Category Archives: Family

‘Emerging’ into a new stage of parenthood

“All I can do is feed him and listen.”

I have repeated that sentence like a commandment, a mantra — a helpless prayer — since my younger son moved back home in February. Only 22, he had his heart broken when his longtime girlfriend left him, their apartment and the shared life they had built. They had been together since they were 15 years old.

This past Monday, they would have left for a four-week excursion through Europe, where he had planned to propose. “You will look back on this as one of your life’s most significant losses,” I have told him, acknowledging both the worth of his former girlfriend (whom Nate’s dad and I loved, too) and the depth of his pain.Millennial T-shirt

Since Nate moved home, he has graduated from college with honors, increased the hours at his part-time job and gradually built a new circle of friends. He and I have taken long walks and had soul-searching talks. I iron his shirts. He helps pay a few bills.

Repeatedly I have asked myself whether I am helping or enabling him. Truth is, I don’t know. My late mother had Dr. Spock (“and Dr. Penn,” she would say, referring to the general practitioner who delivered her five babies). But I have no guidebook for how to parent a young adult, and neither do my contemporaries.

Consider:

  • A majority of young adults live independently in only six of this country’s 50 states, according to 2015 U.S. Census data. Minnesota is not among them. That compares with 35 states a decade earlier.
  • Social scientists have coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe this uncertain, often scary period between adolescence and functioning without parental support.
  • Conversations with my female friends increasingly involve whispered worries about our young adult children. The son, 27, who lives at home because half of his income goes to child support; the accomplished daughter whose tumultuous relationship could affect her career; the promising college graduate who may be with the wrong woman, though his mother feels powerless to help him see it.

“I thought I was done, and technically I am done, but you have these concerns,” says the mother of the young man whose sons she is helping raise. Her son left home after high school and did not return until he had a college degree. “I really didn’t think about him on a daily basis,” she says. “Now it’s lying awake till he comes home at night. It means letting go and trusting that he’ll find his way, and that’s hard.”

Navigating a new terrain

Helicopter parents? I find that label too dismissive. Instead, Nate and his dad and I are three adults renegotiating the rules in a household that had been an empty nest.

My husband claims I have reverted to “Mom mode” since our son moved home four months ago. I see myself as trying to guide him through the grief and toward a productive life that will help him feel useful and happy.

“Both adult sons and adult daughters reported more tension with their mothers than with their fathers, particularly about personality differences and unsolicited advice,” reads a report about a study of parent and adult child relationships by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. “It may be that children feel their mothers make more demands for closeness or that they are generally more intrusive than fathers.”

Since Commencement weekend in May — when my son flew to Portland, Oregon, with his brother rather than face his former partner at their college graduation — I have been thinking not only about what I owe him. I have been pondering what he is teaching me.

Three conclusions, so far:

  1. Worry does not serve him. Tempting though it is to twist and spin about Nate’s future, it is his problem, his journey — his opportunity. “Worry is a lack of faith in the other and cannot exist simultaneously with love,” writes Duluth-based yogi and author Deborah Adele in her book The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Principles. “We need to trust suffering and trust challenge and trust mistakes; they are what refine us when we don’t run from them.”
  2. Learning crosses generational borders. Just as Baby Boomers can choose to learn from Gen Xers and Millennials in the workplace, I am intentionally seeking my son’s perspective. Yes, I raised him, shaped his values and oversaw his education, but it is arrogant to assume that I still have a “one up” role. He has nudged me to examine how much I invest my identity in work and helped me see that mothers have no monopoly on wisdom.
  3. Risk is its own reward. The notion that a person has to marry, choose a career or have children by a certain age can become its own self-constructed prison. I wish I had taken more risks as a young adult, so why am I uncomfortable with my son doing so? Having him home again has taught me to hold my tongue, withhold judgment and resist my tendency to manage or fix.

As I approach the final third of my life, I want nothing less for my son than I seek for myself: courage, accountability and resilience.

