- Midlife parenting involves transitioning to a different kind of relationship with young adult children.
- Young adults have an increased need for autonomy, but they also crave connection at the same time.
- Every parent-child relationship is unique and should be treated as such.
Back when I was the parent of young children, I found it almost impossible to mentally fast-forward to a point in my life when I would be the parent of young adults. Sure, I understood on some abstract, intellectual level that it was my job to prepare them for their eventual launch into the world.
The whole thing was completely unfathomable: the idea that someday this baby, who was nestled in my arms, breastfeeding, this toddler, who was asserting his right to his share of the space in my lap, and this preschooler, who was begging me to read just one more story would ever grow up and actually leave home. Would actually leave me.
What I didn’t understand, back in those tender-hearted days of early parenthood, was that there wasn’t some sort of doomsday clock ticking down the remaining minutes in my life as a parent (although poignant milestones like putting them on the school bus for the first time certainly made it feel that way). Of course, they’d eventually grow up and move away from home, but they wouldn’t be breaking up with me. We’d still be very much connected, even though we’d no longer be living under the same roof. We’d be journeying to a different place in our relationship with one another, getting to know one another as adults.
And now, a couple of decades later, we’ve actually arrived at that place. In fact, we’ve been here for a while. My oldest child celebrated her 35th birthday this spring; my youngest turned 25 last fall; the middle two are in their early 30s.
This means I’ve had roughly a decade to figure out a few things about being the parent of young adults (four fascinating humans who just happen to be people I gave birth to and who, even more miraculously, are still choosing to be in relationship with me, along with the partners they’ve invited along for the ride).
And as for what they need from me at this point in their lives? I think it basically boils down to these four things.
1. They need me to give them permission to be gloriously imperfect people.
This means giving them the freedom to make their own mistakes and the time and space necessary to recognize and learn from those mistakes (ideally in a 100-percent “I told you so”-free zone). Sure, there are times when it can be tempting to jump in with unsolicited advice (especially if a particular kid seems to be spending an extended period of time studying at the School of Hard Knocks), but it tends to work better for all concerned if I simply offer my services as a consultant and/or cheerleader: someone who is happy to offer whatever mix of information and encouragement would be most helpful to that kid in that particular moment.
2. They need me to celebrate their uniqueness as individuals.
Instead of having across-the-board expectations of all of them, I need to celebrate the uniqueness of each person and each relationship. Because here’s the thing: Each of them has their own unique approach to staying connected. One of my kids loves to have deep, philosophical conversations via e-mail every couple of weeks; another prefers the immediacy of an ongoing text-message chat (one that’s rich in photos, screenshots, video, and all kinds of other slice-of-life media); the other two are natural-born conversationalists, which means they’re at their best when we’re visiting face-to-face.
My key takeaway? They’re each unique individuals. Why wouldn’t my relationship with each of them be one-of-a-kind? And how lucky am I to have relationships with all four of them?
3. They need me to have realistic expectations of what it means to be a loving and connected family in 2023.
Social media can sometimes skew my expectations, leaving me feeling like I’m a failure as a parent because I haven’t managed to get everyone together in the same place at the same time for the past few years. And yet, if I hop inside the time machine and remind myself how busy my own life was back when I was in my 20s or 30s, I suddenly understand why it can be challenging to make scheduling and geography work (to say nothing of the chaos of the past few years). And so I am choosing not to measure the extent of our connection in arbitrary ways, relying on a single metric like how long it’s been since the last all-hands-on-deck family reunion (although I won’t stop lobbying for just such a get-together anytime soon).
4. They need me to continue to remind them just how much I love them.
Each of them. Uniquely. Wholly. Do any of us ever outgrow the need to be told how much we are loved? I don’t think so. I certainly haven’t, and I don’t think my kids have, either.
So whenever I get the chance, I tell them stories about how much they were loved when they were little, how much they are loved now, and how much they will always be loved. And then I talk about how they have made me feel loved: how much richer and more meaningful my life has been, simply by virtue of the fact that I am their mother. I want them to know that I’m grateful that I had the chance to love them for the children that they once were and the adults they are becoming.
Douglas, A. (2019). Happy Parents Happy Kids. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Canada.
Douglas, A. (2023). Navigating The Messy Middle: A Fiercely Honest and Wildly Encouraging Guide for Midlife Women. Madeira Park, BC: Douglas & McIntyre.