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The Kids Are All Right and Other Lies Parents Tell About Their Grown Children
We're at dinner, nine of us, early and late boomers who've cried and laughed together, held and hugged each other through marriages, births, divorces, remarriages, and deaths, the rites and rituals of celebration and mourning that punctuated the beginnings and endings and new beginnings of our lives. We have a history together -- housewarmings, promotions, cross-country moves, new careers, the first gray hair, the last great love affair. Mothers and fathers all, veterans of car pools and PTAs and soccer teams, sharing the details of our children's lives the way we always have since those gap-toothed and cowlicked darlings took their tentative steps on the perilous road to adulthood, from her first period to his first learner's permit, through their tumultuous but relatively crisis-free adolescence all the way to the college acceptance letters.
We're over 50 now, and those darlings are in their twenties and even their thirties, and when, as we always do, we ask our peers -- the A-list, the nearest and dearest as well as our more casual friends -- "How are the kids?" they tell us, as they always do, "The kids are all right."
Except some of us are lying.
Because lots of those kids -- our kids, always and forever, even though they've reached their majority by now, are physically fully matured, legally and constitutionally adult and emancipated, and beyond our control if not our concern -- are a long way from all right. And we're living with it by ourselves, and we're not telling it to anyone. Sometimes we're not even admitting it to ourselves.
A few of us are just plain telling untruths, some are "editing" or only talking about their other kids who really are okay, others are exaggerating or putting the best spin on the situation, and the rest are simply keeping our mouths shut. Except Lila, because she doesn't have to. Since his infancy, her only child, Peter, has been like the weather report from Honolulu -- always fair and sunny. This is a kid who's led a totally charmed life, been a thing of joy and beauty every day of his 24 years, never caused his parents one moment of displeasure or disappointment. And although nothing is certain, so far it doesn't look like he ever will.
Of course there are plenty of Peters out there, great kids who've done their parents proud in any or many ways, who've never caused them any real pain -- particularly not the pain of disappointment.
But there are enough others among the population of educated, middle-class 21- to 34-year-olds who started out with all of Peter's constitutional and environmental advantages, including healthy minds and bodies, loving parents, and the potential to become what we all wanted and expected our kids to grow into: independent, generous, kind, happy, successful, law-abiding, contributing members of society who made the most of all the advantages we worked so hard to give them.
Except they didn't.
Between the nine of us there are twenty adult children, and while half are doing just fine (the half we talk about), the other half haven't fared as well. No one picking at the moo shu pork tonight is the parent of a serial killer, but a couple of our kids are in jail, one for fraud and the other for dealing drugs. Some of us know the names of the "best" rehab centers on both coasts and the experts in treating eating disorders or gambling addictions. Others have no idea where in the world our estranged or disappeared adult children are, and every time the phone rings we wonder if it will be the police, calling us to identify their bodies. And one -- the one whose final report was a coroner's verdict -- will never stop wondering who her bright, funny, promising son might have become if he hadn't hanged himself on his twenty-fifth birthday.
Some of us feel for our friends but privately count ourselves lucky because all our kids' problems aren't quite that awful or final. So he's 27 and still living at home flipping burgers for bozos because he can't hold a better job -- in an earlier generation, we tell ourselves bravely, it was common for three or even four generations to live under the same roof. (And maybe we're not crazy about the girl who's living in the basement with him, but at least we know where he is, and his brother is happily married, has a great job and a wife we adore, and is about to give us our first grandchild, so it couldn't be anything we did.)
So she's almost 30 and has had four abortions, one divorce, and a couple of broken engagements, but at least we're still communicating. (And the guy she's going with now has no criminal record; did I tell you her sister is fine, thank you, getting her Ph.D. and going with a very nice guy, and she was the one with dyslexia?)
So he stole the DVD and the TV and the digital camera to sell to pay his dealer, but fortunately it was from us, not from the store, so he didn't get caught, and we responded to the cry for help it so clearly was. (And the psychiatrist says with treatment, the prognosis is good, which is what he said about the other one, and he was right, it was just a stage she was going through.)
So she had a baby by a guy whose last name she didn't even know, but at least she didn't have an abortion and we're thrilled to be raising our grandchild, even though we'd planned to sell the house and buy a condo this year. And he had a child by a girl whose last name we don't even know, but at least we can afford to make the court-ordered support payments he ignores. And he or she is gay, but hey, there's nothing wrong with that, and of course we're marching in the Gay Pride parade next month, even while we're wishing we didn't have to and being glad our parents aren't alive to see it. (And if you think your kid's sexual preference is nothing to be ashamed of or sorry about, you're absolutely right, but that doesn't keep you from wishing it felt better, or that the rest of the world was as accepting as you are.)
