Do We Become Parents to Our Parents…and/or do we remain their children forever?
Contributing factors are varied. Let’s look at the “children forever” part first. (Part 2 will address “When Parents Can No Longer Do For Themselves.)
Back to Childhood: To help parents age well we need to keep in mind: “People change–not much.” I’ve often repeated this quote from the former head of human resources at a highly regarded Fortune 500 company. As grown ups, we can look at our parents with fresh eyes if we try (it’s perhaps easier when we live far away).
If parents are currently of sound mind and were accustomed to being in charge, confident, domineering–even if we don’t like the way they do things, we can’t expect them to change just because they’re old. If they’ve always accepted help, wanted people to do for them, and/or lacked confidence when younger, aging doesn’t change that. You get the idea.
Adulthood: What changes is our feelings about our relationship with parents–not necessarily connected to age, but rather their condition (ie. active and robust, beginning to seem feeble, fragile, and/or confused or becoming more dependent on us)–and/or our situation (ie. grown up, independent, conducting our own lives or unsettled).
Parents remain our parents and we remain their children. Nothing can change that.
Can we fault aging parents for treating us like children? Or can we understand and then act accordingly? It’s hard for parents to let go. Easy to continue old patterns of behavior. Think about coming home, if you went away to college. Didn’t parents still try to be parents–dismissing the fact that you had been completely on your own 24/7. (Yes I know, that was before cell phones became an umbilical cord for some.)
This doesn’t excuse parents continually telling us what to do, or laying a guilt trip on us if we aren’t compliant; rather it bolsters the necessity to express our feelings, but also “pick our battles” if we want to avoid unimportant confrontations.
How can we maintain our adult status, when they think of us as their children?
It’s helpful to use “I statements” and “feeling statements” so as not to put parents on the defensive by sounding critical. Examples: “I feel: really bad/sad when you: tell me I’m ……../–fault me/–try to control me” instead of something like “Why do you always have to …….. me?” “Why can’t you try to understand me?”
Here’s the flip-side–
Interestingly, at certain stages in our lives some of us think we know pretty much about everything. We’re raising–or have raised–children successfully. We know we’re competent. We have jobs and do well and receive praise. This can translate into our thinking we know what’s best for our parents.
That’s dangerous when parents are still mentally capable. Too many suggestions can lead to resentment. Telling them what they should and shouldn’t do–assuming there’s no threat to life and limb–can be inflammatory if our opinion wasn’t asked.
Bossy, in-charge parents like my friend’s mother (who died at 104) want to remain in charge even when they can’t be in charge. (Her son walked a tightrope seeing that her needs were met without her thinking he was “meddling.”) Learning to let go, when it came to disputes that had no bearing on his mother’s welfare, was difficult for him…until he realized “why make life miserable for all of us as long as nothing is threatening her well-being?”
“If the monkey wants a banana, give him a banana,” was a saying back in the day. Remembering it can help parents age well and help their children avoid unproductive confrontations.
Continued in Part 2: When Parents Can No Longer Do For Themselves