By inclination, I can’t get excited by rituals of scheduled affection. Not that I do not value Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, but I prefer casual thoughtfulness to pious greetings induced by remembered dates. I cringe at the idea of seeing love crammed into those special days set aside by merchants of sentiment, but I am a sucker for little gestures of instinctive tenderness.
I understand the practical reason for setting aside days for remembering fathers and mothers. We love our parents, but the demands of our own evolving lives may often prevent us from showing this as often as we wish. Over time, we forget that we haven’t seen or called or written them in a while. Guilt suddenly seizes us but because of the additional weight of momentary shame, we may often hesitate to make up for our neglect. These designated days of remembering, no matter how contrived they have become, spare us the trouble of dealing with our awkwardness and ambivalence.
Merchants show us what to do, where to go, what to say, or what to give. They offer us safe even if sometimes mindless representations of our complex emotions. Though inadequate, these offerings help break the ice and restore communication, thus opening the possibility of a fresh start.
For the deepest pain of parents is not illness or death, but being ignored by their children. Parents who love and respect their children are usually too proud to say so. They know it and they feel it, but they will seldom demand attention from them. They will wait patiently for those special days when love is easy and pain is put on hold, and the shame of forgetful children is redeemed by the magic of parental acceptance.
As a sociologist, I thought I knew all this by heart. I grew up in a setting where the authority of parents unconditionally trumped the autonomy of children. Where elders took for granted their right to choose the spouses of their children and to decide their career paths. Where parents instinctively prolonged dependence by demanding that their married children live inside the family compound. Where disobedience is penalized by rejection and disinheritance. I was determined to raise my children differently as a modern parent, fully conscious and profoundly respectful of the need for them to grow gracefully into autonomous adults.
I have always believed that we are what we want to be, and that we are creations of the cultures by which we choose to live. Yet as a parent, I am now slowly learning that some of our own responses to life’s transitions may not be fully within our control. Not only do we carry within us the blind impresses of our own distinct cultural upbringing, but indeed, as biologists argue, there may be some aspects of human behavior that are not entirely malleable by culture.
My wife and I have four children: one son and three daughters. They have all finished school, have good jobs, and are all of marrying age. If they followed our example, they should all be married by now. But no one is, and all of them still live in our house. As a sensible modern parent, I should be anticipating a time when, one by one, they will leave the parental home and form their own families. I should be looking forward to the visits of delightful grandchildren, and having the entire house to ourselves. That time has come, I think, but to my distress, I find myself totally unprepared. I am stuck on parental mode, and it bothers me.
I find that children can grow too fast, or, to put it another way, parents can keep frozen images of their children in their minds. Your children quickly age in years, and before anyone has warned you, they have become adults. And yet you may persist in treating them as if they were still children. I have always enjoyed talking to my children about the big questions of life, about the future, and stuff like that. I am sure I have it all figured out intellectually. But I now realize that I have not talked enough to myself about what it means psychologically to let go of the children. I have let go of our eldest son who is abroad. But somehow it feels so wrenching with daughters.
I have sometimes complained to my wife about not seeing them at all some days. On weekdays, they leave early and come home late. On weekends, they sleep all day. The house is beginning to feel like a dormitory, I said. I am trying hard to update my mental files about them, and have to constantly remind myself that, far from the dependent kids who sought help for every little thing, they are now in fact self-reliant grown-ups who happen to live in the same house.
It’s funny that parents spend practically a lifetime teaching their children how to grow into fine adults, but no one teaches parents how to live on securely as parents when the children have become adults. The more children gain in confidence, the more they tend, as a matter of pride, to ignore their parents’ advice. In the process, they unwittingly create a distance from them that they try so desperately to bridge on Mother’s or Father’s Day.
I have come to the conclusion that children must learn to assume the role of mentor to their parents. As they increasingly get used to their own autonomy, they must be careful not to give the impression that they are alienating their affections as well. They must try to match their progress into self-reliance with symbolic affirmations of their parents’ continuing presence in their lives. They must teach their parents to feel secure in their love.
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