Magazine article Work & Family Life

What about Grown-Ups.And How We Get along with Our Parents

Magazine article Work & Family Life

What about Grown-Ups.And How We Get along with Our Parents

Article excerpt

Hello, Arthur. This is your mother. Do you remember me? ... Someday you'll get married and have children of your own and Honey, when you do, I only pray that they'll make you suffer the way you're making me. That's a Mother's Prayer.

In "Mother and Son," the Mike Nichols and Elaine May skit from the early Sixties, the son is a NASA scientist interrupting a countdown at Cape Canaveral to take an emergency call from his mother, who wants to tell him she's going into the hospital to have her nerves X-rayed because he hasn't called lately. Within minutes, this competent adult is reduced to infantile blathering.

At least in part, we are all still children throughout our lives, but never so overtly as when we are in the presence of our parents. We wear the mask and perhaps the clothes and posture of grown-ups, but inside our skin we are never as wise or as sure or as strong as we want to convince ourselves and others that we are.

We may fool the rest of the people all of the time, but our parents can see past the mask of adulthood. To them, we seem always to be works-in-progress. In part, this is because they fear they will lose us if we grow up and become secure and independent.

It is less threatening if our security and independence don't carry us too far away. It is easier to treat a grown child as an adult if we stay around for any fine-tuning they need to provide. A parent's work is never done. There are always little nips and tucks by which we can be made better.

Stripping away our masks

Parents who would like to show that their child is still imperfect-and is still in need of parental attendance-have a variety of time-honored techniques at their disposal. For example, they can simply remind us that we are not quite who we pretend to be. They can bring up stories from our childhood at the most amazingly deflating moments, like telling a new boss a few of the gems our second-grade teacher had to say about us.

Or parents can fail to cheer our successes as wildly as we expected. More subtly, they can cheer our successes too wildly, forcing us into the awkward realization that our achievement did not truly warrant the fireworks and brass band.

Parents may also undercut our sense of mastery by making us distrust our values. They may feel betrayed when their children adopt different styles . and habits. But each generation's job is to question what their parents may have accepted on faith and to adapt the previous generation's system of values for a new age.

No parents a generation ago could have anticipated the world we find ourselves in now. Children don't get to be grown-ups until they understand that grown-ups don't have a magical ability to see the future.

What it takes to be an adult

These days many parents have become the villains of their children's lives-the people the child blames for his or her shortcomings or disappointments. I'm sure our parents did make a lot of mistakes-like most parents, including my own, and including me. But that was then and this is now. A lot of parents reached adulthood as they raised us and they are better people now than they were then.

But if our identity comes from our parents' failings, then we remain forever a member of the childhood generation, stuck and unable to move on to an adulthood in which we identify ourselves in terms of what we do, not what has been done to us.

Our parents cannot grant us this adulthood. We must claim it for ourselves. …

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