Privilege Blog

Old Paper, Old Tape, Or, Saturday Morning at 8:10am

When the kids were little, they belonged to me. As babies in utero, every last bit. As infants, more so than not. Then one day they grew up and belonged to themselves.

I’m on board with this growing up business, but it’s not without complexities.

The picture above is from a cupboard in the laundry room. We used it for years to tape up kid information. Ballet rehearsals, soccer schedules, snack day responsibilities, SAT test dates. All the stuff of modern upper-middle class American parenting. Of everything in this house, that cupboard alone has never been repainted. So the paper corners and old tape remain, like pottery shards, or Artifacts of the Ancient City of Accomplished Childhood.

And accomplished they were. Snow Queens, league championships, kudos and spotlights. All of which reflected on me – no matter how much real or polite humility I professed. You know exactly what I mean.

I’m still proud, now that they are grown, but differently so. They belong to themselves and they own their accomplishments. I no longer feel that their competence or achievements are indications that I am a good mother. At least not very much. I feel something more like happiness, for them because I love them. Nobody walks up to me in parking lots any more and says, “Your daughter is such a beautiful dancer,” or, “Your son writes like someone many years older than he is.” You know what I mean.

My children’s doings belong to them.

But there’s a tradeoff. I give them back their full light. I ask, in return, that I get to show up as myself.

We’re working that part out. They work at figuring out their adult selves, as they should, while I work at figuring out what it means to be a mom of grownups. I have no plans to become just a buddy. I figure I will always be the mother, and I welcome the role as much now as I always have. But I’m not the closet any more. Yes, I said closet. I’m not just there, opening and closing, making mom noises and mom gestures.

When they are little, you give them birth and sustenance and warmth and safety. They give you their fluffy heads, juicy wrist fat, and little chatter voices. Then maybe they give you prizes, in school, in sports, in diverse arenas of measurable achievement. When they grow, you’re going to have to reinvent the contract.

I suspect this didn’t use to be generally necessary, before birth control and modern medicine. For the most part, I don’t think we lived too far into the adulthood of our youngest child. I’ve read that women who did live on, potent but no longer caring for children, gave rise to the mythology of witches. I suppose I should start working on my magical powers. I may have to substitute reasoned advice for incantations, but perhaps I could wave lavender, or burn the gray-green lichen that grows on oaks in California hills.

Or else, all linguistic flourishes aside,  just figure out the rhythm of the new conversation. Which still mostly ends with, “Love you, honey.” “Love you too, Mom.”


Note: I just remembered that I need to give you this link, to the radio broadcast of my interview with Maureen Anderson at the Career Clinic. It will play tomorrow, Sunday, at 9pm Pacific. A snippet is up right now, here. I suppose that once one’s kids grow up, one has more liberty to speak freely.

57 Responses

  1. Hi Lisa,
    Lovely blog post today. I feel the same way. My son is going to be 3 in November and he is growing up so fast. Miss seeing you in the hallways. Hope to see you again soon.

    Tracie :)

  2. This post made me burst into tears. As you know, my daughter got married two weekends ago, and I’m still taking in yet another profound change. Trying to figure it all out, especially me, and probably like most mothers, wondering if my job has become obsolete? She did text me from the Hong Kong airport on the way back from their honeymoon yesterday, asking if I could change their sheets, do a bit of grocery shopping and stick it in their refrigerator, etc. I was so thrilled, and yet, should I have been? I have so much to say about this post, but I don’t want to write a novella here, so I’ll stop. Love your introspective Saturday posts.

    1. As a 36 year old who skypes with her mom every day I can tell you this: she still needs you, and she will probably need you even when she doesn’t realize it. Relationships evolve and change, of course but I still need my mother and she is the first person I want to share good and bad news alike, and her unconditional love makes me stronger. Mom’s jobs are never obsolete :)

    2. Kathy, I know that this is a difficult subject, yet it needs to be discussed and discussed over and over.

      No, I don´t think you should interfere in your daughter´s life. She is a married grown up woman and can change her sheets herself.
      You are soon starting to behave like your own mother.

