- By Jill Smolowe
While my daughter was growing up, I was a confident mom. When in need of input or advice, I didn’t turn to parenting books or friends, I turned to my husband, a loving, hands-on dad, who, like me, was late to parenthood and every bit as fascinated by our daughter as I was. Dr. Spock, I thought, had it pretty much right: “Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do.”
Now, as my daughter enters her senior year of college, I find my parenting instincts so conflicted that I read anything I can get my hands on about this phase called “emerging adulthood,” and seek advice from parents whose kids are a few years older than mine.
Repeatedly, I find myself flummoxed by where and how to draw boundaries; where the fine line lies between supporting and entitling; where encouragement lets off and enabling begins. I find the very idea of “emerging” enigmatic.
Like most boomers, I regarded myself as an adult when I took off after college and kept going. Back then, the economy, the Women’s Movement and the assumptions of my parents’ generation were aligned to help me on my way.
Some of my confusion, of course, is particular to my daughter and me, and to the fact that her father died when she was a tender 15. There is now a stepfather in the picture, but he came into her life too late to be a recognized source of authority or influence. At a time when I thought the heavy lifting of parenting would be behind, I find myself navigating solo through what is proving to be the most difficult developmental phase of all.
Perhaps helicopter parents find the opportunity for another decade of up-close parenting appealing. I find the prospect disturbing.
Learning When to Step In or Step Away
I won’t share the details of our particular agonistes. My daughter is entitled to her privacy. Besides, this isn’t about her. This is about me and my inability to achieve clarity about what help I should extend her way and what help I should withhold so that she can make her own choices and mistakes, and learn her own lessons about priorities, responsibility and consequences.
The main culprit thwarting my instincts is one shared by many of my generation: a dismal economy. When my peers and I were in college, we assumed the natural order was to get a degree, get a job, get a share in a living arrangement. The last place we wanted to land was back in our parents’ home. We got no argument from our parents; they assumed it, too. For all the well-chronicled social strains between our parents’ generation and ours, we were, ironically, all pretty much on the same page.
My daughter and her peers, by contrast, were adolescents when the U.S. economy tanked in 2008 and the very notion of securing a job, let alone job security, went up in smoke. During the recession years, it became common to think — even assume — that our children would move back home.
Perhaps to make parents feel better about this, we began to hear how the human brain isn’t fully developed until 25 or later, and that the climb toward maturity for these “emerging adults” would be slippery, indeed. Initially the age boundaries were set at 19 to 25; over the course of the recession, academics pushed the outer limit to 30. Small wonder, then, that where I and my boomer cohorts thought of ourselves as adults at 21, our kids do not.
Perhaps helicopter parents, accustomed to an up-close vantage point, find the opportunity for another decade of up-close parenting appealing. I find the prospect disturbing.
My own emphasis has always been to encourage my daughter’s independence. From the day we first held her in our arms, her dad and I believed that the main goal of parenting was to prepare her for the world, then let go and hope she would want to find her way home…from time to time. Now as she approaches what I assumed was the juncture of separation, I am bewildered how I am supposed to stand back and ignore my 60-year-old sensibilities as she makes her 21-year-old choices under my nose and my roof.
I’m going to guess I’m not the only boomer parent who feels I’m too old for this sh—stuff. When my daughter is away at college, I rarely worry where she is, what she’s doing, who she’s with. I know not all parents will agree, but for me, out-of-sight-out-of-mind is a beautiful thing.
Under One Roof, Again
But when my daughter is under my roof, it’s impossible to don the blissful ignorance that, like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, shields parents from their children’s “emerging,” often questionable judgment. I’m all for my daughter exercising that questionable judgment. (At her age, I certainly exercised mine.) But I don’t want to see it. (I never would have brought my sh—stuff into my parents’ home.) It’s very hard to see the comings, the goings and the goings-on and not arrive at an emerged adult judgment. It’s very hard not to let that judgment show.
This summer, I spent four months navigating that thorny course. My daughter’s work at a part-time internship (unpaid, of course, which to me seemed grossly exploitative and to her seemed the natural order of things for a Millennial), gave me opportunity for expressions of pride. Her (considerable) leisure time gave me ample opportunity for worry. She met any expression of concern with an irritated, “It’s not about you.” But how can it not be? Stripped of my ignorance-is-bliss cloak, I don’t know how to ignore my maternal instincts. And how can it not be at least in part about me when her choices affect how I inhabit my head and my home?
My home, not hers. That, I have finally come to acknowledge, is where the critical shift in my thinking lies. On the day my daughter first left for college three years ago, I thought of her as leaving our home. Now when she pops back for a week here, a four-month stretch there, I regard her as a beloved visitor, but a visitor, nevertheless.
It took me the better part of the summer to admit to myself that though my love for my daughter is boundless, I do not want her to move home after college. While we are wonderfully suited to be mother and daughter, we are not suited to be housemates.
But how, I wondered, could I say that to her? No matter which way I turned it over in my head, I feared she might feel evicted and unloved. Finally, over lunch in a park, as we shared a crepe and a salad, I said it quietly and directly: “Sweetheart, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come home after you graduate. I’ll help you get started. But at this point we really shouldn’t be living together.”
Calmly, matter-of-factly, she responded, “No, of course not, Mom. I don’t want to come home.”
Some parents may hear rejection in those words. I hear the first note of an emerging adult relationship with my daughter.