Getting along with your parents as an adult, part 3: The adult child’s responsibility

Some notes about Num-Num and my mom’s posts: Let’s remember that they’re posting these things now, in hindsight. So they’re summaries of all the things they tried to do over the years, not a daily To Do list.

(3 am: Be thrilled to see preschooler when she screams “Mama! I had a nightmare! Can I come sleep with you?”
6:30 am: Wake up and tell husband joke, just to show you haven’t lost yourself and the sense of humor that attracted him.
9 am: Laugh. Then laugh some more.
9:10 am: Share faith and values. Use finger puppets.
10 am: When you accidentally break off side mirror on car while handing sippy cup to kid strapped into back seat while backing up because you’re late to doctor’s appointment, be sure to say “Well, that was a good experiment, wasn’t it?” instead of “Fucking fuck!”
1 pm: Perfect brownie recipe.)

I read somewhere that with parenting, 70% is perfect. Hitting your ideals and goals 70% of the time means you’re doing everything right. That’s something to think about as you step on a Matchbox car or Polly Pocket in your bare feet.

Oh, and that Brenda lady who wrote about entertaining your kids can bite me. Hard. Twice. I can’t imagine my mom “entertaining” me. What she did was do a lot of writing with her manual typewriter on the end of the dining table. And when I came to talk to her she’d get me to dictate and then she’d type up my poem or whatever I’d told her. (She wanted me to understand that my words were worth writing down.) Num-Num told me that she wasn’t a down-on-the-floor-playing kind of mom, but fortunately she was raising her son in the city, so they’d go out and walk, and she’d go as slow as her son wanted to go, and she’d answer all his questions to the best of her ability.

There are all sorts of ways to let your child know that s/he matters. Most of them don’t require being perfect, or even all that competent.

But on to the promised topic for today: Your responsibilities as an adult child.

I think there are two things that adult children have a responsibility to do to/for/with our parents:

1. Try to understand as much as possible what’s motivating them, and
2. Figure out where our boundaries are and enforce them.

Trying to figure out why they’re acting like they do

Figuring out what’s motivating a parent can benefit both of you if the relationship is basically healthy. If the relationship isn’t essentially sound, figuring out what’s motivating your parent will help you far more than it’ll help the parent.

It’s important to note that understanding why your parent acts the way s/he does toward you (and your kids and everyone else) doesn’t mean that you either blame them or absolve them of responsibility. It just means that you allow yourself to see your parent, the behavior, and your interactions as part of a system instead of just as random events. It’s unbelievably freeing to realize that it’s not just something about you that makes your parent act that way.

I think some a good examples of this from the comments is hush’s comment on Num-Num’s post about her aunt faking illness to get away from hush’s mom and how that made hush realize that it wasn’t her fault but was something her mom was dealing with instead. And that she couldn’t change it. Knowing is at least half the battle.

It’s also possible that when you figure out the motivation behind the behavior you can figure out how to switch things up so the issue disappears. I think that tons of the critical words parents level on their adult children about parenting decisions are because the parents feel indicted by the different decisions their children make. I mean, think about it–when our parents were raising us they were told to take speed during pregnancy so they didn’t gain too much weight, to start rice cereal at 2 or 3 weeks, and that crying was important because it “exercised our lungs.” If now they’re being told that the things they did with us were bad, then a certain number of them are going to end up feeling guilty or bad about that, and like we’re judging them. Even the idea that now we put babies to sleep on their backs can seem like we’re judging our parents! If your mom is already having a hard time figuring out how she feels about being a grandmother (because being a grandmother means she’s old, right?), and is conflicted about your taking the ultimate step toward independence and also replacing her, then how crappy is she going to feel that apparently now everything she did with you was wrong?

Obviously that doesn’t give her license to be a jerk to you.  But it’s possible that you could increase connection between the two of you by treating her as just another mom who was doing the best for her kid with what she knew at the time, and specifically asking her what they were told to do back then. Then discuss how experts have changed over the years. Keeping it on the level of “of course we all do what the latest research tells us to do because we want to do the right thing” makes it less personal and more about how science and research have advanced over the years. It wouldn’t hurt to bring up the idea that when your baby is grown they’ll probably do things differently than you’re doing them now, too.