      I agree with Lisa. Let the young ones live their own life.
      It is not normal to communicate with your grown up child all the time.
      Loosen the leach a bit, a bit more and then finally take the collar away.
      Do you dare to do this?

    3. Hi Mette,
      No, I would have NEVER called to ask my mom a favor, nor would she have offered – so not behaving like her at all. It was a long trip home for them, and people had been staying at their place while they were gone, etc. I still enjoy doing maternal things when asked, but also don’t impose mothering on her at this age. It is a fine line, but am glad she feels that she can call upon me when needed.

    4. Kathy, same thing over here. Never, ever, did the thought of asking my mother to do something for me come to my mind. I guess, had I asked her a favor, she would have, once again, been angry with me.

    5. Kathy,just read this and like you have shed tears,mine for a lost daughter,different maybe from Mette & yourself with mothers…gosh I am so tangled up with tears can’t think straight….I was never the type of mum like you both had..still I failed as a mother somewhere along the way.

      Lisa, a beautiful well written piece that has touched memories,you are a wonderful mother,and I agree children must be given wings to fly and find their own way in the world. Thank you.Ida

      1. Oh Ida, I do feel for you so. You’ve spoken of this before. I don’t know the details, but I am very sorry. I hope things will heal. I can’t imagine it was all your doing.

    6. Ida,
      I feel so sad as I know your story. As horrible as my mother was, I am still a somewhat devoted daughter, and she would be shocked if she read how I feel about her, although I do believe deep down somewhere, she must know.
      So, we don’t really know why your daughter has behaved as she has, and I am still hoping (as should you) that it will someday soon change. My email has changed (I sent you the new one) – did you get it? If not, Mette has it.
      With love and hope,

  3. I have enjoyed all of your posts, but this is perhaps one of my very favorites. I’ve been in the land of grown up children for some years now and it IS different from all the mom years that came before. Sometimes, I am even MORE proud of them as totally grown up adults shining their own lights. In fact, sometimes I am more amazed than anything else.

    (We have the place in our closet where we measured their height for years. It has not been painted over either.)

  4. I am not, nor have I been a mother. Unless you count my endless procession of relationships in which I encourage the love object to go back to school and finish their degree. And then to go get another, degree that is. For them.

    I’m good at letting go.

    You are a master of the nuance. How lucky are your offspring,

    xo jane

  5. It’s a good thing that kids follow their own paths.

    Both my kids have become so much more than I ever imagined, and it’s not like I didn’t have high expectations for them.

    There has been a lot of media talk about today’s new generation and how they were impacted by Boomer parents who bent over backwards to indulge them.

    No regrets here. It was worth every effort.

  6. This is lovely. So poignant and exactly how I feel. I cannot tell you how often I have had this discussion with my friends. What exactly is the role for the mother of adult children? My husband has the same questions concerning his role as the father of adult children and children-in-laws.

  7. They grow and so do you. That is the part of mothering that so surprised me–that I had an unrecognized capacity to transform and reinvent my role in so many ways.

    If anything, our ability to change is what keeps us connected. My “mothering” now takes the shape of being so proud and happy at the person my child has become in his adulthood. When I see him caring for others as he was cared for, when I see him striving to do what is right and good even in difficult situations, and when I see him reaping the rewards of his dedication and thoughtfulness–those are my indications that I was, and am, a good mother.

  8. This comes on a pivotal day. In a few hours I will kiss that scruffy check and head home after helping my son move into his last college housing as an undergrad. I was fine until my husband commented driving up that this past summer was probably the last time our son would ever be home for this extended time. I felt all complacency melt away.

    I miss those parking lot encounters, and like you, sometimes it felt like rock star status mixed with disbelief that my own children accomplished so much, more than I ever did or could have. I felt so much pride and awe and also when they would thank me for dinner and clear the dishes. It’s the big things and the little.

    I am trying to find my place, like you. Giving adults their space and yet finding a balance for all. When you figure it out, please let me know. :)

  9. What a great piece.

    This mom thing remains tricky, as far as I can tell, forever. My two children are in the 40 range now, with children of their own. We live close together, talk and get together very often. And now they have children of their own and I am the grandma I made fun of for the last 40 years! My own mother is gone now and I frequently think of how much she would love seeing her family grow up and up and up.