For every Peter, there's a Paul or Paula whose parents are unable to take any joy in living because their kids have screwed up or short-circuited the dreams that began the moment the doctor placed them in our arms. Somehow -- and none of us is sure exactly when, or why, or even where -- our kids took a wrong turn, away from the sunny futures we planned for them and into lives and circumstances we never dreamed of. And while the final grades aren't in yet, it looks like they're flunking Real Life, which can only mean we've flunked Parenting, right? We're just as disappointed in ourselves as we are in them.
The Most Privileged Generation in History -- Except Theirs
We were the biggest, richest, most educated generation in history. We reaped the benefit of the economic security that was our parents' most important goal and their gift to us. Even if we put off our own full adulthood a few years longer than the challenges of a depression and world war allowed them to, by the time we were the ages our grown kids are now, we'd internalized our parents' value system. And while we may have rebelled against or ignored those values in our college years, except for the vocal minority who highjacked the culture,1 we ultimately adopted or adapted them as our own. We not only took advantage of the opportunities our parents provided -- we took them for granted, too. We delayed many (but not all) gratifications long enough to earn them; we stayed in our jobs long enough to get a raise, rented until we could afford to buy, drove whatever we had the cash to put down for. And if we tell our grown kids that, which we have a tendency to do, they just groan and add, "Right -- and you walked 20 miles in the snow to school, too."
We were eager for our independence, and by the time we had the responsibilities that come with it, we were (mostly) ready for them. We found our place in society and tried to raise our kids with good values, minus the guilt trips our parents laid on us and with a lot more attention to their inner psychological needs than was paid to ours, which partly explains the "Me" decade of the 1970s.
The winds of change were strong enough in those years to blow away the first life structures and relationships some of us had built, creating a culture of divorce as well as 9 million single parents who were raising their children alone by the time the decade ended. Even if our marriages survived the tumult of that time, our attitudes and behavior changed with the sexual revolution, feminism, and the human potential movement. And while most of us knew we were privileged, few of us felt entitled.
At least, not the way our grown children do.
We didn't feel entitled to work that was spiritually fulfilling as well as lucrative; we didn't expect to get both meaning and money out of our jobs.
We didn't feel entitled to achieve our career goals without a long apprenticeship and a lot of hard work; in high school either we were on the college track or the vocational one, which, along with the war in Vietnam, determined which of the those two predictable paths to adulthood arrived with our diplomas or certificates.
We didn't feel entitled to live off our parents, or enjoy the same standard of living at 25 that they didn't attain until years later, or depend on them for what we should have been getting for ourselves. We didn't feel entitled to blame them for our shortcomings or expect them to rescue us time after time from facing the consequences of our actions or dealing with the fallout from our inactions.
Do we sound a little bitter, a little frustrated, even a little jealous of our kids? (That is, when we're not sounding like old fogies, even to ourselves.)
We are, and it's our fault as well as theirs.
Great Expectations: Ours or Theirs?
This is what we expected of the children we raised to be the best and the brightest. "To finish her education, even if it took her a few more years than it took me. To explore what's out there, all the opportunities open to her, and choose one that's likely to give her a rewarding or meaningful career, or at least a decent job. To pay her own way, even if I had to provide a safety net for a while. To be emotionally independent -- to own her own feelings and not blame me for her failures or need me to constantly be shoring up her self-esteem. To play by the rules and not take dumb risks that would ruin her life. And oh, yes, find a cure for cancer, give me a few grandchildren, and call home once in a while. Was that too much to ask?"
Carolyn smiles when she says that, in case I don't know that she really didn't expect her daughter to be this generation's Madame Curie, but it's not enough of a smile to crease the crow's feet around her eyes. On a good day she probably looks at least a decade younger than her 55 years, thanks to regular appointments with her colorist and an hour on her exercise bike every morning, but this isn't a good day for her because it wasn't a good one for Lily, her 27-year-old daughter.
Lily just quit the fourth McJob she's had so far this year, and Lily just broke up with her boyfriend, and the Acura that Lily was driving got towed for parking tickets she'd just tossed in the glove compartment, and Lily spaced her appointments with both the career counselor and the shrink, and Lily ran up a $500 long-distance bill because her best friend lives in London and Lily hates to write letters, and Lily never got around to cleaning the house or walking the dog or defrosting something for dinner. Lily didn't even get out of bed until just after noon, and right now she's having one of her migraines.
