I hope you all are having an as-good-as-can-be Memorial Day weekend. I went away to a friend’s house, a couple: she is a follow-the-rules-for-safety gal and he is a it’s-not-that-bad kinda guy. I guess she decided that, despite the fact that I do work in a hospital, I was safe enough to spend time in ‘close quarters’ – mainly the kitchen (we did not wear masks), otherwise, we were outside.
Anyway…what prompted this post was the lingering impact of a conversation that we had. I’m going to skip the details of the dialogue, take a shortcut and just write about what’s on my mind.
Family – children – expectations – delusions.
My friend and I both have children and grandchildren and we’ve had our share of disappointments as most parents do. An interesting topic that came up, not for the first time, is the parental disappointment, hurt, and pain we experience from children who respond in a way that, not only did we not expect, but we found inconceivable. My friend refuses to give up, she keeps extending the olive branch, she keeps making invitations and giving gifts (some small gestures and some are gifts of the heart, made with her hands – quality gifts) and she keeps getting her heart broken by her child (and subsequently the grandchildren have learned/adopted/become imitators of the parent). My ‘understanding’ or what I ‘know’ is only what I’ve been told by my friend so it can be called biased or ‘perspective’ and it could be ‘totally wrong’ but….I know my friend and I can ‘see’ what she is saying and the consistency over the years of various ‘stories’ or ‘attempts’ has not changed one iota. I believe my friend. But also I know personally of what she speaks.
I told my friend that although I admire her tenacity to keep on putting herself out there I do not share the same opinion; I have no problem ‘writing someone off’ if they decide that I am not ‘good enough’ or they are embarrassed by me or they don’t want me to be a part of their life. My friend said that she doesn’t “believe in” doing that, ‘writing people off’; people are in our lives for a reason and she said that she would always keep trying.
I could have been offended but I am not. I am also not a martyr – which sounds judgmental and ‘bad’ but it’s the truth. I don’t believe that martyrdom is respected and I believe that this behavior exacerbates the cycle. I felt I had to explain what I meant by ‘writing people off’ but she deterred me from that by saying she ‘understood’ me. The whole exchange left me feeling like she was the better person – right or wrong, personally or existentially. I don’t really believe that is true so I had to ruminate on the whole thing.
One problem with being single and solitary is that I don’t have the ‘experience’ of a lot of communication, especially at a deep and personal level, so I don’t usually express myself well; I don’t always use the correct words, I don’t elaborate and I don’t allow myself time (or I’m not allowed time) to speak and convey my meaning more thoroughly.
I’ve had my heart broken a couple of times by one child in particular and I ‘wrote-it-out’ until I exhausted the subject matter and then I had an epiphany, an awakening. Human beings, unlike most other animals, have the unique trait of expectations: parents of children and vise-versa. We do not view the human family as individuals; we view the human family as units of clans or tribes and, therefore, expectations and loyalty. Therein lies the problem.
I gave birth to humans. I raised humans. These human are now adults and are independent of me. They are independent of my care, my financial assistance, my beliefs and views and opinions. They are also independent of my expectations. My expectations originate with me and hold no power over other human beings. That is true of us all. Or should be.
When my child broke my heart it happened because I had expectations that were not met or reciprocated. As parents we make choices that are in our child’s best interest, we make sacrifices, we put our child’s wants and needs – a lot of times – above our own. Nothing wrong with that (it’s kind of expected). And as parents we anticipate that all the time and money and energy will ‘come back to us,’ we will reap what we sow, our children will be grateful and some day, when we need it, they will be there to help us, they will, in turn, ‘take care of us.’
