Our daughter turned 33 last month, which meant I dispatched the annual text wishing her a happy birthday and waited in vain for a reply. I also mailed a book to her home, an hour south of us, thinking that the arrival of an actual gift might generate some spark of acknowledgement. No dice. My Lovely Wife, the woman who carried her in her womb for nine months and taught her from a young age the importance of expressing gratitude, mailed a birthday card and asked her via text how she’d prefer to receive some birthday cash. Crickets.
We’ve grown accustomed to this loud silence, so there were no phone calls or emails or texts employing capital letters and exclamation marks. “She’s probably just really busy,” I told MLW. Privately, though, I wondered how we could’ve offended her, since we hadn’t spoken since Thanksgiving. Still, I didn’t want to reach out. If she wants to talk, she’ll call.
It’s a classic conundrum for empty nesters: How do you remain relevant in the lives of your offspring after they’ve flown the coop without discouraging their pursuit of independence? We know our daughter and our 30-year-old son are each carving out their places in the world — career, marriage, children, and the rest — but it’s sometimes hard to know exactly where we fit in. Or if there’s a meaningful role for us at all.
The pandemic, of course, has exacerbated the situation, preventing the routine family gatherings that reliably produce the sort of interaction and information necessary for us to figure out whether the kids need any advice or assistance. We’re not exactly strangers after a year of sequestration — our grandson’s weekly visits offer snatches of conversation with his dad — but we’re also not nearly as familiar with each other as we were pre-COVID. Texts and phone calls are no substitute for an extended conversation over dinner.
But, as Brigham Young University social science professor Laura Padilla-Walker, PhD, notes in the Washington Post, dealing with our adult children has always been a “stressful balancing act.” Even when you think you’ve prepared them for independent living, you’ll face all sorts of temptations to intervene unnecessarily. “When debating whether to step in to help,” she says, “be honest about your motivation and whether you are truly needed or if you’re trying to control the outcome.”
At this stage in your parenting journey, adds Brown University developmental psychologist Richard Rende, PhD, coauthor of Raising Can-Do Kids, you can often be more effective as a mentor than a supervisor. “Mentors dispense perspective, encouragement, and make suggestions on how to shape behavior, instead of trying to control it,” he explains in the Post. “It’s important to remember that adult children now get to make their own choices and parents have to, above all, honor that.”
And don’t panic when the lines of communication seem blocked. Sometimes it’s simply a sign that your kid wants to work through a challenging situation on their own rather than ask for help. It’s actually a sign of growth on their part — and yours, if you can resist butting in.
Our own patience was rewarded when, 10 days after her birthday, our daughter texted MLW thanking her for the card and requesting a bird feeder rather than cash. I was on the thread and seized the opportunity to call her. She picked up immediately.
“I was actually going to buy some birdseed this afternoon,” I told her. “I could pick up a feeder and some seed for you.”
“That would be great,” she replied, noting that she would be in the city and could swing by to pick it up along with some stuff she’d been storing in our garage. “I’ll come by around 4.”
True to form, she showed up closer to 4:30, but we spent the next 90 minutes getting reacquainted — our first in-person conversation since her wedding last October. She’d been working 60 to 80 hours a week, we learned . . . and her youngest cat had been sick . . . and she and her spouse wanted to plant a garden and put up a picket fence like the one in our backyard . . . and the pipes in their house had frozen and burst in February, and insurance covered most of the damage, but the cost of the new furnace went onto the credit card, which they had just paid off. (She did not ask for dough; we didn’t offer.) It was like we’d turned on a faucet and the news just poured out.
And then, almost as an afterthought, she announced that she was planning to get pregnant before the end of the year.
MLW and I soaked it all in, like sunshine on an early spring day, marveling at our first-born’s stresses and successes, perils and plans. And at some point, it occurred to me that maybe she needed to reconnect as much as we did.
Her spouse’s birthday was approaching, MLW noted, and she wondered whether some gardening tools would be an appropriate gift. Maybe she’d take them (the spouse is nonbinary and uses plural pronouns) to the garden center and let them pick out some stuff.
“They’d love that,” she said.
“And you and I could work on that fence,” I ventured.
“That would be so great.”
Later, out in the garage, we crammed a few boxes full of her musty belongings into the back of her car, and she prepared to set off for home. “Maybe we can get together in the next couple of weeks,” she offered.
“Sounds good,” I replied. “I’ll be in touch.”