  10. I really appreciate your perspective. It made me recall that even though now, as a woman in her 40s, I talk to my mother almost every single day, this wasn’t always the case. Despite always being close, once I left for college and through most of my 20s and 30s, we weren’t regular communicators.

    Everything changes.

  11. It is a daunting task to embark upon, the undertaking of a metamorphosis of relationship with one’s adult children, but it must be done. Both my and my husband’s parents refuse to countenance the need for a different way of interacting with their offspring, one that is not all-controlling, deeply patronising and manufactured from steel hawsers of duty and guilt. The result is that they have killed any relationship between them and us and our siblings, it’s now a sham, filled with resentment on all sides. That’s what happens when one hides from the hard work of engaging with change, it steals up on one and bites one on the bum; it will happen anyway so one may as well make the very best, big hearted, courageous attempt at it that one can.

    1. “Steel hawsers of duty and guilt.” Thank you. And I love the way you describe a big-hearted attempt at engaging with change.

    2. You and ‘Materfamilias’ are key role models of mine, you both seem to relate to your adult children with a ‘don’t know exactly but will try my best’ attitude which is so honest and so deeply loving. Children don’t want or need their parents to be perfect, they want and need them to be real, and truly, authentically engaged with them, to be met somewhere around half-way, at whatever bend in the road their lives are currently traversing. Where as many actually relate via archetypes, ‘this is how I think it should be and I can’t tolerate any deviation from my preferred model of operation, this is my emotional comfort zone and I will not be budged. and if you, child, deviate from my chosen parameters, I will just blank you until you return to playing by my rules’. My m-i-l has not spoken to me or husband for 9 months, since birth of my daughter, because we did not give our baby my m-i-l’s name. Believe me, m-i-l has capacity to sulk for years, but this time we are not capitulating, for once we want to be met where we are, not where she’d prefer us to be. I so so hope I am not fossilised in my own self-righteous opinions with my children when they are grown. Nothing can grow in preCambrian rock.

  12. In being the best Mom I can be, I have not tried to be my children’s buddy. I did admit my own mistakes and apologize. The two main policies I tried to teach: do not harm yourself or anyone else. Failure? Some. Success? YES!!

    I listened to your radio interview and plan to listen to the rest tomorrow or later. I find so much that resonates with me in what you say and how you say it.

    1. Thank you. I am not sure what happened to the interview – I will ask Maureen tomorrow. Eventually there will be a podcast:).

  13. I’ve been working on a post that covers this territory off and on for almost two months now, after a novel that invited some thinking about this. With my eldest at 36, my youngest 27, all 4 quite decently educated and employed for some time now, myself navigating both menopause and the challenges of a relatively late career change, I know the terrain quite well, yet am still surprised. I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong way to approach this, but there are more and less sensitive and respectful ways. I know you’ll always take the “More” path! And probably enjoy the journey, perhaps even earning your Witchly badge on the way (in all its wiser, positive connotations, of course).

  14. How true,how ture. You said it all perfectly, as usual.

    The link didn’t work for me. Looking forward to listening tomorrow.


    1. The link did not work for me either, could it be that I’m on a Mac and simply cannot figure out which application to select for a successful opening, after 6 attempts using 6 different applications, I gave up. I hope for better luck on the full broadcast later today.

      Lisa, just look at your powers, look how beautifully you’ve made an opening for the revelation of so many profound feelings and observations. Evolving is strenuous work, we press on…

    2. Hi again Flo,

      Thanks for pointing this out. You’re right, I think, that .wmv files won’t download on Macs.

      I’m going to alert my tech guy about this.

      Sorry for the trouble! I hope you enjoy the interview — eventually…


    3. Thanks Maureen! I’ve put the question to a couple of Mac forums, general feedback agrees that I need to download Windows Media Player to open .wmv files. So, I’ll give that a go, then test it with your teaser link. Again, thanks so much!