Or you might realize that knowing why it’s happening makes it not bother you so much. In the case of a parent who is having problems with the idea of being a grandparent because it means getting old, just knowing that might be enough to make it not bother you so much. After all, it’s hard to be shoved into a new role, but most people grow into it eventually. If it’s bugging you but not really hurting your feelings irreparably, maybe knowing it’ll pass eventually is enough.

The kicker here, of course, is that all this figuring out, making connection, and cutting slack is easier for the people who already have good relationships with their parents. So for pete’s sake, don’t feel guilty if you can’t even conceive of what it would be like for your mom’s problem with becoming a grandmother not to bother you. If your parents didn’t lay the groundwork for an open, healthily-connected relationship with you, then there’s not much you can do about it, except for…

Setting boundaries

Holly commented yesterday:

“I find the recurring theme of “boundaries” interesting from bothyesterday’s and today’s post. Probably someone who is able to “give up
her own self” for her children (or spouse), will later not respect the
“self of the adult child.” If you don’t have boundaries for yourself,
how will you help create and allow boundaries for your child?”

So by choosing and setting boundaries not only are you giving your parent a shot at at least one normal healthy relationship, you’re also helping reestablish a baseline for yourself. Which, in turn, is going to help you be a better parent and help your children as well. Because when your kids are adults, none of you will be in distress about the boundaries, because you did all the heavy lifting right now.

Again, this is going to be easier if you already have a good relationship with your parent. (Which means your parent understood or worked on developing healthy boundaries, and was able to communicate that to you in at least some part.)

For those of you that are basically working alone and starting from scratch, here are some questions I’d start asking myself to help sort out where to start:

  • What can I reasonably get from my parent?
  • Is that enough?
  • If not, is there someplace else I can get that so I’m able to let go of the need to get it from my parent?
  • What am I willing to give up to get something from my parent?
  • If I take steps to setting some boundaries, do I have a way to check myself so I don’t get guilted or manipulated into abandoning those boundaries just to keep peace or win approval?
  • Am I prepared for short-term anger and hostility when I start to draw some boundaries?
  • Is there anyone else who knows my parent who can help me troubleshoot and back me up in my plan?

It sounds kind of stark and non-organic to have to look at it as a transaction. But as Kenny Rogers says, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”*

I’m imagining it wouldn’t hurt, if your relationship with your parent is seriously labyrinthine, to read some stuff about negotiating, like Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. (OK, this is hilarious: When I went to get the Amazon link I searched “getting to yes” and the book right under the GTY book is entitled Are Your Parents Driving You Crazy? So you’re not alone, apparently.)

This may mean limiting the amount of time you spend with your parents, or limiting the location. A friend recently hit upon the brilliant idea of doing a Family Vacation with her in-laws every year to someplace like Disneyworld because then the jockeying for superiority over who was hosting is lessened. Her in-laws are still horrible, but not having them in her house or being held hostage in theirs is enough to make visits bearable. And her kids get to spend time with their grandparents while making happy memories. (We’ll talk about protecting your kids from your parents’ bad behavior tomorrow.)

Since you’ve already figured out why your parents act the way they do, you’re released from the idea that you “should” do one thing or the other. It’s all part of a system, right? Not you being a Good Daughter. So you can make decisions about what you can accept based on reality instead of living up to an unattainable ideal.

Of course it may also mean that you give up on what was your dream for a close relationship, and maintain perfunctory contact, but get your emotional needs met someplace else. You are a worthwhile person and your kids are amazing–there are plenty of people who would be thrilled to become your extended family. Sometimes the idea of walking away to save yourself is worse than actually doing it.

Holy crap, that was long. But this is important. Comments?

* If you end up with that song in your head for the rest of the day, I apologize sincerely. If it makes you feel any better I probably can’t shake it either.

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