Your relationships

Tough love for adult children

love tough

From the time our children go to kindergarten, we begin the process of letting go as we surrender them to the influence of others.  We let go of them a little more as each year passes. When they leave home it’s a big step and it takes both parents and children time to adjust and to work out new ways of relating.

Move forward a few years and a couple of possible scenarios exist – your children have become so independent that they no longer have much time for you; you have managed to achieve a fine balance in the relationship where they are completely independent but you have a respectful, loving relationship with them; or they are still overly dependent on you. In the third case, you may have to practice some tough love.

A cycle of enabling

When an adult child is overly dependent on you as a parent, it’s not good for him or you. Tough love is scary – you do not want to alienate your adult child so you give in to demands.  You love your child fiercely and that fear of what would happen if you withdrew your support can keep you trapped in a vicious cycle of enabling.

Where do you draw the line?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your adult child feel entitled to demand money?
  • Do you feel you live from one crisis to the next?
  • How much do you have to sacrifice to meet your adult child’s needs?
  • Do you feel resentful, stressed, used and burnt out by the constant demands?

If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of the above questions, you have a problem. You are enabling dysfunctional behavior and you need to draw the line. I know this is easier said than done but you need to find a way to be supportive and understanding but firm at the same time.

What does tough love really mean?

I think there is some misunderstanding over the concept of tough love. When I was suffering from an auto-immune illness, I felt that people were giving me tough love and I did not like it one bit. All I wanted was some compassion and instead I was constantly being encouraged not to give in to the illness as though it was all in my head. In retrospect I realize that what was offered was not tough love at all but came from a lack of understanding. The word tough often has a negative connotation – people forget about the love part. Practicing tough love does not mean being controlling or lacking in understanding and compassion – it often hurts the giver more than the receiver.

Children have to develop accountability for their actions or they go through life with an attitude of entitlement, thinking that nothing is their fault. This is where tough love comes in – to help develop that accountability.  It takes a lot of strength and resolve from parents – sometimes it’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to face. When we don’t allow them to bear the consequences of their actions, we take away their ability to learn from their mistakes.

Be honest

You need to be honest with yourself and honest with your children. Realize how your behavior may be preventing them from becoming responsible adults. The truth is that when you draw the line, the initial reaction will probably be shock and you may feel like a ‘bad’ parent for a while. However, it usually leads to a better relationship in the long run. They must understand that you care for them deeply but that you cannot be manipulated.

Respect your differences

Tough love has nothing to do with forcing your kids to live according to your standards. They will always make decisions you don’t agree with and you need to know when to keep your mouth shut. If they ask for your opinion, share your thoughts without being critical. If they don’t want your opinion, keep quiet even if you feel the decisions they are making are wrong.

Show your love

This is harder when they no longer live with you and you don’t have any control over their actions. You may not  agree with their choices or their lifestyle. Keep showing your love,  even if you hate their behavior. If you’re tough on them and that essential ingredient of love is missing, you can destroy the relationship.

Detach from their problems

Realize that their problems are not your problems no matter how much you feel that they are. You do not have to take responsibility when their decisions and actions get them into trouble. This is not easy – you will naturally want to rush in and ‘save’ them.

Focus on yourself and your marriage

You spend years sacrificing for your children. Your focus is on raising them as best as you can. After they leave, your focus has to change. They should no longer need you in the way they did before. If they find it hard to let go, you will have to be the one who insists that they learn to stand on their own two feet. If you’re married, now’s the time to focus on reigniting the spark that may have gone out of your relationship and enjoying life together rather than worrying all the time about your grown children.

Financial help – how much is too much?

One problematic area is that of finances. When parents help their children too much financially, they usually do so because they want to protect them. They forget how much they learned from their own financial struggles.

Helping adult children financially can drain parents of finances at a time when they need to start thinking about retirement. Parents should not help out if they can’t afford to do so – especially if they have to dip in to retirement savings.  Of course, there are some exceptions. My brother became very ill in his twenties and was unable to work – my parents took him in for a few years and I would do exactly the same for my children.

As a parent it makes sense to help with costs that contribute to a child’s independence if you can. Perhaps you could help a child with a down payment on a car or a deposit for an apartment near to a place of work. You may want to give them money as a gift or assist them with a loan. If you loan money, it’s important to decide on a realistic repayment schedule and make sure they keep to it.

Don’t ever just dish out money. Have a conversation first where you find out why they are battling financially, what changes they are willing to make and whether they have thought about how they will avoid such problems in the future.

The current economic situation does mean that adult children move back in with their parents more often than in the past. This comes with its own set of challenges but it can work if the boundaries are clearly defined.