Before Carolyn even hangs up her coat, she hears all the details of Lily's very bad day, and whatever feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction she felt at the end of her own very long one leach out of her like the last thin rays of sun on this wintry Minnesota afternoon. It was Carolyn's Acura that got towed and Carolyn's phone that's going to be shut off. It's Carolyn's usually immaculate house that Lily and her friends messed up the night before. It was the appointment Carolyn made with a $100-an-hour career counselor that Lily missed and the shrink whose $150-an-hour bills she's paying that Lily forgot to cancel. And it was the dog Lily said was the only thing that ever loved her unconditionally that peed on Carolyn's rug (not to mention chewing up her best Ferragamos and destroying her rose garden) because when Lily moved back in for the third time since she left for college, she brought the dog with her.
"What does that dog have that I don't, besides a smaller bladder?" Carolyn muses ruefully, because if she didn't love Lily unconditionally, she might have said no. No to Lily moving back home, with or without the dog. No to using, and abusing, her car and her phone and her credit cards and all the other things Lily helps herself to without so much as a by-your-leave. She might have let Lily find her own job, instead of finding her daughter a career counselor (who "specializes" in gifted young people like Lily, according to Carolyn), even if Lily had to settle for something a bit less meaningful, lucrative, creative, and fulfilling than she wanted. She might have let Lily worry about her own therapy, especially about paying for it, and find a way to solve her own problems instead of trying to solve them for her. She might even have let Lily -- gasp! -- be unhappy, if that's what it took to get her to grow up.
Carolyn dropped out of college to marry Lily's father, and when the marriage ended she went to work at an entry-level job in a graphic design firm. She learned how to dress for success in Anne Klein suits she bought on sale and antique jewelry she found at flea markets, which are still her passion. She learned how to impress old clients with her competence and bring new ones in with her flair, how to manage more people and bigger projects, and by the time the firm was bought out by a multinational company, Carolyn was a vice president, and now she's in charge of the entire Midwest division. She didn't get there without learning how to say no, but she can't bring herself to say it to Lily.
Who's in Trouble Here?
Lily's story only differs in the details from the experiences of many of her peers who aren't much farther along the road to self-sufficiency than they were when they were in college, still living at home, still trying to "find" themselves, still unable to start their adult lives, provide for their own basic needs, or make a commitment to anything -- a career, a relationship, a goal, a role, a plan. Also like many of her generation, Lily has so much freedom to choose the way her future unfolds that she seems paralyzed by it. She feels pressured to succeed while she's still young, but she missed the last big economic boom and she's waiting to get in on the ground floor of the next one, whenever that happens. She wants to make a difference in the world, but she doesn't think there's anything she can do that will. She's not in serious trouble -- yet. But Carolyn is; her fear, anger, and worry about Lily have given her an ulcer.
Carolyn can't be happy unless Lily is, and when she's not fuming about Lily's predicament, she's making excuses for it. Like many divorced women, Carolyn wonders if her own romantic failure is responsible for her daughter's inability to find and sustain a love of her own. She thinks Lily's standards are too high because she's a perfectionist herself; maybe she drove her too hard. She believes Lily's depression may be genetically linked. And it isn't her disappointment in Lily that she dwells on, it's her anger at her daughter for taking so long to get on with her life that she can't get on with her own.
"I get so furious at her sometimes I just have to leave before I lose my temper. A few times I have, and it always ends with both of us in tears and a lot of door slamming. I tell her, Lily, you have your whole life ahead of you, you're healthy and smart and attractive, do something with yourself -- anything! Where's your pride, where's your self-esteem? And then for a while she'll get revved up about something, a job, a plan. A few months ago it was acupuncture school in Oregon -- now when I mention it, she looks at me like I'm from another planet. But it never works out, whatever it is -- there's always some reason why, it's never her fault, and then, boom, she's back here again, watching daytime TV. She's throwing away her life, which makes me mad, because I don't have that luxury; I've got to make the years I've got left count. Some days I look at this kid I spent half my life raising, I gave everything to, I sacrificed so much for, I had such great hopes for, and I think, Why did I bother? And when will it end?"
Not until Carolyn stops worrying about Lily's self-esteem issues, her love life, her career crisis, her living arrangements, her finances, and her depression, none of which she can do anything about and all of which occupy so much of Carolyn's time, drain so much of her energy, and use up so many of her resources that there's not very much left over for her.
It may not end until Carolyn's ready to tell Lily to leave, or at least learn to live within her own means, not her mother's. And it definitely won't end until Carolyn understands that it's Lily's expectations about how her life should be (and what Carolyn and the world owe her) that need adjusting, not her own.
"I think back about what I expected, and maybe it was more than it should have been, but it's not like I pressured her to make my dreams come true. Right now I'd be satisfied if she'd just get a life. If she'd just be happy," adds Carolyn.
Making Them Happy Is Not Up to Us
It must have been easier for our own parents, who didn't worry the way we do about making their kids happy. While none of them wanted us to be unhappy, what mattered more was making sure we had what we needed to assure our own future: good education, an appreciation for hard work, a value of self-sufficiency, an ethic of responsibility.
