Not too long ago, when I was asked if I had any children, I answered, “Yes, I have two, a boy and a girl.”
But that’s not true now. I no longer have kids.
It’s been that way for some time now, considering both my son and my daughter are closing in on fifty. But it took a regretfully derisive laugh at someone else’s expense to bring that realization home.
I was attending a meeting with a colleague, a man in his eighties, when the conversation strayed to the troubles he was having with his son. I was taken aback because the problems he described – asking for money, anger issues, irresponsible behavior – suggested he was the father of an adolescent, which was surprising considering his advanced age.
“What does your son do,” I asked?
“He’s a psychiatrist,” was the answer.
I rolled my eyes in disbelief, “How old is he?”
“Sixty-one,” my companion replied.
I muffled my incredulous laugh, covering up my disdain for the absurdity of accomplished, grown men still squabbling like teenagers when they were decades past those tumultuous years of recrimination and reproach. And then it hit me: spot it, you got it!
My less-than-kind laugh at the absurdity of the situation abruptly became an honest look at my own co-dependent father-son and father-daughter relationships. My friend’s plight spurred me to take a long overdue, unflinching look at the difference between ‘encouraging’ and ‘enabling.’
It’s axiomatic that the parents’ role is to allow their children to be launched, to leave the proverbial nest to fly on their own. But like many parents who divorced when their kids were young, the guilty feelings about the resultant scars they would suffer – real and imagined – became pervasive for me. Subsequently, I lost my footing when dealing with their inappropriate, often inexcusable actions; instead of logical consequences to push them to look more closely at their behaviors and consider the results of their choices, I bailed them out, appeasing my guilt at “what I had done to them.”
It took a while to understand that I did not have to overlook their bad behavior to show my love for them, nor did I have to feel guilty about creating a life for myself. Rather, it was essential for my own well-being and theirs as well, to recognize our separate entities, even though we belonged to a unit called ‘family.’
In the shift from a parental to an adult relationship, boundaries are necessary. They signal that we are separate beings; they say, Son, Daughter, things have changed, you’re not children any longer; I will always be your father, but now you are your own person, as am I.
I felt so guilty about my divorce when the kids were barely starting school I confused being apart from them as abandonment rather than simply separation. For years afterward, my guilt led me to hang on to patterns and roles that were in play during their toddler years, even as they grew into adulthood.
I didn’t grasp the importance of setting boundaries around our relationship. I thought of a boundary as a wall or fence that separated me from them. I failed to set limits for fear I would lose their love if I dared discipline them after having hurt them so severely by divorcing their mother (my conclusion, and not necessarily the correct one).
Let’s cut to the present.
As simplistic as it sounds, I have learned that honesty is the only policy. I am direct about the parameters of our relationships. I make it clear where I stand. I define what I want and conversely, listen attentively to their requirements. I let my adult son and adult daughter know how much I am willing to give; how close or distant I want to be… am able to be as the occasion dictates. How they deal with that is their issue.
My relationships with my son and daughter have not grown or waned in tandem. I’ve come to accept their individual strengths and flaws, but what I give them both in common are well-defined boundaries.
Often I fall short of following through on my seemingly confident proclamations. But I have made progress. Now when asked, “, do you have any children” I answer, “Yes, two adults,” and think to myself parenthetically and proudly, Both independent and on their own journeys through life.