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The Pride and Pain of Success in Parenting

16Aug 2009

When I talk to parents, either in family meetings, counseling sessions, or lectures, I always describe one of the main goals of parenting is: “to raise independent functional adults”. First, you try to keep them alive so that they will at least become an adult (e.g. avoiding fatal car accidents as teens). Secondly, you want them to move toward independence, versus being eternally dependent on you. And finally, you want them to be “functional” in terms of having the character qualities necessary to function in the world (learning lessons like: work comes before play; there is a relationship between responsibility and privilege; life is made of choices, with accompanying results; there are limited resources in life [time,money, energy] so you have to prioritize — “You can’t do everything.”)

As parents, there are milestones along the way that show that your kids are on the right path (graduating from high school, getting a job and paying for some of their expenses, living away from home after college). And there are “ditches” to avoid as well — drug and alcohol addiction, serious credit card debt, inability to hold down a job over time.

Ultimately, when do you claim “victory!” as a parent? When can you say, “I think we were pretty successful as parents”? Being somewhat hard-nosed, but also truthful, I don’t think we really know how we did as parents until our grandchildren are young adults and displaying the characteristics we value. That is a long time off, but just like many other areas of life, I don’t think true success can be claimed until the first generation results are replicated.

Nonetheless, I think there are times (and this is one for us), where you can at least stop, take a breath, and claim temporary victory.

My wife, Kathy, and I are in the midst of a significant life transition. For the first time in 26 years and 3 months, we don’t have any of our children living at home. Our oldest two (twin sons, Daniel & Nathan) have both graduated from college and have been out own their own for a few years. One is a chaplain in the Army and being deployed to Iraq in a few weeks (for 12 months). One is involved in international medical relief work and currently is in Liberia (for just a short time). Our third son, Joel, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in May and is going back for a masters degree in biomedical engineering (with a full ride scholarship and teaching assistantship position.)  And our daughter, Elizabeth, just moved into her dorm room at college, after graduating from high school this spring.

Are we proud? Absolutely. Is the role of parenting over and we can claim complete success? Definitely not. But you have to stop at some points in life and rejoice in the progress made so far.

But with the pride also comes pain. Being successful as parents, raising “independent functional adults” (plus some other character qualities, also involves a fair amount of loss. Let me outline some of the losses we are experiencing:

  • Loss of communication. When kids move away, they aren’t there for dinner anymore (not as often, at least). You don’t see them before they go to school, or when they come home in the evenings. The opportunity for daily life small interactions diminishes significantly.
  • Loss of connectivity. Once they are out of the home (and gradually before then) they are living their own lives. They have their own activities (which you generally don’t attend like you did their soccer games or school concerts). They get to know lots of people you don’t know. Your lives become more separate and less connected (which is good and necessary, but still hurts sometimes.)
  • Loss of being needed on a daily basis. Many parents are actively involved in their children’s lives daily for years and decades. Moms who have the privilege of being at home with the children before the school years are especially attuned to this issue. At different stages in life, this issue becomes more poignant — when your oldest goes to their first day of school; when each child leaves to go to college; and when your youngest moves out.
  • Loss of role and identity. Closely related to the “not being needed on a daily basis” issue, is the loss of role and identity which can also occur. Some of us, as parents, seeing being a parent as one our primary roles and callings in life. When the more active stage of in-home parenting is over, the question: “What do I do with my time and energy now?” can come to the forefront.
  • Loss of togetherness. As your children get older, it is tougher to get time together as a total family. We have experienced this (this last week five of us got together for a family vacation, but Daniel couldn’t make it since he is in Liberia), but have been able to have brief flecks of time all together. Family gatherings without everyone there is bittersweet — you enjoy the time with whoever can make it, but you also have a sense of lack of completeness when one or more are missing.

When we talk with friends whose children are younger than ours, they often say: “I don’t know if I will be able to survive that.” But, like lots of life, you somehow get ready for the next stage by the time you get there. The transitions are tough, and painful (for us, at least). But the accompanying pride, joy of seeing your children “fly” on their own, and the wonder about the opportunities before you dampen the pain somewhat.

We’ll see what’s next!

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