  15. This is a rich, thoughtful, delicious piece. Ah, the perils of motherhood, and all we give to it – of ourselves, for ourselves, and of course for our children.

    I love this bit: I give them back their full light. I ask, in return, that I get to show up as myself.

    My sons are in college now; it’s odd how they regress when they come home (and I don’t think I’m encouraging it), yet they do accept me more or less as I am, in part because it was the three of us as a team for so long and there was no covering the messier side of parenting through that.

    Still, I know what you mean. As they grow more and more into themselves, we fade (appropriately) into the background – there, but certainly not in a primary way.

    It’s an odd loneliness, mixed with satisfaction.

    A beautiful and wise post, truly.

  16. I too enjoyed this post. Even though I am extremely proud of my three adult children and moved happily into a new post children career, there are those moments when my heart aches for the little people they once were. From time to time, I unearth a matchbox toy in the garden or come across a poster or report some child did for school and I become very wistful. Yet I know nostalgic retrospection conveniently overlooks the cold reality that being a parent can
    be really tough at times. We earn those gray hairs, do we not?

  17. hello lisa!

    you know most of my friends that have adult children are very involved in their children’s lives still. i’d say over-involved but that is me. they have traded relationships with themselves and their husbands for relationships with their grandchildren. while the young parents are off traveling and going out to dinner and movies, my friends are now babysitting. this is what the majority of them are doing. i don’t get it. the way i look at is that i did my job and loved every minute of it. they are all grown and live the lives they want to be living and so am i. we are for the first time in our lives being able to look at travel and other exciting things to do.

    thanks for this v interesting and well-written post. much love, janet

  18. I feel young adulthood is the time to let go and probably the most difficult one since parents tend to remain static and the young people move on, both literally and figuratively.

    After that – at least with my parents – came a time of helping each other out, me doing odd jobs in their household or buying stuff they couldn’t get hold of, them trying to help out when I needed something.

    And now my mother is widowed and quite ailing so I have to take care of her. Since she always instilled in us the importance of achievement and stellar performance but cannot live up to her own ideals anymore the whole process has been quite educational for both of us, let’s say.

  19. You touched my mothers heart to tears. It is always a transition, an adjustment, a reinventing. My neighbor who has school age children asked me last week if it gets any easier as they grow up. I would say not easier, just different. He’s going from sport to sport, my youngest recieved his selective service ID yesterday. I didn’t see that coming three days after celebrating his 18th birthday. Now we reinvent ourselves once more! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and heart. XO

  20. This is such a beautiful and touching post.

    I was never a mother to my own children, merely a stepmother to teenagers who are now adults, that I continue to love fiercely, and a grandson who I adore. The conversations are different, but mastering the subtleties of a changing language is a lifetime process.

    I suppose I believe you will traverse this path with grace and aplomb.

  21. This was a lovely, thought-provoking post, Lisa. The laundry room seems to be a collecting place for all sorts of odds and ends.

    When they were in first grade, my kids each made me a “flower arrangement” of a laundry soap cap vase, fabric flowers, and a plastic fork with a card stuck in the tines. I still have them lined up on the laundry room shelf – all different and each with a heartfelt note in babyish scrawl. They’ve been there for years – two of my kids are now in college – and I suppose they’ll stay there forever as a reminder of how things used to be. Did you leave the tape stuck?

  22. What a beautiful way with words you have! I am getting used to my new role as an empty nester. Some days I like it and some I don’t at all. I enjoy your blog tremendously.

  23. I’m a mac user also and couldn’t use the link. Hopefully, I’ll be able to hear the interview later tonight–MUCH later as I am assuming it is pacific time.

  24. Late with my comment, as your post made me thinking a lot. All through the growing of my daughters, I have felt that I am on step behind.
    Both of them have gone on and I have felt a bit like a question mark . – what did I miss – why don´t I grow up as fast as they.
    Both of mine are intelligent young women, and I find it hard to understand, where from did they they inherit their intelligence, genes, feeling a nobody myself for so many years,
    No, no, I am not envious of their brilliance, I admire it and feel humble.
    Letting go can be difficult. As it´s best, it is the normal thing, just like in animal kingdom; the young ones are ” pushed from the nest, nicely but definitely.
    I feel the quote mademarian chose from from your text so appropriate.
    Thinking about it myself.
    Thank you Lisa for this special post!

