Cusp

How it feels to be on the brink of a life passage, from youth to middle age to death.

Parenting a Twentysomething

After a lifetime of one kind of interaction, suddenly your child is a co-adult

I was desperate in my twenties for my parents to think of me as a co-adult, especially during one night that's seared in my memory. I was 22 years old, two and a half years out of college, and had just started working as a reporter for a small magazine called The New Physician for which I was traveling on my first-ever business trip. I’d found an innovative clinic in Greenwich Village called The Door that seemed like a good focus for a piece I was writing about adolescent health care. Dianne, my editor, agreed to pay my way from Chicago to New York.

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Greenwich Village was about a half-hour drive (twice that in traffic) from where my parents lived in Queens, in the house where I grew up. I wasn’t staying with them – did I mention that this was my first-ever business trip? – but I was willing to meet them for dinner. My interview at The Door wasn’t scheduled until 7:30 p.m.

For some reason, my parents chose to meet me at a restaurant on the Upper East Side, just about as far as you could get from the Village and still be in Manhattan. They had made a reservation for 6:00, which already struck me as a little too late – even back then I liked to be early for my appointments  – and what I most remember was time moving in slo-mo during the whole dinner. Standing in the doorway of the restaurant waiting to be seated, sitting at our table waiting to be served – it all seemed to be taking much too long, and the inevitability of being late ruined whatever pleasure I might have taken in the expensive meal.

I’m sure there was an explanation. My parents weren’t sophisticated restaurant people – “eating out” usually meant a Queens diner or Chinese restaurant – so they probably found this one on someone’s recommendation. They no doubt wanted to make the evening special; they might have been as tickled as I was to have me play the part of a grown-up working woman. And I suspect they wanted to make the evening last. There I was, married and living a thousand miles away, and this was the first chance they’d had in months to spend time with me. I think they missed me.

From my perspective, though, Mom and Dad were just trying to thwart me at every turn. It felt like they wanted me to fail at this. Like they wanted me to be late. Like they didn’t understand what it meant to be a journalist, didn’t value the work I did. All I kept feeling, as they insisted on ordering dessert and then insisted on driving me all the way downtown instead of letting me just take the damn subway, was that they were somehow trying to keep me from being a success in my chosen profession. I was itching for a new kind of relationship with my parents, a more equal one befitting co-adults, and here I was stuck in rush hour traffic in the back seat of my daddy’s Ford.

And yes, I was late. Which didn’t turn out to be a catastrophe after all, since everything about The Door was so laid-back that 15 minutes here or there didn’t really matter to them. But it mattered to me.

I have more compassion for my parents' quandary now that I'm also a parent of young-adult daughters trying to set new ground rules for how we treat each other. I know now that once a son or daughter grows up and moves away, any subsequent interaction with parents is pretty much voluntary. If you're unlucky, the relationship is loaded with guilt, obligation, or resentment; if you're lucky, it's something of deep, abiding sustenance. Either way, it's a relationship between co-adults, and requires deliberate care and feeding if it's to survive.

“As adults, [twentysomethings] have the power to distance themselves from their parents, and they use that power when they need to,” wrote Jane Isay in Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents. “They can no longer be forced to accede to parental authority, and they have the right, and in some sense the responsibility, to make their own decisions, even if they make mistakes in the process.” The trick for parents is to sit back and let their adult children make those decisions and those mistakes. And you don't even have to be an overprotective parent to find that a little bit hard.

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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