Love tough

Tough love is harder to give than to receive. It can break your heart when you see your adult children experiencing the consequences of their actions and you have to force yourself not to rush in and rescue them. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile the words ‘tough’ and ‘love’ – what does love have to do with being tough? Ask the parents of an addict. If they keep giving in to manipulative behavior, it might just have dire consequences. Sometimes you have to get tough in challenging negative behavior and say ‘enough is enough’. On the other hand,  sometimes parents may justify their attempts to continue controlling their adult children in the name of ‘tough love’.

We owe it to our children to be tough on them at times for the very reason that  we love them so much. Maybe a better way of expressing it is ‘love tough’ – put the love first because that is the all-powerful ingredient and the only way kids will ever really benefit when you are hard on them for their own sake.

How to help elderly parents – give them respect

how to help aging parents

Almost exactly nine months after the end of World War 11, more babies were born than ever before. This was the beginning of a ‘baby boom’ and the title of ‘baby boomers’ is given to all those born between 1946 and 1964. These ‘baby boomers’ are now  52 to 70 years of age. They are at the age where many of them are caring for their elderly parents, even though some of them still have children of their own living at home. The children of others have left the nest but their caring days are not over because their parents now need their help.

Caring for aging parents can be extremely stressful – physically and emotionally. This stress that we experience when our parents begin to age often catches us unawares. When babies are born, it’s a joyful experience and we often receive plenty of support. We go to classes, read child care books and greet the arrival of the baby with joy. Taking care of children can be very taxing but it carries with it the satisfaction and creativity of preparing them for independence. It is often hard work but we want to see them develop and we do all we can to ‘launch’ the next generation.

Support

We tend to receive less support when caring for our aging parents. We want our parents to continue to live independent and productive lives for as long as they can. We want them to be as comfortable and as happy as possible in their golden years. But this can be a difficult task, especially as they start to lose their independence and begin relying on us more and more. As their children we are often their prime source of support, despite the fact that carers may be employed to take care of some of the physical burden and technological advances can solve some of the other problems. Fortunately, this kind of help is available but that does not relieve us of the emotional burden. This is a burden we have to be prepared to carry – after all, they carried us for many years.

Accept mortality

We also have to face the fact that our parents are going to die at some point and that they usually go through a process of deterioration first.  We can’t avoid the fact that they are approaching the end of their lives. I would love more than anything to arrest my mother’s aging process and keep her in a healthy state where she can enjoy life forever and I can always have her around. I don’t think we are ever ready to face the fact that our parents are approaching death. It is hard to face but we have a deal with it so we can make the most of the years we have left together. Another reason why it’s difficult to face is because it reminds us of our own mortality.

Accept role reversal

The parents that supported us, sacrificed for us and always took care of us are now relying on us. It is heartrending for us to see the frailness of a father who battles to walk when he used to be vigorous and strong. Our hearts sink when a mother tells the same story over and over and we realize her memory is failing. We see mental processes becoming slower, limbs getting weaker and some of us even have to face the fact that our parents are swiftly heading towards the point where they no longer recognize us. It’s our turn to be the strong ones and the ones who sacrifice.

Become a good listener

In caring for our parents, they do not just need physical help. We need to make sure that they are taking their medicine and eating properly but we are not just maids, chauffeurs and cooks. What our parents usually want more than anything else is the chance to communicate with us. We are the ones who are closest to them and we understand their fears and concerns. The emotional support we provide is often so much more important than the physical help.

They will often store up little anecdotes to share with us and it is important for us to become good listeners. Some compassion, patience and listening carefully to what they have to say will make their day. My mom and I have a ritual – we are both tea lovers so the first item on the agenda is always to sit and enjoy a cup of tea before we do anything else. This gives us the opportunity to catch up on all the latest family happenings and discuss trivialities. I enjoy listening to her stories and we often share a laugh together.

Make technology easier to manage

Most elderly parents battle with technology – it does not come naturally to them like it does for generations who grew up with computers. Gadgets with all kinds of buttons and options often pose a challenge, particularly if eyesight is failing and fingers are not so nimble anymore. It may help to invest in devices with larger buttons designed for seniors like a senior-friendly remote control with a simple design or cell phone with large print and high-volume levels for older ears. We have to be very careful not to make them feel stupid and inept when dealing with the latest technology. Writing out a list of clear instructions may help.

Recently my mother fell for a scam where she was conned into giving a caller her bank details and guided to install spyware on her computer – this was after I had warned her time and time again about scams like this. When she eventually admitted what she had done, a few choice expletives popped out of my mouth. I soon repented for being angry because I realized how ashamed she was of her own ‘stupidity’. We need to be careful what we say in situations like this because our words can cause damage to the relationship. As exasperating as elderly parents can be at times, we need to think before we speak.

