, life is undeniably good.