My mother passed away on May 2nd of this year (2021) at the age of 100. This past year has been a time of letting go as both my wife’s mother and my mother have died. COVID was not the primary cause, but a contributor to the decline of these two important women in my life. So, I will remember 2020 and 2021 as a period of letting go.
Letting go and the experience of loss and sadness are necessary experiences for all of us. For those of us in the sandwich generation with aging parents and young adults, letting go becomes even more challenging. With my mother, I had the opportunity to visit her one last time in Florida, post-vaccination, hold her hand, tell her I love her, that she was a great mom and say goodbye. Unfortunately, not all endings of relationships with parents or our young adults go well, and the accompanying grief may be complicated.
The Necessity of Letting Go
Letting go is an essential contribution that parents must make to their young adults. Our job as parents, as Anna Freud has noted, is “to be left.” From the moment we bring an infant into our lives, we are letting go. When they first breathe on their own, they are no longer ours. But as parents, we often believe that our children are ours even though they continue to demonstrate they are separate and have a mind of our own. We teach them not to go with the crowd and think for themselves, but if they follow that guidance and act or think differently than us, we have trouble letting go. Think of all the typical letting go’s parents must endure or celebrate:
- Discontinuing breastfeeding for the mother.
- Allowing the toddler to fall as they try to walk.
- Dropping the child off at pre-school or daycare or watching them get on the bus for their first day in school.
- Moving into Junior High and the advent of puberty.
- Moving into senior high and discussing plans.
- Helping them get their license and then praying for their safety when they walk off with the keys.
- Graduating from high school.
- Moving out of the house and sometimes moving back to give it another try later.
- Meeting the special person and getting married.
- Having the first grandchild.
For many, these events are bittersweet. As much as we would like to go back for one day when they were at a fond age and hold and hug them, we know we can’t, and we feel a sense of loss and sadness. When are children reach young adulthood, the challenges are myriad – developing an identity, establishing independence, finding a special person or friends who are more important than parents, and discovering a passion in life. We know these developmental tasks can be daunting. Many young adults stumble in their efforts to achieve these developmental milestones and often bounce back to parents for comfort, reassurance and support.
Why do Parents Have a Hard Time Letting Go?
Facing the loss of something we valued is going to be experienced with some level of sadness. It’s the inevitable human condition. We accept that we will eventually have to let go of our kids, but we often have expectations of who and what they will become. If they align with our expectations and visions of their future, we have an easier time letting go. If, however, they think and act in ways that don’t match our expectations and dreams for them, we can experience anger, sorrow, fear and may refuse to honor their choices. Brad Sachs, who has written extensively about parents and young adults, speaks of parents who hold onto their “fantasy” view of the child. We may resist seeing who the young adult is because we keep trying to get them to meet our fantasy view of who we think they are.
There is no more painful letting go for parents than when young adults embrace a lifestyle or value in contradiction with their parent’s deeply held beliefs. I have met with parents struggling to understand and accept a son or daughter who declares that they are nonbinary in gender orientation or believe they are gay. Religion is another area that can be divisive and difficult for both parents and young adults. When young adults move away from their parent’s religious beliefs and traditions and even disavow these, parents suffer and often resist letting go.
The Importance of Honesty
Into my mother’s dying days, she lamented that I had strayed from the religious beliefs that she had taught. Almost without fail, my visits to her in Florida rarely concluded without her asking me if I was reading the Bible and going to church. I had to answer truthfully that I was not as disciplined in these practices as she would like. Even though I could see the sadness she experienced in my response, honesty was the more critical value I needed to demonstrate. We need to keep in mind the importance of honesty when our kids risk expressing a view or embrace a lifestyle that does not align with our expectations or desires. With my mother, the love we shared was never in doubt and became the anesthesia that made these acknowledged differences tolerable. We face losses, differences, and disagreements in our lives and within our families, but love must always win the day.
For more on this letting go see: Love to Let Go: Loving Our Kids into Adulthood.