Being a parent is a role assigned when your child is born or adopted. It continues as long as you live. In contrast, parenting “— promotes and supports the physical, social, emotional and intellectual development of a child from infancy to adulthood.” (Wikipedia)
As Mom or Dad, you will always be a parent. But “parenting” is a clearly time-limited relationship which has an expiry date once a child’s full independence is achieved. Yet, In reality, this process of de-parenting is a very complex affair with many twists and turns. Let’s look at some of them.
As parents of kids with special needs or disabilities are well aware, the years of hands-on parenting are typically extended beyond a child’s chronological arrival at adulthood. When children present with exceptional physical, emotional or other developmental challenges, their growth toward total independence can be delayed or never attained. Over my career in social work, it has been gratifying to work with some of the growing number of group homes in Ontario. These resources, as well as home supports and assistive technology, offer a choice for many older special needs children to move as close to independence as possible. They also provide Mom and Dad the option of reducing their active parenting roles while obviously remaining as parents.
An entirely different scenario involves children who have reached the age of maturity but who encounter life circumstances such as joblessness or a debt load which extends or renews dependency on their parents. In 2016, 42% of adults between 20 and 34 in Ontario were living with parents, a 20% increase since 2001. As a young man who lived 700 miles from home for three years of joyful independence, I gave up that freedom for a reluctant return to my childhood bedroom at age 24, when I returned to Toronto for grad school. The adjustment was difficult. I was grateful to have parents who re-opened their doors and their well-stocked fridge for me as a penniless student, but I resisted any perceived attempts to be subject to their parenting.
Bob, enjoy your date. What time can we expect you home this evening?
Mom, I am a grown man. I don’t need you to set a curfew.
I am not doing that. I just need to know if we should leave the door unlocked.
Oh! Sorry I misunderstood.
In a third setting, this move back home comes as a result of an adult child’s crisis, even in mid-life. Fleeing from spouse abuse, reeling from a painful divorce, or perhaps recovering from a serious accident or illness can result in a return to one’s former home for care and support. In such circumstances, the returning a son or daughter will likely welcome some renewed parenting while they slowly rebuild a life.
There is one more chapter in a life journey where this balance between being a parent and parenting is the most difficult to define.
We begin the process of literally “letting go” of our children when they take their first wobbly steps. Then, we wave an anxious goodbye as they are off to day care or kindergarten. It seems too soon that we help pack their suitcases with a mix of pride and worry as college or travel or a first job in a far-away city beckons. One day, most parents will watch with happy tears as that grown son or daughter exchange wedding vows. On this momentous occasion, mother and father can finally remove their parenting hats — or do they?
One of the hardest tasks for many of us as parents is to resist the temptation to put those hats back on our heads, even when not invited to do so. How painful it could be if we think we have wise advice to offer, yet it is neither requested nor appreciated.
But, a more common dilemma is this: as parents, we must sit back and watch while our children encounter the adult world on their own terms. If only we could still protect and shelter, make wise choices for them, ensure their happiness and well-being, as we once did. Being a parent without parenting is difficult. We still retain all the love, the concern, the hopes, the dreams for our grown children, but it is now their path to navigate and do so without holding our hands.
Ironically, one day in most family relationships, the issue of parenting will again emerge. Only this time, it will be our turn as aging mothers and fathers to notice that our own children are parenting us.
Dad, are you eating enough vegetables? Mom, do you want me to make that doctor’s appointment for you? Let me take the heavy end! I will drive you to the store.
Then life will have come full circle and we must gracefully accept and appreciate the new reality. At least, they haven’t yet mandated a curfew for me, reminded me to wash behind my ears nor checked that I cleaned my teeth before bed. It could be worse!