  25. Well, the show is playing right now. And it doesn’t appear to be my interview. My apologies everyone, not quite sure what’s going on.

    1. Everyone who has technical difficulties should have them with someone like you, Lisa. “Gracious” doesn’t begin to describe.

      I’ll be eager to hear what your fans think of this interview. Eventually!

  26. Excellent post Lisa. I just spent the weekend with my 3 adult children. First time in 3 years we’ve all been together in one place. I’m learning to be the mother of adult children. They are learning to be adults with their own lives independent of mom and dad. Its an interesting journey! One I’m happy to take, but a bit sad too.

  27. Lisa,thank you for your kind words.

    Kathy,no I have just checked,did not receive
    your new email,yes I live in hope.Ida x

  28. I love all your posts, but your “mothering” posts best of all. Such amazing descriptions of “fluffy heads” and “juicy wrist fat” are so perfect and make my eyes tear up (you’ve made a lot of people weepy with this one! :)) My kids are 11 and 13 so they have lost all that “cuteness” and I often wonder what our relationship will be like as we continue into the teen years and then to adulthood. Lots to think about. I like knowing that women everywhere struggle with this and that our hearts are so tender and fragile when it comes to our children that reading posts like this makes us feel like crying. Somehow that connection with all of you makes me feel much better about things.

  29. Oh, what a timely post; I have just cleared a cupboard and been blinded by tears caused by finding tiny glitter lipgloss pots and long-abandoned mis-spelled lists of friends and fluffy purses with a heartbreaking careful cache of utterly useless out-of-date foreign coinage. You are such a comfort – you express it, you model how to decorously deal with it and you hold out, over miles and continents, the virtual kleenex for the days we want to blubber and heave.

    As always, thanks!

  30. I am the mother of grown children, 30 and almost 28. In January I will become a grandmother (and I’m wildly excited about the prospect, I will tell you). I have to say, I love being the mother of grown children every bit as much as I loved being a mother when the kids were smaller – maybe more, if I am being brutally honest. I loved being a mom when the kids were little, but now that they are grown, funny, fabulous people our relationship is more complex and rich, since there is more give and take as opposed to the constant giving of being a mom to little ones. Does that make sense?

    My daughter and I usually talk daily – just checking in kind of stuff. My son and I talk once or twice a week on average. Both kids live nearby so we are able to have last minute suppers together if we feel like it, and sometimes my daughter and I exercise together or run errands together. My son is a musician and my husband and I often go out to watch his gigs. When my son throws his annual oyster roast for his musician friends my husband and I are always included.

    I am thrilled beyond belief that my children have chosen to stay close and connected with us, and that we can enjoy each other’s company as grown ups. I disagree with Mette’s post above that mothers need to disengage from their children’s lives. In fact, I can’t imagine just how I would do that or why I would want to, as I so enjoy my kids as adults and frankly they seem to really enjoy hanging out with me, too. I will never stop being a mother (and couldn’t, really, if I tried), but I do make an effort not to give unsolicited advice or try to “mother” these grown people who are more than capable of making their own decisions.

    As an aside, I am estranged from my own mother, who has made no secret of the fact that she doesn’t much care for me. Again, I can hardly believe my good fortune that my kids and I not only love each other, but like each other. I count my blessings every day.

  31. Great post. It’s a transition and an ongoing one, but can I just reassure you that your adult children will probably always have a little part of them that cries “I want my Mum!” when something goes really wrong.

    My Mum and parents in law have done a great job of supporting without smothering. My husband and I really value the relationships with them. My Mum sadly always wanted a bit more of me than I wanted to give but still, we were very close and I love(d) her a LOT! (She passed away last year and I miss her every day). I really miss knowing that I had that support from her. If everything else in my life turned to custard, she’d take me in.

    On the flip side, my Dad was a crap father while I was growing up and continues to be awful and it continues to hurt aged 35. I still want some kind of civil contact with him, but it just may not be possible…


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