Setting Boundaries

It’s easy to become so involved in dealing with our elderly parents that it’s hard to tell where their life ends and ours begins. If we don’t learn to set some healthy boundaries, we can begin to feel as though we have no life. Sometimes we can even fall into the trap of playing the martyr rather than making tough decisions about our own lives. We use the fact that we have to help them as a way to avoid our own problems.

Help them keep their dignity

I believe that the worst thing we can do to our parents as they age is to treat them like children. If we boss them around, tell them how to behave, and nag them about their habits we deprive them of their dignity. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and reflect on how we would like to be treated at their age. We can take joy in knowing that, in a way, we are giving back to those strong parents who never spared any expense or time for us when we were growing up. They deserve our devotion and dedication so that they can continue to have a full and independent life for as long as possible.

Don’t judge empty nesters who feel sad!

sorrow and joy

The word ‘whine’ immediately evokes images of a child complaining in an annoying way.  Nobody wants to listen to people who whine and complain about their circumstances, no matter how dire. However, I recently came across a blog with the title ‘Stop whining about your empty nest’ in the Huffington Post. I had to write about my reaction to this post because I felt that many empty nesters feeling sad about their children leaving could feel judged.

Ronna Benjamin says “I’m tired of women (because it is hardly ever men, I’ve noticed) whining about their Empty Nest “Syndrome” like it’s a degenerative disease – a time to mourn, fester in loneliness and abandonment.” She tells parents to lighten up, and not make such a big deal of it. If she had just left out some of the judgmental comments, I would have enjoyed the rest of the post because she brings out some very good reasons to rejoice when your children leave the nest.

You can definitely rejoice about the fact that they are independent enough to leave. You can rejoice that technological advancements have made it easier than ever to communicate with them. You certainly will have much more time on your hands to follow your own interests and spend more time with your partner.  I believe you must rejoice but I also believe in allowing yourself time to grieve and process the changes taking place in your life.

For those who are struggling to come to terms with this phase in their lives, words Ronna Benjamin uses like ‘wallowing’ and ‘fester’ take away from the genuine grieving that does take place at this time.  Everyone reacts differently and those who battle and take a little longer have the right to do so – they should not be judged. Very few parents can just brush away the fact that a certain intense phase of parenting has come to an end. And it’s not just women who experience these emotions either! Some fathers, especially those who have been very involved with their children, have expressed how difficult they find it when they leave home.

Of course we have to let go and move on. It’s just not as easy as flipping a switch or turning a page. Our attitude is important – I am not denying that.  But I think that many of us find that this phase is a little harder than we expected it to be. It’s a time of transition and any transition brings with it mixed emotions. It is possible to experience pain and rejoice at the same time. I love it that my children are living their own lives and I do rejoice in that. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the pain of not having them around on a daily basis.

I know this phase will pass and there are certainly ways to make the transition easier. However, an empty nest does leave some empty holes. These holes will be filled and you may find yourself moving on into one of the best periods of your life. But filling those holes does not happen instantly and I don’t believe that denying they exist is helpful.

Why is it we think we have to be upbeat all the time?  Is it because there are so many self-help books devoted to positivity around today? Don’t get me wrong – I love reading those books. But I also believe we need to succumb to the rhythm of life instead of fighting against it. There will be many occasions to rejoice but there will always be times when we feel sad too. Winter, spring, summer, autumn – the seasons in nature are reflected in our lives.

“We enjoy warmth because we have been cold. We appreciate light because we have been in darkness. By the same token, we can experience joy because we have known sadness. – David Weatherford.

The last thing we need is to feel bad about the fact that we are sad. The sadness does not last forever.  There is a  Chinese proverb that says “You cannot prevent the birds of sadness from passing over your head, but you can prevent their making a nest in your hair.” Don’t feel judged if you feel sad – it is only when it persists for a long period and prevents you from moving on that you may need to get some help.

Kahlil Gibran, in his poem On Joy and Sorrow,  expresses more perfectly than I ever could the nature of the relationship between joy and sorrow. Here is an extract from the poem, describing how inseparable they are:

On Joy and Sorrow

 Kahlil Gibran
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Take heart – if you are experiencing a time of sorrow, it will pass and you will be able to contain more joy as a result of it. Don’t feel judged and don’t judge yourself. What you are experiencing has been experienced by parents throughout the world and in many different times, cultures and places. It is a perfectly natural stage for parents to experience when they have accomplished a certain part of their job as parents. You will move on to the next phase and learn to rejoice again but don’t be ashamed if you’re not quite there yet. You have the right to take however long you feel you need, without being made to feel that you are ‘wallowing’ in your empty nest. Giving voice to your experience is different from ‘whining’ and you have a right to do that too. In fact, it will help you to come to terms with it and move on.

