I have read your columns off and on for years and thought you might help me with what must be a common problem for which I have found no good solution. I am a middle-aged mother (divorced) who struggled through a bad marriage for "the sake of the children" until I couldn't do it anymore. I now know that accounts for a large part of the problem. I am having a great deal of difficulty letting go of my protective parenting mode and can't really believe that I will be happy without my kids around. I dwell in a place of regret and longing even while I try to redefine myself as a single and respected career woman.
Now, when my two young adult children call or visit (having just reached 19 and 20), I can't resist my urge to parent them. By this, I mean to reassure them, to offer support (financial, emotional, organizational), and to generally regress to the point at which I've lost my own way. I can't always tell whether I continue to try to "pick up the pieces" of our somewhat separated lives out of a sense of guilt or responsibility. I do this often at the expense of my own emotional and financial health, as I have always done.
The worst part is I see my children functioning in much the same way as my broken marriage: a cycle of success always followed by multiple failures. By playing my usual role of savior to my family (a slight exaggeration), I know I continue to send the message that my children aren't strong enough or perhaps wise enough to make it on their own.
In truth, I know the opposite is true and that they often suffer more than they gain from my oversight and involvement. I read the books (and advice columns) telling me to back off. Both of my kids tell me that on a regular basis and increasingly show a level of disrespect for my advice and influence that only their father has matched. When they are not in the midst of a crisis of their own (they both suffer from low self-esteem and depression after experiencing unpredictable bouts of marital discord and instability that their father often used to pit them against me), they tell me that "I am their rock" and that they know I act only out of deep love for them.
I have gotten over the unfair characterizations and comparisons that come out of an ugly marriage and divorce but I have not gotten over the sense that that was it, my only chance at a family and I blew it. Or he blew it, but it no longer matters. I miss the familial state of existence so much that I conjure it up by having dinners together or by seeking advice from the terrible ex-husband for whom I have very little regard anymore. I look everywhere for some kind of validation that I am a good mom. And I burden my kids with that need as well.
So tell me, really, how do I and how far can I back off at this stage of our lives?
Still a Mom
Dear Still a Mom,
Here is an idea. Make a list of the things you say and do that represent this behavior you would like to change. Be concrete. Use the words you would use. Such questions and offers of help might sound like the following:
"Oh, here, I can wash those."
"Are you taking your vitamins?"
"Here, I bought you this shirt."
"That's OK. I wasn't really watching that."
"Have you talked to your father?"
"I made you a sandwich."
"Are you getting enough sleep?"
"Here is an extra bottle of vitamins. I can get more."
"Do you need money?"
"Are you eating enough?"
"Do you need a ride?"
"Would you like a sandwich?"
"I could buy you some groceries."
"Here, do you like it? I made you this."
"Do you want to take some food with you?"
"Have you seen the doctor?"
"Do you need a ride?"
"It's OK, I wasn't really watching that show."
"Here, put some gas in your car."
"Are you sure you don't want a sandwich?"
Having made the list, think of things you might say or do that are opposite to these statements.
For instance, instead of saying, "Do you need money?" try saying, "I know you are managing your money and I'm glad." In other words, try replacing statements of concern with statements of confidence. This will make you feel better and will communicate to your children that you are confident about their ability to manage in the world. They might not say it -- they may look at you strangely, in fact, the first time you say such a thing -- but I think they will appreciate it.
Here is another idea. Try making positive statements in general. Instead of saying, "Do you need clothes?" try saying, "You look good." Instead of saying, "I've been worried about you," try saying, "It's good to see you."
When you start to say, "Do you need ... Can I get you ..." just stop. Just sit there and see how long you can go without saying "Do you need ... Can I get you ..." Make it a contest for yourself. You will probably find that as you practice you can go for longer periods of time not being Mom too much.
They still need you to be Mom now and then. They'll let you know when they need you to be Mom. They just also need you to acknowledge that they're doing adult things their own way, and they need to be able to make mistakes, too, just like you and I did.
In the spirit of acting opposite, you might even consider asking for something, or letting them do something for you. Just see what it feels like. For instance, if you are starting to say, "Can I buy you a soda?" try saying, "Want to buy me a soda?" Or maybe you don't drink sodas. I don't drink sodas. I guess a lot of people don't drink them. They're not that good and they're full of sugar. But you get the idea.
I'm backing up my iPhone and it's taking forever. That's why the digression. But I'm on the case.
Look for times when one of your children might be trying to give you something, and accept it and be grateful. For instance, one of your children might try doing something nice for you like driving you somewhere, or buying you a soft drink. You might start to say no, no, that's OK. Change that. Do something new. Accept an offer of help. Let them do things for you. Do not insist on paying. When you insist on paying you deny them the act they are trying to engage in. (I do not know if this is a pattern with you, but it may be for some readers.)
I know how this is. You sometimes have to sit and watch. Practice sitting and watching. Practice.
A lot of it is practice.