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‘Motherhood: All love begins and ends there’

I just saw a friend at the dog park whose mother died about two weeks ago. I had seen the news on Facebook. Instinctively I greeted her with a warm, wordless hug, the one that says, “I’ve been there. I understand.” The greeting that has become all too common among women in later middle age.

Like my mother — who died on September 24, 2015 — this woman’s mom had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. We commiserated over the reality that our mothers had not been themselves for years. “I have to go back to 2011 or even 2010 to remember when Mom was really Mom,” I told her.

And for a moment it was back, the wistful sadness I have held at bay for 13 months. As I looked at Jill’s tight smile and moist eyes, as I listened to her describe crawling into bed with her dying mother — allowing her mother one last chance to be a mom — I felt my stomach drop and my throat catch. I wanted to see my mother one last time.

Is this grief? I can’t tell you. I don’t know how to grieve. All I have done since she died is to keep busy, keep moving forward.

“Grief can be exhausting or a relief,” says a handout from the hospice whose nurses cared for my mother in her final days. A bereavement coordinator sent a large refrigerator magnet that I stuck in a pile of papers. It reminds me, now 13 months later, to:

  • Take some walks: Check. I walk to work.
  • Stick to a routine: Check. I’m a creature of habit.
  • Create soothing bedtime rituals: Check. I go to sleep at night listening to music or a podcast.
  • Do some activities you enjoy: Check. I’ve been practicing yoga more often since Mom died, and my husband and I rescued a wildly affectionate puppy at the Animal Humane Society 10 days after her funeral.
  • Expect a wide range of emotions. OK, but what if I can’t find them?

I have dreamed once about my mother in the year-plus since she died; she was old and gaunt, and she had cancer. Maybe my guilt was speaking to me. I was relieved — and shocked, and sad, and scared — when she was diagnosed with blood cancer a mere four weeks before she died. For her, it was a release from the indignity of her decline. For me, it was the end of having to watch it.

My younger son, Nate, recently asked for the code to my iPhone. I told him it was the date of Mom’s death. He paused and turned to look at me. Nate is a truth teller, and I cherish our feisty and fearless conversations. “Do you think you would cope with this better if the code was her birthday instead?” he asked.

Good question, though I never did respond. First, I have to think about what mourning means.

mom-scattering

One year after our mother died on a windy autumn night, my brother posted a photo on Facebook of himself and Mom. They look young, happy and vigorously alive. “We need happy memories today,” I responded. But in truth, I cannot access them.

My memories of Mom are either grim or morbidly amusing, like this anecdote I jotted down in August 2012, six months after we learned she had Alzheimer’s: My brother consulted a colleague whose mother-in-law has advanced Alzheimer’s. The woman told my brother that obsessions are common at this early stage. We should be grateful that our mother is obsessing about her checkbook, she said — even though it drives us crazy. Her relative became obsessed with constipation, and talked people into giving her laxatives and prunes daily. “I laughed, too,” my brother said as I tried to choke back my guffaws. “But my colleague’s father-in-law had to clean up the bathroom every day.”

My friend Janey, who was like a daughter to my mom, recounted the details of caring for a frail, 91-year-old parent only weeks before her own mother died. I was reminded of the daily schedule, the frequent phone calls, the sense of helplessness, the constant worry.

Now, all I have left of my mother is photos and the purposeful distribution of her possessions. “It’s so unreal,” I wrote a former colleague whose mother died recently. “The person who has loved you unconditionally, who’s known you literally all your life, who was your greatest cheerleader and supporter — suddenly she’s gone!”

I sift through notes, the abstract musings that I can’t seem to stitch into a cohesive whole. None of them are dated, which accurately reflects the confusion and unreality of the three and a half years when Mom gradually slipped away and then suddenly, traumatically left us, gasping for air, bone thin and incoherent in a morphine haze.

