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Midlife Parenting: Hold on Loosely and Take a Deep Breath

All is not lattes and leisure in the "empty nest"

Changing appearance is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to aging. So much more happens on the inside in body, mind, and spirit. And what happens outside ourselves also keeps us on our toes, because others around us are getting older, too—most notably, if we have them, our children. Parenting teens and young adults in mid-life can be so rewarding, but oh, so challenging. At best, parenthood at this stage comes with a dose of wistfulness as we have to gradually disengage from one of the great loves of our lives. At worst, it brings outright heartbreak from conflicts, hurt feelings, or fears for your child’s well-being.

Last week was our daughter’s 19th birthday, a happy time to celebrate how lucky we are to have her and that she is healthy and strong and whole. She and her older brother keep us laughing and in touch with popular culture, whether they are here with us at home or communicating via text, email, g-chat, or cell phone. In her last teen year, our daughter still seems like our little girl, yet she’s a young woman who has completed a year away from home at college and carries on her own social and academic life with panache. But just as toddlers come back to check in with mom on the park bench, our young adults like to know there is someone steady to call upon and return to in between explorations in the larger world. Sometimes in mid-life we don't feel so steady, but we try to give our kids that secure touchpoint if we can!

By the time we reach mid-life our children are mostly independent, fully-formed, beings. If all is well, we are not as tied down, physically, by their needs. However, we find that our older children continue to take our emotional energy, our time and, of course, our money! Social scientists have noted how prolonged the young adult stage has become…the 20’s, in some ways, are the new teens, as young adults postpone marriage and childbearing, education takes many additional years, and good jobs are harder to find. And our young adults face many stressors with less life experience than we have, from serious competition in school and on the job market, to relationships that fizzle or disappoint, and the health and mental health troubles that affect so many. We parents are still on duty…or at least, on call. No, life is not all lattes and leisure in the empty nest!

So some twenty-somethings don’t leave home, or move back. And others leave and don’t come back, except for visits. Maybe they tell us everything, or maybe they just call when things are very good or very bad. The worry about a young adult can be excruciating (especially, sometimes, from a distance). A very real instance in my life came when our son was a freshman in college. One night when my husband and I were already in bed, he called from his dorm, sick with stomach flu. He was alone, miserable and afraid. We spent a long time talking with him on the phone that night, till we all basically fell asleep, and in the morning, another long while talking with the student health services on campus. Finally, my son reached his RA and got help getting to the health center where he was given IV fluids and taken care of.

I realized then that having him away from home only made caring for him and caring about him more difficult, in a way.

Over the years, there have been few episodes that were so dramatic, but we have had our share of unsettling phone calls and sleepless nights. Now that same son is a college graduate and our daughter is the college student. They come and go from our family home; they thrive and struggle. I simply have to let it happen, while standing by as sounding board, sponsor, friend and advisor; encourager of confidence and independence, caution and practicality. And sometimes, I will be on the outside, wishing I could see in more clearly to whatever is going on. Sometimes via text, email, or phone, I might say, “Don’t forget…” or, “I think you might consider…” And more than once, "Have you been doing your laundry?" Mid-life parents are called upon to be both supportive and non-intrusive, but it isn't always easy.

Hold on loosely, but don’t let go.

Last time our son came home to visit for a few days, we did the usual: feeding him a lot and watching a few of our favorite TV shows together. And we talked about his plans. His time with us was short and we were left with more questions than answers. Nothing seemed resolved. What if he wants to do something we did not expect or plan for? What if he decides to live his life in a way we’re less comfortable with? It still feels like he’s a part of us and we should have more say, but we have to remember he—they—are separate people and grown now, or nearly so. They have to make their own choices. All we can do is offer our well-tempered advice and support. And perhaps worry on our own time.

After dropping him at the airport, I watched the airline’s tracking site on my computer to follow his plane’s progress as he returned back to his city. I kept coming back to that web page over four hours to see where he was on the map, finally smiling when it registered that his plane had landed. I pictured my gangly grown-up son loping through the airport with his messenger bag, healthy and strong and whole.

More from Kathryn Betts Adams Ph.D., M.S.W.
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