Annette Byford is the author of Once a Mother, Always a Mother
One of the joys and challenges of getting older is that us parents have to adjust our relationship with our children. This is at a time when these children are becoming adults themselves. The transition from years of being focused on the next generation to a situation where we potentially have more time for ourselves should be an easy one, but is in reality a lot more complicated than we may be prepared for. Here are some thoughts and tips how to navigate this transition.
When we become parents, in particular when we become mothers, we are inundated with, at times quite bewildering and contradictory, advice. There are numerous books, blogs, tv programs telling us how to best bring up our children.
With children entering their teenage years this advice becomes a lot thinner on the ground. And by the time our children have grown up the advice has stopped. It is as if there is no need for further advice, as our job is supposed to be done and things are supposed to have now become fairly straight forward between mothers and grown-up children. As a psychotherapist and mother of grown-up children myself I know that this is far from the truth. I have approached this subject in my recent book “Once a Mother, Always a Mother”.
New and Different Challenges
Clearly being a mother of an adult child confronts us with new and different challenges:
• If early years are about providing a base for secure attachment, now mothers become observers rather than core participants in their children’s lives. There is loss involved here and it can feel quite painful at times.
• There is often a curious on/offness of connection. The right amount of closeness and separateness between mother and adult child has to be constantly renegotiated.
• Mothers are on the receiving end of their children’s life decisions, about jobs, partners etc
• At the same time there are likely to be a lot of changes in the mother’s life: she may have to respond to her own parents’ ageing or death, she will have to reengage with her partner in a new way, she may have to negotiate her own or her partner’s retirement. Most of all she will have to come terms with herself getting older.
How to deal with these challenges and how to make sure that our relationship with our adult children is a as good as it can be?
Accept change, do not fight it!
Successful parenting must lead to increasing degrees of separateness. This will hurt but trying to hold back the tide is doomed to failure for both mother and child. Step back and learn to be more of an interested and engaged observer of your child’s life, rather than hanging on to being a core participant. The more you do that, the more they are likely to invite you back in. You are supposed to launch them, not to fly with them.
Avoid perfectionism, embrace the notion of “good enough”.
Being a mother can be such a powerful and ultimately not very helpful mix of high expectations, perfectionism, and guilt. The stakes are so very high. The psychotherapist Donald Winnicott introduced the idea that we should aim to be “good enough” mothers and that is still very relevant at this stage of motherhood. You will get it wrong from time to time, there will be conflict occasionally, it cannot always be harmonious. Don’t panic, it comes with the territory of normal family life. Don’t believe those who pretend otherwise: all families have their not so easy moments and stories behind the curtain.
Work on your relationship with the newcomers to your family.
Your child may choose a partner who fits in easily and successfully with your family, but they may not. Even if they do, you may feel slightly side-lined and at times it may not be so easy not to be as central to your child’s life as somebody else now is. Try to get to know the newcomer to your family in their own right, be curious, be interested. Especially for mothers-in-law of daughters-in-law it can be an enormously helpful and indeed rewarding experience to get to know each other as independent women rather than just in your family roles.
Embrace grandmotherhood, but remember: this is not your baby, but your child’s baby.
Give as much support as you can, but remember this is what you are, support in the second line. Your child holds the baby, you hold your child. Young parents need all the support they can get and who is better placed to give it than the people who care deeply for them and the new arrival. Tell them how well they are doing, build up their confidence, listen to their anxieties. And enjoy your grandchildren!
Avoid isolation and link up with other mothers
Being a mother is not something that should be done on your own. By this I mean that we tend to keep our more difficult experiences as mothers private, but this can lead to a feeling that we are the only ones who have those difficult experiences. Find at least some good female friends with whom you can be open. You will soon find that you are not on your own and this will interrupt that dangerous feeling of isolation.
Remember your own non-mother self.
Years of your life may have focused on your children and your family but remember who you were before you had children. You are more than these children’s mother and this may be your time. The nest is empty now, so how are you going to fill it? What are you going to do with this next phase of your life? There will not be immediate answers, but you should make some time to think about this.
Your child has the right to be different from you.
It is so easy to project your own wishes and ambitions onto your child and then be disappointed when they turn out to be different from what you expected when your child was still all promise. It is not their responsibility to live up to that. Accept and respect their right to be different.
Once A Mother, Always a Mother – On Life with Adult Children by Annette Byford is out now, Ortus Press.