Here is where I can start to pinpoint my version of the stages of grief:

  • Reflection: “As my mother goes blank behind the eyes — as the light of her intellect dims — I am thinking about my role as a caregiver and about how it didn’t end when my children were grown. I never dreamed that I would have to care for her.”
  • Resentment: “My aunt died in her sleep in June, with no apparent warning. Hard as I know that was for my three cousins, I envy the simplicity, the lack of ambiguity. When will this be over?”
  • Resignation: “In all the years of dealing with my mother’s weaknesses and neediness, I’ve never thought about how much I needed her.”
  • Regret: “I’d like to do it all over again, without the whirlwind and the fear. I’d like to be more present for her dying.”

I didn’t want to lose my mother, but it was time for her to die. I still wrestle with that potent mixture of regret and sheer relief.

“It’s a complicated grief,” says the minister who performed Mom’s funeral service last October, “because dementia is an incremental death. She was both here and gone. You experienced her physical presence but her psychological absence. There’s no possibility of closure or resolution.”

My companion and my confidante, my caregiver and then my charge, my mother was present for every significant moment in my life. I have to live with the reality that I was often at my worst with her.

Maybe, in the end, that is where grief leads us, toward perspective and acceptance, seeing our loved ones and ourselves as perfectly human, imperfect people. “Yes, Mother,” wrote Alice Walker. “I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.”

Flipping the bird at Thanksgiving

It’s not that I’m an ingrate or fail to recognize the many unearned blessings in my life.

I simply want no part of Thanksgiving.

I don’t need the 4,500 calories that the Average American consumes in the carbohydrate- and gravy-laden meal served on the fourth Thursday of each November.

I don’t want to expend the time or money shopping for food, and I’m even less interested in spending days preparing it.

Instead, after having to cancel a visit to see my sister in Colorado because of work, I am spending Thanksgiving the way I wish I spent more weekends — with no plans at all.Flipped Bird

Turkey rebellion

Here are five reasons why sitting out this most overrated of holidays feels like the right thing to do this year.

No. 1: The food is predictable. Dry turkey, drier stuffing. The only color on the traditional Thanksgiving table comes from whatever centerpiece the hostess has assembled. Everything else is shades of brown and tan, like those suburban subdivisions I used to pass on my commute to work.

And what guru decreed that the traditions can never change? Put fresh green beans instead of canned in the infamous Midwestern casserole? Heresy. Bake the sweet potatoes with soy milk and ginger instead of butter and brown sugar? I made that mistake only once with my German-Catholic in-laws.

No. 2: I hate football. It’s boring. It’s slow. Its players have inflated pocketbooks and egos. I’ve wasted way too many Thanksgiving “holidays” pretending to be interested because the noise of the television drowned out any conversation in the room.

If women spent Thanksgiving watching Norma Rae, Tootsie or name-your-favorite-Meryl-Streep-movie at full volume while men overworked themselves in overheated kitchens, Thanksgiving would have been cancelled years ago.

No. 3: Thanksgiving is a sexist holiday. (See above.) Dad’s job — the role of any father from a bygone era — was to sharpen the knife, carve the bird and later ask from the easy chair when pie would be served. Mom’s job was everything else.

Even in my own nuclear family, with sons raised to be progressive, the men turn to me (the one who works full time and is in graduate school) with the wide-eyed question: “So, what are we doing this year?”

No. 4: I feel too somber to host or attend a meal. My mother died in September, and I think the best way to honor the woman who introduced me to feminism and the necessity of breaking social codes is to avoid repeating the obligation she dreaded every year.

In fact, Thanksgiving hasn’t been the same since my husband’s sister and children’s godmother, Peggy Studer, died in January 2011. Peggy was the family’s center. She held us together. Sure, she cooked too many potatoes and preferred pumpkin pie to pecan, but her humor and bold bitching about the timeless traditions never failed to make them fun.

No. 5: I don’t need Thanksgiving to remind me to be grateful. A Buddhist friend introduced me to the practice of gratitude in 2010. We spent a year exchanging a gratitude list by e-mail every night.

On the inevitably difficult days — those low times that later help us recognize real joy — I can always lift my spirits by reciting or writing down a list of why I’m thankful.

For my health, my home, my husband and grown sons, my job, my friends and family, my silly dogs, my sense of purpose: I am truly grateful. And that’s enough for me to celebrate Thanksgiving this year.