Here is my recent piece on HuffPost. Most families have some link to the military. Here are some thoughts about stepfamilies as we near Memorial Day.
After the legal ink has dried, many separatedparents find useful ways to talk with each other and ways to talk about their kids. We may get to an easy rhythm about talk as we get them through high school, and maybe college. But, at some point they go off into their own lives (maybe a bit later now, given the economy). They become FORMER CHILDREN and we become FORMER PARENTS. As former parents and, as separated parents, we have less contact with each other too.
When we talk with our grownup kids we can’t rely on the habits of the talk between parent and younger child, which often has the “perfume of power” around it. If I can’t be the wise, comforting Mommy, who can open a wallet, who am I? I struggled with this for a long time. I felt that I was leaving my daughter, my son in some fundamental way if I considered myself a former parent or them as former children. I wanted to be close and connected. The “perfume of power” didn’t cut it anymore. We needed to talk as “mostly peers” now.
As my kids went into marriage and their own lives as parents, I fumbled along and gradually learned to have those adult conversations. Now I see that I’ll always be their mother, older, occasionally wiser and ready to be available in that supportive, soothing way they sometimes need. And that I have to keep learning about how to talk with them so they will listen – and how to listen so they will talk.
In the years of learning how to do the adult talk I’ve missed the contact with their father about how they were doing and their joys and sorrows. We had contact but not the same kind as parents of young kids. His wife is very involved with the kids’ family life and growing numbers of children. We are grandparents together. But we three didn’t talk together about the families.
And then, this summer, after the kids and grandkids rolled through our lives for the usual vacation stays we just happened to have a lovely phone call. It was less about the details of our children’s families and more about this question of how to talk to adult children.
Fortunately we discovered there are three wonderful books to guide us. Ruth Nemzoff has written Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with Your Adult Children (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). Nemzoff, a leading expert in family dynamics, helps parents understand how to create close relationships with their adult children, while respecting their independence. Based on personal stories, this very readable book shows parents how to 1) communicate at long distances, 2) discuss financial issues without using money as a form of control, 3) speak up when disapproving of an adult child’s partner or childrearing practices , 4) handle adult children’s career choices or other midlife changes and 5) navigate an adult child’s interreligious, interracial or same sex relationships.
The other two books are by DeborahTannen, bestselling author of You Just Don’t Understand : Women and Men in Conversation (HarperCollins 1990). She’s now written two wonderful books about other kinds of adult conversation. The full titles tell of the delightful and important messages.
You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Ballantine Books, 2006) and I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You’re All Adult (Ballantine Books, 2001).
Having adult kids keeps you on your toes. My friends as I often wonder whether our own parents – of the 1950s variety – spent so much time trying to learn new ways of relating to us.
Since the book – Wisdom For Separated Parents – has been published I’ve had some coverage by local Boston TV and radio and have contributed to The Huffington Post.
When talking about separated parents, one always bumps up
against the limits of the traditional language that the culture and
media have used. Our family forms outpace our language.
Families don’t break, they change.
Many of the parenting books I’ve read over the years have bemoaned the language of “ex” and “broken” but have not proposed a different language.
I am proposing new terms: “untangling” and “rearranging.”
These words describe what actually happens as parents move through separations and divorces and on to the next parts of their lives.
Adult children, the extended family and friends will be relieved to let go of the language of conflict. The new language more accurately reflects the kinds of families we all know.
“I did want him to fall off the edge of the earth at one point. It was going to be much easier if he just disappeared. But now, I can’t imagine not having contact with him. Every time there is a passage and these kids seem to have made it to the other side, we can connect. There’s really great tenderness around our parenting. And on Father’s Day, there’s nobody else I could have imagined raising my sons with. He’s a remarkable father.” (married 1979, separated 1987, divorced 1987, interviewed 2006)
The conventional wisdom fixes family change at the moment of public separation. But the people I interviewed for my book, Wisdom for Separated Parents, did not focus on the moment of separation or the day in divorce court. They wanted me to understand the smaller separations that led to their formal separation and divorce. Marriages usually don’t end in a big moment.
Divorce is not only a single legal event. It is a chain of relocations and shifting relationships. Rearranging is a more accurate word.
All families rearrange in large and small ways to accommodate growth and change. Throughout history, fathers went to war and died. Mothers died in childbirth. Families rearrange as they include in-laws, grandchildren, and aging relatives. It is no different for parents who have separated. They simply rearrange at two different addresses.
These words give a definition to the web of these continued connections and keeps children at the center of the connection, not as the remnants of something “broken.” As parents continue to care for their children they will be able to talk and think about success as parents rather than failure of marriage. “Untangling” and “rearranging” are words that support transition, not division.