“Sometimes all we can do is leave the porch light on with a key under the mat.”
That is one of the most heart-rending pieces of advice I read in a recent Huffington Post article for parents who are unwillingly estranged from their adult children. The article includes advice from five experts on family relationships and all of them encourage parents to never stop reaching out to their child.
The article reminded me of my own experience with my parents as a young adult. Although we were never estranged there was a period when I pulled away because I felt the disapproval of my parents. My youthful experiments were beyond their comprehension. I don’t know whether they were more aghast when they learned I occasionally smoked marijuana or when my mother found my birth control pills in my purse. I was no young teenager–I was 22 at the time and had a steady boyfriend.
This caused a rift in our relationship. My mother couldn’t speak to me about the birth control pills and sent my father to Ottawa, where I was studying (they were in Montreal) to tell me that they were disappointed that I would have a sexual relationship before marriage. I had always been a compliant child, and seeing their little girl break away from that mold was hurtful to them.
I knew I wasn’t going to change my behaviour to suit them, but the mere expression of their disapproval, particularly my mother’s, was more than I could handle. As a result, I withdrew emotionally.
My mother and father were loving, concerned parents and I understand why they felt the need to express their disapproval of my actions. It was the early 1970’s, after all, and they became young adults in the 30’s and 40’s. But my experience with them changed our relationship and it was one of the reasons I remained emotionally distant from my mother. If I hadn’t had such a positive experience with my mother as a child, a period of estrangement might have occurred. Interestingly enough, I did not withdraw from my father even though he was the messenger of their disapproval.
My mistake in this interaction was coming to the conclusion that my parents did not love me unconditionally, particularly my mother. I confused unconditional love with unconditional approval. Of course my parents could not provide unconditional approval any more than I can provide that for my children. I only realize now that my parents have always provided me unconditional love just as I do and will for my children.
My mother’s mistake was not speaking to me about her concern and letting my father speak for her. I needed to hear that she loved me unconditionally despite her disapproval of my actions.
Sadly, our mistakes led to a life long emotional distancing between the two of us. While I had many friends who mothered me as an adult, I missed being mothered by my mother. And I worry about the same thing happening with my children.
What my experience tells me is that relationships are very fragile, even and maybe especially, with people you love the most, including adult children. We, as parents, whether we like it or not, are in the power position simply by virtue of being parents and have an immense capacity to hurt our children, just as they have power to hurt us. Our power has to be wielded extremely carefully.
That’s why the article in the Huffington Post is worth reading for all parents of adult children. It’s a reminder that all of us have to keep working at our relationships with them.
When things go wrong, we may think it is not our fault, but it is still up to us to keep reaching out, to apologize, to address the contentious issue and if all else fails, to leave the porch light on and the key under the mat.
What’s your experience with estrangement or possible estrangement? What do you do to maintain your relationships with your adult children? Please leave a response in the Reply Box below.