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Built to Last

by Julia Sneden

A friend once remarked kindly that I seem to have a good relationship with my sons. I thanked her for her compliment, but thought to myself: at least at this moment I do.

The one insight that age has brought me is that nothing in life stays at a constant pitch, not love, not health, not wealth, and certainly not relationships. Circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, but beyond that, increases or decreases of intensity are natural to every aspect of our lives, and nowhere more than in the emotional minefield of personal relationships. A static relationship is not only boring, but probably doomed.

No one could sustain forever the intense level of first love, for instance, or the euphoric first weeks of marriage, or for that matter the exhausting adjustment to new parenthood. Sometimes it seems that just as weve learned to cope with one stage of a relationship, a new stage comes along, and there we are, having to figure things out all over again. The waxing and waning of attention and affection are, if one allows them their own pace, circular. The flexibility of relationships is what keeps them alive in the long run.

Parent/child relationships are particularly prone to an almost wave-like swell, retreat and return. Face it: children are more lovable at some stages than at others; but then, so are parents. Herewith, a little listing of the stages that seem to me to be most common. Not everyone will experience them all, and not necessarily in this order, but they seem to me to be fairly universal. Youll note that as the child moves from dependence to responsibility, the parent moves from responsibility to dependence.


  1. Total dependence: Parents meet every need. You learn how to charm and communicate to achieve your goals.
  2. Defying dependence reckless, feckless testing of rules. You must be two!
  3. Moderated dependence off to school; you begin to compare your parents to the moms and dads of your friends.
  4. Resented dependence like the two year old, youre testing limits; defiance and rebellion are your middle name.
  5. Awakening independence your drivers license pries off the lid.
  6. Semi-Independence off-to-college brings renewed affection for the parents; you wont communicate much, but distance lends fondness. And besides, you need $$.
  7. Independence with an anchor Flush with your new job & new surroundings, the old folks are back in favor. Youre on your own, but seek advice about recipes, taxes, car repair.
  8. Useful dependence Parents are great for babysitting the grandchildren. Dont overdo it.
  9. Co-dependence Parents become a source of emotional/psychological support for your own parenting problems. Theyve been there, done that. For your part, you help them move the sofa.
  10. Growing Responsibility More than the sofa needs moving. Offer your parents advice, but go gently. Consider their pride as well as their needs.
  11. Total Responsibility Remember, if you do this well, maybe someday your children will know how to take care of you.


  1. Total responsibility: youre caught between absolute adoration/and utter exhaustion.
  2. Regulatory responsibility after all, somebody has to set the limits.
  3. Logistical responsibility youre in charge of too many lists and schedules. Your car suffers wear and tear.
  4. Resented responsibility a 13-year-old can be impossible. Youre awash in anger and a sense of helplessness.
  5. Anxious responsibility You count the minutes theyre out with your car.
  6. Dwindling responsibility The nest is empty. Youre torn between pride in them and sorrow for yourself, but there are also unexpected delights, guilty pleasures, and welcome quiet.
  7. Long-Distance responsibility Youre suddenly a resource for survival in adult the world. Youre asked how to make meatloaf, what to do for a rash, how to fertilize house plants, etc.
  8. Generational responsibility you are a grandparent. Enjoy! Adore! Teach! But dont be a doormat.
  9. Co-dependence You support the parenting of your kids. It may help to remind them of your shared past. They lend a hand with things you can no longer do.
  10. Growing dependence A dicey time for all. Make it easy for the kids by turning over what you can, and by having wills and finances in order.
  11. Total dependence count your blessings and hold your tongue.

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