This conversation between good friends Carolyn, an empty-nest mother of three, and Anna, who has two sons in college and one still in high school, centers on the ways motherhood changes as our children grow up.
Anna: Carolyn, I am beginning to think that when it comes to being a mom, the more things change, the more they stay the same! What’s it like, being a mom to grown children?
Carolyn: My grown children are 33, 26, and 23. I will put my answer to your question this way: being a mom to grown children is NOT what I expected it to be. It continues to be important to me to know where they are, the degree of their physical, emotional, and spiritual health, and to hear their voices at least several times a week. I don’t, however, miss waiting up for them, managing their calendars, or paying all their expenses. Their level of happiness and contentment in life directly impacts my own, and likewise, whatever sorrows or burdens they are bearing, I feel the weight as much, if not more. I am still their mother, just without the authority once necessarily wielded.
Anna: When my kids were babies all I could think about was how they would someday sleep more so I could too! My next door neighbor, whose kids were ten years older than mine, kept telling me that being a parent did not get easier as your kids got older. I privately thought she was being kind of whiny… I am embarrassed to admit that now I know how right she was.
I have always hated the saying, “A mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child.” Each of my kids has been through some really hard things, and each one has more trials to face in the years ahead. It seems exhausting to think that I will always feel their trials as deeply- or even more deeply- than they do. Does that mean it’s not okay for me to be happy while my child is unhappy? Does that sound really selfish?
I get overwhelmed by this intense connection to my kids because I still feel a need to somehow “fix” them, and yet the older they get the more I realize I do not have the power to fix either them or their circumstances.
Carolyn: It can be exhausting to feel so deeply what your grown children feel. I think God wants us to be at peace even when one of our children is not, because it means we are steadfast in our faith in Him and not the circumstances of our children’s lives. When God tells Eve in Genesis 3:16 “In pain you shall bring forth children,” He meant more than the physical pain of childbirth. I saw my mother, in a haze of pain medication days before she died of cancer, pick up on the subtlest of hints that my sister was having marital trauma. Indeed my sister was, and we were trying very hard to spare Mama that burden. This powerful sort of connection has a lifetime warranty, I think.
Yes, Anna, you are spot on about our prideful need to fix our children and the circumstances of their lives! To even think we can! It’s so easy when they are little to maintain the illusion that we are in control, and completely impossible the older they get.
I will offer that my grown children don’t look to their dad and me as quickly for a solution. They seem to have gotten the memo that their parents are finite, fallible people who are as vulnerable to circumstances as they are.
Which leads me to a slightly different question. What do you do when one of your kids makes a really bad decision?
Anna: That can be really a hard call with older kids. It kind of depends on the decision. In some cases, what looks to me like a bad decision for my almost grown son might only look that way to me because I don’t have all the facts. For instance, I thought one of my kids should declare a double major because he had completed all the coursework for the second major, and I kind of bugged him about it. But when he explained his reasoning, I saw that was the right choice for him. I also think back to how my parents initially weren’t wild about a boy I dated, who later became my husband- and we all agree they were absolutely WRONG about him! So I think it is important to be humble when we judge the choices our adults kids are making. I also need to back up and let my kids counsel with their heavenly Father before me.
That being said, some decisions are unquestionably bad. Harmful, foolish, even stupid.
Carolyn: Watching your grown kids make bad decisions, and I’m not talking hairstyle choices, but ones with lasting negative consequences is hard. I have no means of preventing them (I can’t say I won’t pay for it), and I have no recourse when the bad decision has been made (I can’t punish them). In that sense a parent’s relationship with a grown child does morph into something of a co-equal basis. This is not a bad thing. Healthy adults need only one parent, and that is their heavenly one.
So, my friend, Anna, some things never change about being a parent, and in fact other things do change! We love them just as intensely, but we no longer serve as their protector, their disciplinarian, or their instructor.
Anna: Okay, so two questions, since you are a few years ahead of me: when do I let go of those roles (protector, disciplinarian, instructor) and what does my new role look like?
Carolyn: You’re asking me?? Seriously, my experience has been that you let go in stages, and if your desire is to have fully independent adult children, the stages will come naturally- for the most part. In some ways I followed my kids’ lead. For example, I am not allowed to comment on their diet of choice. This goes for my fast food aficionado and my seems-to-eat-only-green-things child. I’m down with that. I had about 18 years with each of them to control the meals, inform the nutrition, stock the refrigerator and panty, and insist on a daily vitamin. I have opinions about their eating habits, but I keep them politely to myself, or I try to, anyway.
In terms of being their disciplinarian, I find that I have moved from that role to one of gatekeeper. For instance, if one of my grown sons is living with his girlfriend, he knows when they visit our house, there will be separate bedrooms. Likewise, if someone chooses to smoke cigarettes, or vape, they know they cannot do that around me or in my house. And I do reserve the right to share my feelings about all such lifestyles with my children when I am worried or disturbed about them. I would do the same with a friend.
Frankly, a lot of this role shifting revolves around financial independence. I can’t enforce living standards on an apartment I don’t live in and don’t pay for. I can’t take away the phone and the computer that I did not pay for, even if I think there is way too much social media/internet stuff being consumed. While this is at times disorienting and bewildering, it also feels like a new freedom enjoyable for all of us.
Anna: I have been reading the excellent new book Identity Theft, and in her chapter Hannah Anderson makes the point that if a mother struggles when her kids become independent, she might want to ask God if she has identified too much with her children, if being their mother has become more important to her than being God’s chosen child.
I thought that was a profound observation. We will always be deeply attached to our children. This is God’s design, and in fact He uses parent love as a primary metaphor to convey the depth of His love for us. But we can never lose sight of the fact that our children are meant to be adults, independent of their parents and wholly dependent on the only perfect Parent any of us will ever know. To the extent that we can we encourage our emerging adult children to walk beside us as brothers and sister in Christ, we will begin to love and enjoy our kids in a whole new way.
What aspects of Carolyn and Anna’s conversation resonated with you? Is there anything here you’d like for one of us to examine more deeply? Leave your comments below!