All parents worry about their kids, and that doesn’t stop when they grow up. But the nature and duration of our worries has changed since we ourselves were kids…mostly we worry about whether they’re happy. Our parents, children of the depression, cared more about our security than our personal contentment, but we’ve always worried more about their inner happiness than their external achievements. That’s as true of the second wave of boomers who began raising their children in the mid-eighties and nineties as it is of us first wavers who did it in the seventies.
We worry about them almost as intensely as we did when they were younger; a recent University of Florida study reports that while the focus of adult children’s worries overwhelmingly centers on their parents’ health, parents have many diverse worries – their children’s health, finances, relationship issues and problems in balancing work and family.
Most of us did our final stretch of growing up out of sight, if not mind, of our own parents. But today, even if we don’t co-reside with our grown kids and/or their families (which a growing number of us do) we’re much more involved with them than we were at the same age with our own parents, who were generally content with carefully edited reports of only what we wanted them to know about our lives. And current research as well as contemporary practice indicates that adult children want, need and welcome parental support– financial, logistical, and emotional. Kids between 20 and 35 are more dependent on their parents for a longer time than ever: a child’s third decade will cost its parents a third of the total they spent on the first two. Yet as the MacArthur Foundation Network recently confirmed, the relationship between emerging adults and their parents remains uncharted territory; virtually nothing is known about how it’s renegotiated as they become adults, especially during a longer, more complicated passage to maturity in a competitive, high-stakes world.
Today it’s tough to know when the parenting years are over, because the meaning of both parent and adulthood has changed. The prevailing opinion is that the faltering economy and the growth of co-generational living is the reason, but the condition I call “Permanent Parenthood” © is much more multidetermined. We want honest, authentic, intimate relationships unlike those we had with our own parents (at least, we think we do). Technology – the availability of 24/7 electronic communication – has tightened the ties that bind us together. So have demographics – over half of first wave boomers were single parents during part or all of their kids’ childhood, which changes and intensifies the parent/child dyad. The desire for inclusiveness – to be part of the dominant culture – is different from the wish to maintain our youth, and as we age and grow ever more socially invisible, it becomes even stronger. And for many of us, whether divorced or widowed, the most intimate relationship we have is with a grown child.
Worrying about our kids is partly habit, but at this stage of our lives it reflects our investment in the relationship. Both generations feel positively about their relationships when the other party worries about them and conveys their concerns, but when we express ours, we need to do so in a way that doesn’t undermine their autonomy or make them feel that we perceive them as incapable of managing their own affairs. And the more often we repeat and discuss our fears with them, the more negatively they view the relationship.
One of the things I miss most since my mother died is the emotional sustenance I used to draw from the knowledge that someone, somewhere in the world, was thinking about me and wondering if I was okay. I used to tell her not to worry about me so much – after all, I was a grown up. And when my own grown-up kids tell me the same thing, I reply just the way she always did: “Why else do you think none of the things I worry about have happened to you?”