Empty nest families in India

empty nesting in India

Does empty nesting only apply in Western cultures?  This question is asked because in many other cultures it is common for adult children to continue living with parents and grandparents.  Some research being done in India is very interesting because it shows that parents are going through  similar empty nest challenges to their Western counterparts.

Study of empty nesters in Visakhapatnum, India

Researcher Kamala Varuda of Andhra University has been studying empty nest families in Visakhapatnam, India under the guidance of his professor. His research began in 2014 and is expected to be completed in 2017. By then 1,000 families will have been surveyed.  The 200 families already identified and interviewed come mostly from the middle and upper class and their ages range from 45 to 90.

Kamala has found that children tend to move to other Indian cities or go abroad to pursue higher education. They often settle in foreign countries after finding good jobs. The elderly parents are then left alone as they do not want to move. They visit their children once a year or so and the children usually return home for visits.

Negative aspects

The parents seem to go through the same type of challenges as parents in Western cultures. They also experience anxiety, depression and loneliness. Kamala found that mothers whose role had revolved around their children felt a vacuum when they left, just like their Western counterparts.  Age-related health problems added to their insecurities. He also found that some of the younger couples believed it was a temporary stage and that their children would return after a while and the family would all be together again.

Embracing technology

On the positive side, he found that 40-50% of the couples had learned how to use the latest technology for communication. They were comfortable using Skype, Facebook and Whatsapp.  They owned smartphones and laptops and with internet access they were able to stay in touch with their children on a regular basis. Social media also helped them to stay in touch with their friends.

Improved relationships

Another positive outcome was that the relationship between husband and wife improved as they had more time together.  They would watch movies, take up projects and go on trips. When researchers at Berkeley in America followed 72 Mills College graduates through their 40s, 50s and 60s, they too found that the empty nesters were happier in their relationships than those with children still at home.  The women voiced that it was the quality time they could spend with their spouses that strengthened their relationships – they experienced fewer interruptions and less stress.

Time for hobbies and new interests

Both the men and women in Visakhapatnam took up new hobbies. The retired men would spend time in kitchen gardens or other activities around the home while the women learned a new art like ikebana or became involved in charitable and social activities. Some of the couples remarked that their empty nest was peaceful – they were spared daily arguments with children.

Conclusion

It appears that empty nest syndrome is universal.  We are more alike than we realize, even if we are separated by oceans, cultures and religion. In the west, children who have left the nest are returning to live at home. ‘Boomerang’ children are a common phenomenon in an uncertain economy.  On the other hand, in a culture where children have traditionally remained at home, they are leaving for foreign countries where they have more opportunities. Parents are parents no matter where they live or who they are – they have to learn to let go and move on.

How to move forward after divorce

how to move forward after divorce

When you lose a loved one, you expect to experience grief and those around you expect it too and offer comfort.  However, many people do not realize that you also go through grief after a divorce.  Even if you are the one who wanted the divorce, this does not mean you do not grieve. You mourn the death of your marriage and the loss of the life you had imagined.

When you grieve, you allow yourself to feel the full weight of what’s happened but it also makes room for you to begin healing. It sets the stage for moving forward and embracing life once more.

Factors such as how happy you were in the marriage, whether your partner was unfaithful and your own personality play a part in how long you take to get through the grieving process and move forward after divorce. It always seems to take longer than you think it should but you cannot be impatient.

Divorce and the grieving process

In 1969 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the idea that there were five stages of  grief. She was a psychiatrist who studied terminally ill patients but the stages she introduced can be applied to any type of loss, including divorce.

1. Denial
This stage may exist long before your marriage is over. You may try to tough it out, believing that it will improve. You cling on to the hope that somehow you will get through the difficulties and your previous good relationship will be restored. It is perfectly normal to refuse to accept that your marriage is over. You do not want to face facts because you cannot face the pain that comes with them. You may have believed you would always be together and it was only death that would part you. It is hard to adjust to a different reality and accept what has taken place. Denial is a coping mechanism to help you from becoming completely overwhelmed but you need to move beyond it and face facts.

2. Anger
Anger is often a very strong emotion during and after divorce. The situation that led to the divorce affects your level of anger and how you express it.  If your ex had an affair, for example, you might feel intense anger towards him and the other woman. However, even if no other person was involved, you may be angry with your spouse for many other reasons –  financial problems, addiction problems or simply for not loving you anymore.

Your anger may even be directed towards yourself – you blame yourself for not doing enough to save your marriage or for not seeing the writing on the wall early enough. If there are children involved, you may feel intensely angry because of the way they are affected by the divorce.

