Tuesday, December 04, 2007
One of the things that changes as you get older is your relationship with your parents. I saw it happen with my parents and their parents and now I’m filled with a sort of melancholy resignation that it is happening to me and my parents. And someday, it will happen, as it is bound, to you and me.
“Your parents get left behind,” my mother said one Christmas, when we were talking about family. I didn’t know then if she was talking about herself or her own mother. Now, years later, I know she meant both. She said it without sadness or bitterness. She can be very sensitive, your grandmother, but also very matter-of-fact.
When you are very young, your parents are everything. They are like God and can do no wrong. They are your leaders, your protectors, your caregivers, your fun providers, your sunrise and sunset and they give order to your world. There is no universe without them for they ARE your universe.
Then you become more independent, and eventually, a teenager, God’ cruelest creation and karmic revenge upon those parents who were themselves teenagers once. You question them, defy them, resent them, hate them even, doubt them, mock them. Every force in you bears the opposite of when you were a trusting child. You feel in your bones that only if they weren’t so stupid and naïve, if only you could free yourself from their maddening, relentless oppression, your life could be everything you imagined. You are not right, but you are not necessarily wrong, either.
But then, a funny thing happens as you approach the twilight of your fiery youth and slip gracelessly into early adulthood. Either you go to college, in which case you learn to think in a new way while prolonging your adolescence, or you grow up quick by getting a job and living in what we like to call “the real world.” You roll your eyes at this. You may begin yearning for your lost childhood adolescence which you never before, it is suddenly clear, appreciated.
And you begin, slowly, to understand your parents a little better. You start to appreciate everything they did for you. You may even begin to see the sacrifices they made - perhaps are still making - for you. You get this nagging feeling that you want to make them proud. You can’t possibly repay them with money or material goods, not yet anyway, so you try to reimburse them in spirit. With kindness, thoughtfulness, maturity. A good job, health insurance, or a spouse with a good job and health insurance. You might pick up the check when you all go out to dinner. You might put more care into selecting their birthday or Christmas gifts. Maybe you now call them regularly, not to ask for permission, money or advice but for no good reason at all.
And you realize, this is the time in your relationship with your parents when you are almost, but not quite, peers. They are your friends. You are a young adult and they are…we’ll call it, maturing adults. They are middle-aged. (My parents’ generation all had their children in their early twenties. At that age I was privileged enough to be traveling Europe, learning French and throwing up cheap red on the Metro but never mind.)
This period - the peer period - is a wonderful time. You feel comfortable and maybe even proud that they can hang out with your friends. You do stuff together – plays, dinners, trips, bike rides – and laugh at other people and gossip about other families.
And you help them, as best you can, which admittedly isn’t much, deal with their own aging parents. You’re still living in the imaginary world where this will never be them, this will never be you, this sad scene in a nursing home or hospital, that frustrating helplessness passing through everyone like a virus. Your grandparents are not your parents, after all, they’re…old. A different generation. You can not picture your parents ever being as doddering or vulnerable as their parents have somehow tragically become. You try not to think about it. You don’t.
Then as you slide toward middle age, grow in your career, maybe start producing a family of your own, your relationship with your parents shifts again. You’re suddenly aware of their politics, and it confuses or even frightens you. You seem to have less in common and you don’t always believe in their advice, though you still ask for it. You are able to see your parents, for better or worse, through the eyes of your spouse. Family holidays and vacations take on the strain of too many preferences. You don’t love them any less but you don’t understand them anymore. Maybe you don’t like to do the same things, and this at first makes you sad, then annoyed. Don’t be.
They might want to get home early and watch the news and not spend money in restaurants. You watch movies and television shows they can’t follow and your kids play with things they find absurd. You can’t bear their choice of music. You don’t understand the car they drive and they marvel in horror at how you grocery shop. Laugh, don’t dwell, on this.
And, a quiet realization is sneaking up on you, year after year. They are getting older. And so are you. You want them in your life but it is increasingly difficult to accommodate everyone’s preferred eating times. You struggle and worry and wonder whose needs to put first, because you have your own family now.
And your parents get left behind. But you know what? They don’t mind.
I understand now, and I won’t blame you for growing up, older and out. But for now we have lots of time. Remember, you don’t have to have it all, you just have to get some.