I expected my child to be grateful for choices that I had made on her behalf. Because of those choices, I unconsciously expected something in return: gratitude, understanding, loyalty, and to an extent, even if I had not consciously thought it, I expected her to make some concessions or sacrifices for me. I didn’t just expect this, it was a foregone conclusion, it was. In short, when my now adult child exhibited her independence and preferences that were not shared by me, that were contrary to my reality, I was shocked, then I felt angry, then I felt abandoned and used and taken for granted. I felt my soul shrivel into a ball and shrink back into a dark corner of an abyss. She had (basically) informed me that those choices were mine to make and that she is under no obligation to show gratitude or reciprocate. Period.
You know what?
She is right.
Just because she
is was my child, just because she is of my body and blood, she is not mine. She is her own, unique human being with her own mind and preferences and desires and aspirations. She does not belong to me. She does not ‘owe’ me anything. She is not obligated to tolerate my opinions, connect with me on any schedule or understand my circle of friends or even participate in my life if that is her desire. It is not my right to expect anything of her at all.
Conversely, the same is true. If my child does not wish to share her life with me, if she prefers that I keep my distance and mind my own business, then that is her choice. I now have the option to fight it or to comply. I decided to make the most of my life independent of her. I am not obligated to worry, to remember birthdays or holidays, to drop by and visit, to call or text or keep in touch in anyway. I need not persist in making a relationship with someone who does not want it. I still have my own life to live, my own things to do and places to go. The only obligation I have is to create a full life for myself, a life that may not be what I expected but I had no right to have those entrenched expectations in the first place.
It’s a cultural and human delusion that others must live in a way that we expect because they are ‘family.’ Once we have done our ‘duty’ having brought another human life into this world and nurtured that being as best we can, they are fledglings from the proverbial nest; physical and psychological. We cannot begrudge another human from living independent of us. The concept that my children are no longer “my children” is outside of my comprehension; it’s like saying that I am no longer a mother. Of course I am a mother but I cannot ‘mother’ an adult child, I can only be a listener, an advocate, a friend, a confidant, a supporter just as I would another human being that I care about. And as any other human being (friend) has the right to remain close to me or not, same for my adult children.
Does it hurt to have a child that grows into an adult that wants a life independent of us, a choice that we had not expected?
Of course! But what hurts? Why do we hurt? Because we have been ‘trained’ to expect life/family to follow a specific path, because we’ve invested a large chunk of our life-time and effort into this other human that we have come to love so much that we would ‘give our life for them’ that it feels like rejection, that they are rejecting us, turning away and going off on their own path. A complete cutt-off is hurtful because we didn’t see it coming, because we had other expectations, because we love them and want them – want them in our lives and want them to love us back as much as we love them. We have expectations that, in reality, we don’t have a right to expect of another human even if that human is from us and we have devoted ourselves to this person. It’s my love of my grown humans that allows me to allow them to be who they are wherever they want to be, with or without me. It leaves a void but it’s up to me to fill that void with more in my life. And ‘rejection’ or separation isn’t forever. Respect them enough to let them fly without hovering over them and insisting on things your way. Let them be independent. Let them grow. Believe that they appreciate the space and time. Keep the hope in your heart that they’ll come back someday.
My daughter, after I gave her the space that (I thought) she wanted, after I showed her that I can live my life without being a barnacle on her side, that she can be independent of me in every way if that’s what she really wants, made tentative steps to re-include me in her life. I don’t think she really wanted a complete separation anyway but the whole ‘thing’ was a wake-up-call for me; I realized, in addition to all the above, that I have to learn how to live a life for me and not for my now-adult children, that I don’t have to ‘work to leave a legacy for my children’ because I should be using my time (left) to experience life in a way that I could not while I was busy being a mother. And I think my daughter realized that I realized that and now she doesn’t want to be left out or abandoned by me but she isn’t ‘needy’ either – we give each other space and when one or the other has noticed a larger than ordinary empty space between communication, we take the initiative but respect the ‘quiet’ if it persists.
I’m grateful that I had the experience of perceived rejection, dashed expectations and that I had to wherewithal to dissect it, ponder it, pull it and twist it until it became a new realization, it took a new shape that seemed right for me and my children without broken hearts and hurt feelings.