Battle Hymn of the (Older) Tiger Mother

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When it comes to adult children, says Myrna Blyth, parents have all of the concern — but none of the control

Women talk to each other about their children, even when those children are all grown up. I noticed that again the other day when I had lunch with a woman I was meeting for the first time. We talked about a lot of things, but we spent quite a bit of time on our children, even, though, in my case, the children have children of their own.

I used to watch many all-female focus groups and the same thing would happen. Each woman, sitting around the table, would introduce herself, perhaps talk a little about her work or hobbies, and then, in far greater detail, share their kids’ ages, what their kids were doing. Sometimes they would boast about their achievements and other times even share the problems they might be having with the kids. Although strangers, they seem to know that talking about children would create an immediate woman-to-woman intimacy and understanding. Even if they were married, they hardly ever talked much about the men in their lives.

I’ve always thought that dealing with adult children is far more difficult than raising small ones. Whether you were a Spock softie or a Tiger Mom-before-her-time, once your kids grow up, you end up with the same concerns but none of the control. At the same time, our kids these days take a long, long time to grow up. A demographer friend once told me that because we live longer, we do, of course, stretch out our middle age. That’s why we like to think that 60 is the new 40. But, at the same time we happily extend those middle years, our children are adding years to their adolescence. Today’s twenty-five year old is probably a lot more like the seventeen- year-old of past decades. Yes, I’m sure you’ve noticed, they stay immature a lot longer.

That’s why I think those years right after college are especially daunting. I remember thinking that when my son was small if he really didn’t like his teacher, I could have, at least, called the school and tried to have him changed to another teacher. But, if he disliked his first or second boss, I couldn’t call the HR department and ask to have him switched to another boss. I just had to listen if he complained and complained.

And that is part of it. Many of us are a lot closer to our children than we were to our parents. I know my relationship with my own parents was rather stilted. For years our long-distance telephone conversations were usually about the weather — they were in Florida in the sunshine, while I was in New York in the snow — how they were feeling and the grandchildren. Not much else.

In contrast, we wanted to be friends with our kids, and we are. That means we know a lot more about their lives, year after year and because of that we usually have a lot more to worry about, year after year.

But maybe — like a child — I underestimated my own parents’ feeling. There is that bond that always mixes love and concern. I remember once visiting them when they were in their 80’s and going out for a long, long walk on the beach. When I came back it was almost dark and I saw in the distance a lone figure standing by the condo’s pool. It was my dad. He said he was about to go out and search for me. “That’s ridiculous. It isn’t really late and I’m fine,” I said. “Your mother was worried,” he replied. And then he hugged me hard.

Editor’s Note: Myrna Blyth is editor-in-chief of ThirdAge.com. The founding editor of More magazine, former editor-in-chief of Ladies Home Journal, and author of four books, she has was written for The New York Times, Redbook, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications.

5 comments so far.

  1. avatar Barbara Hannah Grufferman says:

    Terrific article . . . and so true! As we leave this morning for a four-day tour of colleges (the first of many such tour trips) with our 16-year old, I am already feeling nostalgic for the “total control” I wielded for so long, which was comforting in this sometimes uncomfortable world we live in. I know, for sure, I will be like your dad . . . watching out, just to make sure, my kids are safe.

  2. My kids are in the failure to launch stage and I’m sure I’ve done something wrong! I was not ready for them to go when they left for college, but it didn’t take long to get used to the quiet and just about the time I settled in they bounced back and now don’t seem to care whether they leave or not!

    This time around things are very different. They’re fun to be with and give way more than they take. They are a bit of burden financially, and they are not as neat or quiet as either my husband or I would prefer, but they love rock and roll, we talk movies endlessly and we share the same wacky sense of humor. So why would I want them to go again? It’ll be harder the second time, for sure.

    I also know all too well how hard the world is and how their sensitive souls will struggle. At times I feel like we’ve been given a bit of a second chance at parenting. We’ve been given a little extra time to give them a little more love, a little more time to listen and support them as they chase their dreams and maybe, just maybe, a little more strength to endure the years ahead.

    It sure is different from when I was in their shoes!

  3. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    It was only yesterday when two of my “friends who lunch” began a conversation with “Aren’t we getting to the age where our kids would normally be thinking about caring about us?”  And then we all laughed.

    Those were the old days.  .  . but the world has continued to change so quickly that life as we knew it is long gone.  “Little children, little problems .  .  . grown children, big big problems” has made us – as parents – find that a single phone call can also change our world.  “I lost my job” OR “I am getting a divorce” seem the most prominent voices heard at the other end of the line.  These are single sentences, said with so much emotion, that we find ourselves too with tears in our eyes.  But these are the people we love the most.  We are there for them, we find, for weeks, for months, for years and years in this new day and age. 

    The scars of divorce remain.  .  . and the children problems, the MONEY problems, and so many more may come to roost.  In the home across my street, there are three male children in their early 50s back to living with Mom after divorces - a Mom well into her 80s.  Versions of this are repeated everywhere.

    Am I wrong .   .   . but if my own children are representative, serious illness seems to be striking them — with illnesses so foreign to me that I have to look them up, i.e. does anyone know what the deadly illness of the auto-immune CBC is that one of my children recently got out of nowhere??  I do now — and my heart is still bleeding for her.

    But you know what I realize?  I realize how strong we can be when we have to be. I know that as we get older, we are far from “all done”.  The learning curve, the caring curve seems to escalate.  .  . and, after the surprises take their original toll (for they do!), the love we have for our children swells even further.  The role of mother, of father is a lifetime role .   .   . and sometimes, sometimes,  it takes the sad times of our children to remind us how great our love is.

    And will always be.

     

  4. avatar Amaterasu says:

    Yes, I’m sure you’ve noticed, they stay immature a lot longer.  So true. My two sons are 23 and 28. They both moved out once in college for a while then moved back home. They just recently moved out again, do I think this time will be forever, not sure. Neither one has a wife or even a steady girl in their lives, and fortunatley no children yet in that scenario.
    They just don’t seem to want to move on in their adult lives. They work in the family business, so they have steady work and that shouldn’t change. They don’t live too far from home ( just a few miles ) so they’re here often to eat and visit. Thanks goodness they do their own laundry.
    I now have experienced the ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’ so-to-speak, and I’m loving it, I was ready. However, they just don’t seem to want to prepare for their future. Like buying a home and have a savings. My husband and I try to tell them, NOW is the time, then when you have a family, things will go alot smoother. They just don’t get it. I know later on they are going to say “I wish I had listened” and there comes the no control thing!

  5. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Our children grew up launching themselves into their careers and not one of them has wanted to come back home except for home cooked meals. Part of this was because I let them suffer consequences for their actions as small children. I was relieved to hear Myrna say that she didn’t change her child’s teacher. I was one of those parents who let the kids sort out their own lives. They were told from an early age that life wasn’t fair and that childhood was the time to learn how to adapt to it.

    I was highly criticized for making the boys stand on their own two feet. My reasoning was that my husband and I could have an accident tomorrow and we wanted them prepared for life not nesting until they were helpless. Today they are all self-supporting and reasonably happy individuals. Our youngest thanked us for teaching him how to be independent and stay out of trouble in college. We have a wonderful adult relationship with the kids.

    Childhood is preparation for adulthood it is not a time to make your child’s every fantasy a reality. Our kids had everything they needed and a lot of what they wanted but it was not a feathered nest they could fall back into. Some of the children we know who failed to launch were never grounded in reality or expected to make their own decisions. I don’t consider coming back home a parental failure sometimes it is economic or to care for elderly family not a failure to grow up.