What distinguishes baby-boom parents from those of earlier generations is how much importance we place on our kids' inner psychological qualities as well as their educational and occupational success, moral and ethical values, and satisfaction in their relationships. A recent study that examined how we evaluate our adult children's achievements and adjustment -- and how those assessments affect how we feel about ourselves -- indicated that wanting our kids to be personally fulfilled is a goal unique to our generation.2 Having gone to sometimes extraordinary lengths to ensure it, it's no surprise that our kids grow up expecting us to provide it and
give up the responsibility for finding it themselves, in the places that truly adult people discover it: in the satisfactions of work, love, connection, commitment, self-sufficiency, and achievement.
We cannot make our grown kids happy. As long as we expect that we can, they will, too. And we will both be disappointed.
But Can We Be Happy If They're Not?
Very few of us see our children as perfect products. But how we feel about how they've turned out has a great deal to do with our own emotional health. It has significantly positive effects on all aspects of our psychological well-being -- our sense of self-acceptance, purpose in life, personal growth, mastery of our environment, and positive relationships with others. It is because parents are pervasively viewed as significant contributors to how their children's lives unfold that the stakes for parental self-evaluation are high; how our kids turn out constitutes powerful statements about our successes or failings as parents. The same study that researched how our assessments of our adult children impact our own satisfaction found that parents who think their children have turned out well have more positive views about themselves and their lives (self-acceptance) as well as a greater sense of meaning and self-direction (purpose in life) than those who don't. Seeing positive "products" of our parenting influences our sense of managing the surrounding world and our general feelings of continued development and self-realization; when our kids are well adjusted socially and personally, our levels of psychological well-being are generally higher and our levels of depression lower. Interestingly, this study found fewer significant linkages between our well-being and our children's educational and occupational achievements, which further supports the conclusion that wanting our kids to be personally fulfilled is a new goal, unique to the baby-boom generation; the data seem to confirm that we are a generation more concerned with their happiness than their success. "Remember how we used to tell them that we didn't care what they did as long as they were happy?" says Jane. "Maybe we really meant it after all!"
If how our kids turn out influences our psychological well-being, it's also possible that our well-being influences how we construe theirs. If we feel good about our lives, we probably see our kids as healthy and happy, proceeding through early adulthood on their own timetable. But if we don't, we focus on their problems and limitations, and see them as the reason we're unhappy, which may help to explain one very surprising finding in this study: Parents who perceived that their children's adjustment was better than theirs was at the same period in their own early adulthood had significantly lower levels of current well-being!
This finding was so counterintuitive to the American Dream -- that every generation wants its kids to surpass its own accomplishments -- that the researchers could come to only one interpretation of the data: Although parental psychological well-being increases when children exceed even their parents' educational and occupational achievements, parents dissatisfied with their own lives may not reap psychological benefits when they see their children emerge as more self-confident, happy, and interpersonally skilled than they themselves were in young adulthood. In other words, children who are accomplished and well adjusted may occasion pride and even vicarious enjoyment among parents, yet these same wonderful children may also evoke envy and the sense of missed opportunities in some parents' own lives. For children who have not done well, our disappointment and regret may be offset by the lesser challenges they present to our own life accomplishments.3
Is this another of our dirty little secrets? Are we jealous of the kids who are living the wonderful lives we always wanted for them?
Ambivalent might be a more accurate description, especially if we're counting up the pluses and minuses in our own lives and coming up short, like Janet, whose husband recently left her for a younger woman. While Janet's pride in her daughter-the-doctor's professional success is wholehearted, she admits to darker, more complex feelings, as well: "Of course I wanted her to do well, and I'm thrilled that she has. But her confidence and self-awareness just stuns me. She's conscious, for lack of a better word, in a way I never was....She's so much farther ahead than I was at her age that sometimes I'm almost intimidated by her. There are times I feel a real twinge of envy, not of all that she's accomplished, but of all that she is. I think, If I'd been that savvy when I was her age...wow, the places I could have gone!"
But that's not the problem facing those whose grown kids haven't realized their dreams, let alone surpassed the ones we had for them. We'd trade our troubles for Janet's in a minute if we could. Meanwhile, as we're waiting for them to do whatever it is they haven't done yet, or stop doing whatever it is that's keeping them locked in a limbo of not quite adulthood, we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that "turning out" is a continual process, without an explicit starting or stopping point; as long as there's life, there's hope.
It may be difficult to know whether our kids are just going through a stage they'll grow up and grow out of -- some day. But if and when they do, or even if they don't, the shape their lives will take and the choices they make are up to them, not us. What's up to us is coming to terms with the choices we've made, and are making, in our own lives. And meanwhile, we're waiting.
Copyright © 2003 by Jane Adams