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.