I recently went through a move with my family. I am the oldest of three kids in my family, which leaves a lot of the "adult politics" to me. I am in charge of handling my parents’ grief for some things, shielding it from the other parent, etc. My two younger brothers and I used to live with my mother at her house, and we did so for quite some time. Over a year. But, as soon as my father moved to a house that was more closely located to everything in mine and my brothers’ lives, we moved over there with him. Now, for myself and my second-youngest brother, it’s more about function. We both drive, work, etc. Our lives are closely based on that side of town. Seems simple enough on paper, but my mother is having trouble placing the reason we have for leaving. Thinks we don’t like her anymore. Is there a way to deal with her grief that doesn’t involve severing communication with her? She just doesn’t seem to understand that our relocation was about function, not at all about emotional conflict. She just lives far from everything! Appreciate your help. – L.P., Las Vegas
So, you didn’t specify, but I’m guessing you and your brothers are young adults. And, typical of our current culture, you are still economic dependents. On the one hand, adult. On the other hand, not quite launched to independence. Your parents are divorced.
Both you and your parents live in a context fraught with contradictions. You and your brothers are adults-but-not-quite. This means your parents are done-but-not-quite-done raising you. Wherever you decide to live, you are at once dependent members of a family yet living as quasi-roommates.
This reality is the new normal in our culture. I’m saying your situation is descriptive of most young adult Americans. Its consequence is confusion in navigating your relationship with your parents. Trust me when I say it’s equally confusing for your parents to navigate their relationship with you.
Add to this confusion another layer: divorce. Were your parents still thriving in marriage, it would be hard enough for them to know when and how to say "goodbye" to their children launching into adulthood. But they would do it together. "We" would be saying these goodbyes. In your parents’ case, however, they are doing this necessary and difficult work separately. This invites compounded insecurities and ego issues. It’s common for parents in this situation to be tempted to interpret their children’s choices as partisan. That is, preferring one parent over the other. If one of your parents makes significantly more money than the other, this might add another layer of insecurity.
It’s striking to hear you say you are "in charge of handling your parents’ grief." That part of handling their grief is to shield each from the other. How did you acquire this job? The question is rhetorical. Because, regardless of your answer, you’re wrong. It’s not your job! You’re fired. Clean out your desk and leave.
L.P., grief is the only possible outcome for parents. The day you were born, your parents begin saying goodbye. Assuming, of course, they were/are competent parents. Because competent parents proceed each day for children to need them less and less. Relinquishing children to their own competence is, for all parents, at once a celebration and a loss. Healthy parents let their children feel admired in progress toward adult autonomy; healthy parents feel their losses in a way that does not make children feel responsible.
I tell parents all the time: The best gift you can give your launching post-adolescents is get a life! Said conversely, woe to parents who need their children as post-adolescent buddies and friends.
That said, I would invite you to have compassion for your mother. And your father. You could do so much to help ease her insecurity without being responsible for her insecurity. Moves of hospitality, generosity and love. Not moves of begrudging obligation.
Call her. Text her occasionally. Invite yourself over to dinner. Say these words: "I miss you, so I decided to invite myself over for dinner." Her heart will soar.
In time, she will see that letting you grow up does not mean losing you. She will learn a new way of being related to you.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.