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Confessions of a Compulsive Mom

by Julia Sneden

The other day, I wrote a review of a book about parenting children after they reach adulthood. The authors describe the developmental stages of adult "children" much as other parenting books describe young children's ages and stages. They also offer good advice to parents of grown children, most of which boils down to: hands off; step back.

Yes. Well. That's easier said than done. Ideally, parents allow children to assume responsibility for their own lives in small increments, as the kids demonstrate the ability to handle new challenges. The first steps to independence start all the way back at learning to feed themselves, and progress through toilet training, learning to play with others, mastering the challenges of school, taking on a few household chores, and (before you know it) borrowing the family car. Wise parents learn to let go bit by bit, and each time, they hope mightily that they haven't let go too soon. And just about the time they begin to feel they've gotten it right, the kids leave the nest.

When my first-born was a brand new infant, I lived in a ground-floor apartment that had big windows looking out on the sidewalk. We were a block from the local elementary school, and I used to see the children walking to and from school, laden with backpacks and lunch boxes.

I found the 24/7 responsibility for a new baby staggering, and one morning after his colic had kept both of us up for most of the night, I stood at the window watching the school children. I turned to my mother and said: "I can't wait until this child is old enough to go to school. For that matter, I can't wait until he's 21 and I can stop worrying!" "Ha!" was Mother's swift response. "That's when you start worrying. When he's 21, you're no longer in control!"

Like most young parents, I soon adapted to my new responsibility, and before long I began to feel that I would never be able to give up any part of it. Fortunately that wasn't left up to me, because like all children, my child grew and changed and became insistent on being his own person. It was something I both hoped for and dreaded, but once he had done it, I was inordinately proud of both of us. It was a progression I should have recognized, because I'd been through it myself.

I recall that when I left home at the age of not quite 18, bound for college, I felt (despite financial dependence), very much in charge of my own life. I no longer wanted to turn to my parents for help in making decisions. I was quite happy to have their support, especially when it came time to go home for vacations, but I didn't need their advice. It's an attitude that's in line with an anomaly I have since observed: At any period of your life, you are sure that your parents belong to you. "'My parents,"' you say proudly. But then, somewhere around the age of 13 or 14, while you still refer to them as mine, you start thinking of yourself as not really theirs. Just get into a scrap with a teenage child, and she will almost surely cry: 'You don't own me!' In other words, it's not okay for your parents to own you, but it's okay for you to own them.

Psychological separation from your parents, even though at first you're usually still dependent on them, is very necessary. But for the parent, it's a moment of truth. You don't own your children. They've been on loan, all these years, and it's time to remember that you need to let go.

Letting go is hard enough at the time the kids leave home, but realizing that one has really let go forever and hasn't the option to take hold again is even harder. A wise parent accepts the situation and learns to keep his or her mouth gracefully closed.

Unfortunately, some of us aren't particularly graceful. Each one of my three sons in turn has had to step firmly on my inability to shut my darned mouth.

The first occasion came when my middle son was tossing a ball indoors with two of his children. The game of catch grew wilder, and when the ball caromed off the microwave, I said sharply: "Oh for heaven's sake, not in the kitchen!"

My son looked at me for a moment, and then he said with scornful incredulity: "Are you telling me that I can't throw a ball in my own kitchen in my own house?"

There was no appropriate reply except: "Oops." Fortunately the levity worked, and the moment passed.

And then there was the time I asked my eldest a question about his financial situation. After a pause, he said gently: "That's not your business, Mom." It wasn't.

My youngest is not a diplomat, but at least he's honest. When I questioned his friendship with someone I considered less than a good influence, he said, simply but cheerfully, "Butt out, Mom." Ouch.

I'm getting better, I think, but it's still hard to wait patiently until they ask for advice. I don't really mind when they don't follow my suggestions; the important thing is to be asked. The surest way not to be asked, of course, is to offer unsolicited advice. So I button my lip and hope that someone will ask me what I'm thinking. Sooner or later, they usually do.

There are, of course, little things that my kids don't mind, or blow off as just Mom being Mom, advice like taking an umbrella on a cloudy day or wearing a jacket if it's cold. Those aren't really advice; they're knee-jerk reactions, and try as I will to avoid them, they seem to pop out without advance warning. They elicit a patient "yeah, Mom" response and that's about it.

When I leave after visiting my 96-year-old mother in the nursing home, she always says: "Drive carefully. You're important to me," and I respond "You bet." The other day she added: "I know, I know, you always drive carefully. But I'm a mother, and once a mother, always a mother."

At least I know where I get it from.

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