3. Bargaining
“Make this not happen and in return I will …” is the basis of this phase. It is an attempt to put on the brakes and get your ‘life’ back no matter what you have to do.

4. Depression
Your head is full of confusing thoughts as you lie in bed trying to get to sleep and after a restless night you wake up feeling as tired as when you went to bed. All you want to do is to pull the sheets over your head and stay in bed so that you do not have to face your new reality.

You may be filled with a deep sadness too, thinking about the fact that your marriage vows obviously did not mean as much to your spouse as they did to you. You may be sad about the death of the love you used to have for one another. You may feel a terrible sadness about what the divorce has done to your children.

Your circumstances change when you go through a divorce and this can also add to your depression. You may have to move home, get a job or live alone for the first time. It is hard to adjust to being single again, especially if you have been married for many years. The routines you are familiar with are disrupted and have not yet been replaced by others.

5. Acceptance
Acceptance comes when you face the fact that your marriage is over and that there is no chance of reconciliation. When you are ready to let go of your hopes for a shared future, you are ready to move on.  You can face life squarely in the face again and start carving out your future without thinking about your past all the time. Even when you have reached this point, there will still be days when you feel angry, guilty and sad. However, as time goes by, these emotions have less power over you.

5 common myths about grief

Myth 1: Pain goes away if you bury it and pretend it does not exist. You need to put on a brave face and be strong.
Truth: Suppression of grief can be an obstacle to healing. If you want healing, you need to give yourself permission to grieve. In some cultures you are expected to keep your emotions to yourself, keep your chin up and carry on with your life as though nothing has happened. Grief is an experience that changes you irrevocably and allowing yourself to experience it instead of fighting against it, helps you to heal.

Myth 2: You feel the pain of grief for a certain period and then you ‘get over’ it.
Truth: There is no time frame for grief and no ‘quick fix’. The time it takes is different for each person and it will never go away completely. Instead, you become reconciled to your loss. The pangs of grief lessen and you are able to face your new reality and a different future to the one you expected or imagined.

Myth 3: There are stages to grief. You move through these stages until you finally reach acceptance.
Truth: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross never meant for the five stages to be applied in a linear way.  Grief is unpredictable and trying to fit it into neat boxes or stages is a mistake.  You may even experience anger and sadness one day and then feel depressed for the next while. It’s a bit like being on an emotional rollercoaster.

Myth 4: Everyone grieves in the same way.
Truth: Everyone experiences similar emotions but they do not necessarily show them in the same way. Our unique personalities and life experiences, the type of loss we have experienced and even our religious and cultural backgrounds all contribute to how we express grief.

Myth 5: Crying and other outward expressions of mourning show weakness.
Truth: Crying is a healthy response. If  you do not cry, it does not mean you are not grieving but you should not suppress your tears because you  regard them as a sign of weakness . Some people want to talk about their grief and others prefer to remain silent. However, your motivation for keeping silent should not be because you do not want to be thought of as weak and needy. Mourning or the outward expression of grief is often important on the road towards recovery. Acknowledge your pain and don’t hold back your tears.

 Acceptance

Allow yourself time to grieve and to process all your feelings of anger, hurt, betrayal, sadness and confusion.  If you don’t, you will have a hard time trying to move forward.  As you go through the grieving process, you reach a point where you find you are ready to embrace life again. You are ready to accept the fact that there is life after divorce and that there is another chapter to your life.  Reaching that point is an important step in the process of dealing with the past and paving the way for your future.

 

Love: letting go, fear and freedom

love

Many of us know the Khalil Gibran quote “If you love somebody, let them go ….”. We don’t usually think of applying it to letting go of our children as they begin to mature. It is perfectly natural for us to experience some fears and worries when the time comes for them to leave home. At the same time, we want them to become healthy, happy, independent adults. These conflicting emotions are unsettling.

Roots and Wings

According to folk wisdom the two lasting gifts parents give their children are roots and wings. This is just one of the metaphors parents use to describe what happens when their children leave home. Another one is that of a bow and arrow.  The child-rearing part is when parents draw the bow in preparation for launching those arrows one day. The purpose of the parenting is to guide them correctly so the launch is successful.

And then, of course, there are the kids who are like boomerangs. They may leave but they end up living back at home again.

Erma Bombeck says that children are like kits –

“You spend a lifetime trying to get them off the ground. You run with them until you’re both breathless. They crash. They hit the rooftop. You patch and comfort, adjust and teach. You watch them lifted by the wind and assure them that someday they’ll fly.

