When do my thirty-something year old kids learn to make it on their own so that I can die in peace? “How could you? How could you go so far away for so long and leave us all here?” my daughter moans into the phone. “Really, Mom, how could you?”
The whining voice on the other end of the cell phone is that of my first-born. She is 32 years old. I am in Thailand and she is in New York. You just can’t get any further away than that, and of course my guilt kicks in big-time.
I’ve come to Asia to teach for a year. My kids are coming for a month-long visit at Christmas. My husband is joining me for several months beyond that. When we all discussed this opportunity, everyone was excited by the opportunity it presented. My accepting the post was not a unilateral decision; it was decided by family consensus. But now that the reality of the distance between us has set in – and I’m having a great time – the whining and guilt-tripping and angst have begun.
“Do you want me to quit my job and come home?” I ask, afraid of what the answer might be.
“No, no, of course not. I just miss you, that’s all. We all miss you a lot.”
It’s nice to hear this, of course. To realize more than ever that you are the glue that holds your family together. But it is also more responsibility than I think I want at this stage of my life. When do my thirty-something year old kids learn to make it on their own so that I can die in peace? When do I get my down time?
I once wrote in my newspaper column that the fat lady never sings when it comes to parenting. That realization, I said, creeps up on you like kudzu, attractive initially but then restrictive and itchy. “You think you’ve been exposed enough to acquire immunity,” I wrote, “that you’ve somehow passed a time test and have the right to declare yourself free, when suddenly, you’re in the thick of it all over again. And then you realize that like every other parent on the face of the earth, you’re in this for life, and it just gets harder.”
I once listened to a ninety year old woman worry about her sixty-one year old daughter. A fifty-seven year old colleague of mine called her mother, not her husband, when our plane was delayed. “She worries,” she said.
I understood completely. I have totally neurotic fears about what can happen to my kids when I’m not there (and that I’m convinced have happened when I don’t talk to them every few days.) Parenting means never being able to say you’re done.
In the time I was away in Thailand, I spent many a solitary night worrying about terrorism, nuclear disaster, illness and bad-weather events. I also spent a hefty portion of time, and my paycheck, on the phone doling out advice, reassurance, and encouragement. I shopped like a maniac at the various night markets for gifts to assuage my guilt.
How easy it all was in the days of diapers, Robitussin and sleepless nights! How silly I was to complain about all those carpools! Physically exhausting as those times were, they don’t hold a candle to the psychic stress of parenting adult children whose lives are so much more complicated than ours ever were.
The upside is that I love my kids passionately. And I enjoy them. I couldn’t wait for them to get to Thailand for the holidays so that we could share all that the country has to offer. I love that they do need me and ask my advice and want me around. And I see in them people that I admire. I’m proud of the job I did raising them. I enjoy their competence and I learn from them. We laugh a lot together. We are friends and what better reward could a parent have than that?
Come to think of it, I guess it’s worth a telephone tirade or two, just to remind us both how much we do mean to each other.
Elayne Clift is a writer and former adjunct professor at Keene State College and mother of 2 adults.