What a journey, watching with fascination as well as trepidation as our kids grow. And grow. And finally they become adults, sometimes having children of their own. But do our grown children ever stop to notice growth in their own parents? Or do their minds settle on an image of us that never truly changes? How can we get them to digest that we’ve evolved and even that we are getting older, often experiencing new perspectives as we age? After all, we take note of nearly every little change in them. Why is this not a two-way street at one point?
Recently I went through a rough time with my own grown daughter, where I felt it necessary to rake up stories of the past in order to get her to understand my perspective. I was shocked to hear her side of things and it took me a good, long while to recover — much longer than it used to when we had mother-daughter conflicts in the past. So I asked my BFF, who has three grown daughters, if her girls ever bother to try to understand just where she is in her life at any given moment.
Her response? “I asked them. And they all still think of me as a young mom,” she said with resignation and a small sigh.
Think about that. She is the same mother who kept them from attending an un-chaperoned party in high school or made them change their clothes into something tolerable before they left the house. She read stories to them long past their bedtimes simply because she enjoyed the bonding. She grounded them when they misbehaved at school or at home, evoking hateful looks and bratty behavior before it was all over. And she even may have endured all their bad choices in early love interests, trying not to judge, hoping against hope she had invested enough common sense into her child to see the forest for the trees.
In her children’s eyes, however, they changed but their mommy-image never did. Was it perhaps because it was easier to imagine the same constant presence they had come to know and love than to see the evolved woman they now interact with?
I suppose I was no different when I thought of my own 1950s-era mother as I reached my 30s and even my early 40s. I recall my image of her being static as well. She continued to dress the same way, wear her hair in the same style, and sound almost exactly the way she did when I left home at age 21. I barely noticed new wrinkles, refused to think her health issues were very serious, and imagined her doing all the same things at home that became her brand and signature to my father, my brothers and to me. In my mind, she was frozen in time. Mom never lived past the age of 69, however — only a few years senior to me right now, and it caused me to think. Hard. About who she had become later in life, instead of immersing myself in young-mommy images of her.
As I began this exercise in adjusting my thoughts about her, I came to realize that Mom, who exuded this near-perfect portrait of a devoted wife and mother, had never really received recognition for the things in which she took the most pride. Things like keeping the books for my father’s business, entirely self-taught. Maintaining a home and always having amazing food on the table even though she stopped being home full time in order to help my dad. These as well as newly-learned tasks and skills were taken for granted. Expected. Uncelebrated.
Time went on, and it began to wear on her. Because my old world style father never acknowledged her for accomplishments, Mom became rebellious in her own small way. And when her first and only grandchild was born, she adopted a degree of independence my dad never expected. She got a part time job. She opened her own checking account without his name on it. Part of her had decided she wanted her own funds to lavish on her only grandchild without having to confer with her husband about it. And another part of her decided it was prudent to squirrel money away — money she could be proud to offer when she and my father hit valleys in income as my dad became semi-retired.
When I think of her this way now I feel great pride. But was it really necessary to get to my age to do so?
I am not saying all this (my apologies for an unusually sentimental piece for Psychology Today) to infer our grown children should see us as martyrs or heroes as we get older. But I think as they grow into later adulthood, we often fail to remind them (if they haven't noticed) that we have indeed changed — as people and as parents. We grew and we learned, which is why we often make better grandparents than we were parents. Humankind never stops changing, so if grown children are not already doing so, perhaps it's time for them to take as much notice of us as we did of them during all those years it seemed their childhood and early adulthood flew by. Not nearly often enough, I think of the songs that remind us of taking stock of the passage of time like “In My Father’s Eyes” or “In the Living Years” and tears begin to well up in me as I think of how I may have paid more attention to my mom as time passed — in ways no one else in my family did.
I know what you’re thinking. If it doesn’t come naturally to our children to think about these things, talking to them about it might feel as if we are laying a guilt trip on them. Perhaps it is because of this recent episode with my grown daughter that I am overly sentimental about it. Eventually, she did begin to have a different perspective of me, but I had be very patient for it to happen and that was the hardest part of all. The fact that it did occur, however, caused me great joy.
It's the little stuff, you know?
Am I wrong and maybe some parents simply don't want their grown kids to think of them any differently than they did when they were younger? If they don't, however, will those adult children come to have regrets that they failed to pay attention to the progress their parents made as they matured? I think all of us, at any age, appreciate being recognized for our talents as well as our ability to grow, thrive, and change course.
I failed to find any source on the Internet that supported my theory here as well as my BFF’s observation on this topic. So I welcome your stories and thoughts on it. Perhaps you can all become that reference I was looking for.