Finally, they are airborne. They need more string and you keep letting it out. But with each twist of the ball of  twine, there is a sadness that goes with joy. The kite becomes more distant, and you know it won’t be long before that beautiful creature will snap the lifeline that binds you two together and will soar as it is meant to soar, free and alone. Only then do you know that you did your job.”

I love this for the most part but I don’t like the idea that the lifeline is snapped. I personally don’t think that the bond ever breaks completely – it just changes in nature.  It is no longer an umbilical cord where your child receives food and sustenance from you. It becomes more of a bond of friendship and mutual respect.  The rocket metaphor also leaves me with the impression that my kids are going to go off on their own trajectory, never to make their way back again.  Of course,  boomerang kids are the opposite end of the scale. Adult children living at home with their parents is becoming more and more common in today’s tough economic climate and it certainly has its own set of challenges.

Shifting relationships

When our children are born, we are no longer a couple but a family. We do not simply become a couple once again once they have all left – it is far more complex than that. A shift occurs and the whole family has to start functioning differently.  Boundaries have to be renegotiated. For some parents, having more time for one another improves their relationship but for others it spells the end of the marriage. Now that women no longer have such a hands-on parenting role, they have time to pursue goals they may have put to one side while raising children.

The healthier our bonds are with our children as they grow towards complete independence, the less we need to fear that they will simply cut us out of their lives. Studies have shown that children grow most successfully towards independence in the context of strong bonds with their parents.

There is definitely a symbolic weight to children leaving home – for some parents, it’s the ultimate test of their parenting skills. Will that child be able to survive and thrive on its own? We have been emotionally invested in our children for so many years that it’s not easy to find the delicate balance required in relating to them as independent adults.

Conflicting Emotions

As parents we often experience a sense of profound loss when our children leave home.  We still have the urge to protect and guide them but we know that we have to start allowing them to make their own decisions, even if they are the wrong ones. As parents it is difficult to stop worrying about our children, however completely and well they may have independently embarked on their own lives.  We may worry that we are no longer always there to catch them when they fall. We worry that they are not emotionally mature enough to cope with what life throws at them. We also worry about concrete events and situations they may encounter.

As Linda says “I think it’s really hard when they leave, particularly if it has been a very rewarding experience, and it has been central in your life. I think it’s hard, but it’s good because it’s the first step of the rest of their lives. So you walk that delicate line.”

A delicate line

Some of us are happiest if our children live as close to us as possible while others want their children to live a bit further afield so they can be more independent. Few of us want our children to be so far away from us that we hardly ever see them. We want them to live close enough so that they can return home for family events or in event of an emergency.

On the other hand, we also feel an increased sense of freedom. We have time to focus on ourselves for a change. Sometimes, it can be difficult to make that transition from constantly thinking about others to focusing on ourselves. We may even feel a sense of guilt because we are so unused to the idea. However, once we are finally at peace with the idea, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

I have left my daughter’s bedroom untouched since she left home. She still comes home over weekends at this stage so it is for practical reasons rather than sentimental ones. Eventually it will probably be transformed into a craft room or a study. I am lucky that I can get used to her leaving in stages. Other children leave abruptly for distant shores and I am glad I am not standing in the shoes of those parents they leave behind. Perhaps my daughter or son will move much further away in the future but at least I am becoming accustomed their absence step by step.  My daughter’s room still has a powerful significance for me while she is doing this delicate dance – flitting between college, her boyfriend’s home and my home. Eventually she will alight somewhere and I will accept it, knowing that we are one forever, no matter where she chooses to live.

 

How an empty nest and divorce has changed my life

divorce after empty nestIf anyone had told me I would be facing an empty nest and divorce together one day, I would not have believed them. The idea of divorce was never on my radar – I may have made threats once or twice over the years but that’s all they were –  carelessly spoken threats that I never thought would become a reality. My mother and father were very happily married for over 50 years.  I now have the dubious distinction of being the first person to get divorced in the family. As my divorce came after 32 years of marriage and at the same time as my youngest child left the nest, I was forced to dig down really deep, have faith and use all my reserves to survive the transition. So much for slowly evolving into the empty nest phase – I was brutally thrust into it and it was a case of sink or swim.  (more…)

Do you have unhealthy mother-son relationships?

mother-son relationship

The relationship between a mother and son is a complex one. While a son is growing up and learning independence, a mother’s loving support and nurturing is essential.  However, there are circumstances in which the mother-son relationship becomes distorted and when this happens it can leave destruction in its path. An unhealthy mother-son relationship can cripple both parties and affect all their other relationships.

Mama’s Boy

When a son has always relied on his mother to make all his decisions for him, it is difficult for him to break out of this pattern. An adult son should not need his mother’s input before making decisions.  If his mother is still his number one priority, even when he has a partner, this is a sign that the relationship may not be healthy.  He may constantly feel guilty when he does not contact his mother and yet feel resentful because of her expectations. Resentment easily turns to guilt and the vicious cycle starts again.

Kate Stone Lombardi, author of The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes them Stronger, believes that a close bond between a mother and son is vitally important. She believes that society has certain misconceptions about mother-son relationships that go back to Freud’s Oedipus complex theory. The idea that sons have an unconscious desire to sleep with their mothers has had the effect of making a close bond between them seem somehow wrong. Her belief is that mothers help their sons to communicate better, and recognize and express their feelings. This equips them better for their future relationships.

There is a line, however, between being close and being too close. Some mothers and sons go over that line.

Overprotective mother

Why is it that mothers have such a hard time letting go of their sons? The bond is a strong one and when a boy is growing up, it is good for his mother to be there for him and provide a secure base from which he can explore and develop. A mother is fiercely protective of her children and so she should be. It’s when she becomes overprotective that it becomes unhealthy for the child.

In a book called ‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas, we meet Rosie, mother of five-year-old Hugo. Hugo is still being breastfed and when he’s not at his mother’s breast, he is misbehaving without being reprimanded. Rosie has taken her mothering to an extreme that is unhealthy for the child and for her.

A substitute for a spouse

In certain situations, a mother may substitute a relationship with her husband for one with her son. Perhaps her husband has left her or he may have passed away. He may be abusing her or not giving her the type of emotional support she needs. It’s not impossible under such circumstances for a mother to turn to her son.  Ashley McIlwain, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist says “Parents, your child is NOT a substitute for a spouse who’s not measuring up. While it’s wonderful for you to raise your child to be an amazing husband or wife, it shouldn’t be for you. They are not meant to be manipulated into your own personal feel-good piggy bank where you make withdrawals whenever you’re feeling poorly yourself.”
Ross Rosenberg, author of the book The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us, talks about enmeshed parent-child relationships. This is where parents and children rely on one another to fulfill emotional needs.  Ross says that they look to one another  “to make them feel good, whole or healthy, but they do it in a way that sacrifices psychological health … their self-concept is defined by the other person.” Their individuality is lost in the process of getting their needs met.

Silently SeducedSometimes this goes so far that it becomes a sexual relationship. Dr Adams, a clinical psychologist who has had over 25 years of practical experience in this area, has written a book called Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners  that offers tools for identifying and healing from covert incestuous relationships. He explains how ‘feeling close’ with a parent is not always the source of comfort the phrase suggests, especially when that child is cheated out of a childhood by being a parent’s surrogate partner. Some of the questions asked in a Q&A section in the book are:
• How can this be incestuous when there is no physical sexual contact?
• Why is sexual addiction so common with covert incest survivors?
• Why is it so hard for covert incest survivors to commit to romantic relationships?
• If my partner is a covert incest survivor, how can I help?

A challenge to a marriage

A son with an unhealthy attachment to his mother struggles to detach and set boundaries, even when he is married.  His mother can come between him and his wife who may feel that she constantly has to compete with her. In  ‘The Slap’  Hector, the main character,  is turning 40 and he still has difficulty standing up to his controlling mother. His wife, Aisha, has to bear the consequences.  His mother presents him with a birthday present of tickets to Greece for the whole family, including her and her husband. On the surface, this would appear to be a wonderful gift. However, it is actually an example of a mother’s interference. Aisha is not happy because she and Hector have planned to go away together to Bali for their anniversary and she has been looking forward to it. She insists that his mother knew exactly what she was doing in giving this gift. Making plans that include a son, without discussing it with him first, is a no-no. A son should never be put in a position where he has to choose between his wife and his mother.

For women who feel they are in an emotional tug-of-war for their husband’s heart, a book by Dr Kenneth Adams called When He’s Married to Mom is helpful. This book offers guidelines to help women create fulfilling relationships with mother-enmeshed men. He also offers tools to help these mother-enmeshed men as well as strategies to help parents avoid enmeshing their children.

Acknowledging the problem

Acknowledging the problem is often the first step towards healing.  Fortunately, it has become more acceptable today for men to acknowledge relationship issues and deal with them by talking to a therapist. If they are not ready to talk to a therapist, there are other ways to go about getting some help such as joining a forum or asking questions.  Eventually, this may pave the way to more formal therapy. A relationship consists of two people and it may be difficult to heal an unhealthy relationship if one or other is not prepared to work at it.

Establishing boundaries

Unhealthy relationships occur when boundaries are violated. If both parties are aware of the problem, they can begin addressing the problem and start setting some boundaries. Its easier to take small steps at first.

Perhaps a son has just gone off to college and his mother expects him to call him every day. Instead of reacting and telling her to back off, he could say “Mom, I know you love me and I also want to talk to you but I think we should talk twice a week. Then, I can really focus when you call and tell you about everything that happened in the week.”

If a son is always calling  his mother to help make decisions for him, perhaps she could say something like “I appreciate the fact that you respect my advice but I have every confidence in you. I know that you will make the right decision about …”

A final word

We all make mistakes when bringing up our children. When it comes to our sons, it appears that close is good but too close is bad. Many of us may find that we tend to be overprotective. But, If we love them enough, it’s never too late to make some on course corrections. As mothers, our sons should never be the source of our emotional fulfillment. But we should have a close enough bond to help  them develop the emotional intelligence they will need to establish their own meaningful relationships.

Think before you make that call

keep contact with adult childrenThese five tips can help you to keep the right kind of contact with adult children who have recently flown the nest. When your adult child leaves home, both you and your child go through a period of weaning.  All you want to do is to keep in close contact but you know your child needs to develop more independence. You may have to step back a bit until you find a balance of communication that is right for both of you. Communication today is so easy with all the tools available – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,  Skype, email etc. However, as Robin Raskin, author of A Parent’s Guide to College Life  says “The digital age is a double-edged sword for empty nesters – the good news is that staying in touch with far-flung kids has never been easier. The bad news is that it has never been easier, too.”

Think before you call

Adult children need to become independent to survive and thrive. If you bombard them with a blitz of messages, offering advice at every turn, it can be quite overwhelming. Your children will be looking to you for the answers instead of discovering answers for themselves. It may take a while before they find their feet and it can be difficult for you as a parent to see them floundering and trying to adjust. You need to re-examine your behavior if you are constantly reaching out to rescue them.  Don’t encourage them to text you with requests all the time. They have to learn how to deal with many issues without receiving your input on every step to take. (more…)

Parenting adult children, hatchlings and vulnerability

A rare green albino turtle was recently found on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. Volunteers thought the nest was empty but when they examined it, they were surprised to find a tiny white hatchling. Members of a local environmental volunteer group had already counted 122 broken eggs, so its siblings had already made it into the ocean. The volunteer group’s president, L. Warneminde, said. “It looked like a normal turtle hatchling, except that it had a white shell and it had little white flippers, and you could see a little bit of pink under its flippers. None of us had ever experienced or seen anything like that before, so we were all a little bit taken aback.” With its coloring, this little one is extremely vulnerable. It has a very slim chance of surviving the dangerous journey ahead of it across the Pacific ocean. In parenting adult children, we may often feel that they are just as vulnerable as this little hatchling and fear the obstacles they might have to encounter on their journey.

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Saying goodbye never gets easier

saying goodbyeAfter a weekend of sewing curtains, packing and washing clothing, my daughter finally left for university once again after a three month holiday. An entourage of three cars set off, loaded with her possessions.  I have repeated this process for the past three years while she studied for her degree but saying goodbye never gets easier.

When we arrived at her little bachelor flat, I hung her curtains and unpacked her kitchen utensils, leaving her to unpack her clothes. As I drove back home, I experienced mixed feelings – I was glad she was installed in her little space and a step further along the road to becoming a psychologist.  However, I couldn’t avoid the sadness that was there too as I took that lonely drive back home. (more…)

My precious daughter is home for a season

My empty nest has been full for the holidays. As I sit down to write this, my daughter will soon be returning to university to do her honours in Psychology. She completed her degree at the end of last year, moved out of her flat and came home for a while. My empty nest was transformed overnight from a silent, orderly space into a noisy, messy space full of laughter.  She will soon be packing her bags again and I will have to get used to her not being around all over again.  At this stage her whole life still stretches out ahead of her, full of promise and possibilities. However, for this temporary period, she is happy to be at home and to settle in to some of her old routines.

at summitShe has made herself quite comfortable – rather too comfortable as a matter of fact. As I look up from my desk I can see a sleeping bag laid out on my living floor. She went on a hike with friends and slept in a cave for the night. She says she lay awake for hours with bats flying overhead and water dripping down on her face. She is still trying to clean dirty sand off the borrowed sleeping bag. On my diningroom table I can see her jogging pants, a bottle of deodorant, and a pair of socks. (more…)

Parenting Style Quiz: parenting 20-something kids

Parenting style quiz

Parenting adult children is just as important as parenting little ones but it is very different. During the phase when they first move away from home, children begin to mature and start finding out how they want to live their own lives as adults.  Many of us make the mistake of failing to allow the relationship to mature as our children become adults.  If we continue to treat our children the way we have always done, serious conflicts may arise.  The way we speak to them, the way we love them, and even how much we give them may need some adjustment.  (more…)