In sixth grade I had a best friend who called her parents by their first names. I thought that was very cool and tried it at home, but my father and mother just laughed before they made one thing perfectly clear: They were not my friends, and therefore not to be addressed as such.
That was when boundaries seemed clearer and more defined than they are today, when the line between what’s private and what’s public, what’s acceptable and what isn’t, what’s right and what’s wrong is mutable, murky, and increasingly a matter of the only opinion that counts, which is our own. In our personal lives, too, we’ve relaxed many of the boundaries, traditions and conventions of gender, role and lately, age that don’t fit the context of our lives or limit us in ways we find unacceptable, especially in our relationships.
As all the psychosocial research concludes and a kazillion headlines, books, articles and magazine covers proclaim, women devote a lot of the space in their heads as well as their lives to relationships. We fantasize about the perfect relationship, and then try to make the ones we have (or seek) match the ideal. By the time we realize that’s probably not going to happen with our mates — who are doubtless finding out the same thing about us — we have kids. And one of the things we fantasize most, from the moment they’re born, about is having the perfect relationship with them. This is our nature as women, and as for nurture, we’re solidly convinced that if we parent them right, love them enough, and live through their adolescence, someday we’ll have it.
As a generation, we’ve changed the boundary between parent and child by enlarging the definition of the relationship to include ‘friend.’ Less formal and more casual than our own parents, we wielded our parental authority more lightly than they did, demanding less obedience and controlling our children less overtly, encouraging their self-expression, supporting their search for identity and desiring, above all, their happiness. Those are elusive goals at any age, but especially in early adulthood, when the shape of what Daniel Levinson called the first stable life structure of mature adulthood is created. For him, as for Erik Erikson and the other developmental theorists of the last century, that structure was usually in place by age 23. Today it’s often still under construction a decade later.
It’s in that in-between time that the relationship between parents and kids takes on the contours of how it will be when they are fully adult, or at least independent enough in every aspect of their lives, to make their connection with us — and ours with them — truly volitional. Will they still love us, when we’re 64? It’s one of the things that keeps us up at night, especially given the thus-far purely anecdotal research, gleaned from interviews and postings on numerous web sites geared to older women that indicates that many of them, both married and single, consider their most intimate relationship to be with a grown child (most often a daughter).
Academic research on the relationship between parents and emerging adult children is pretty thin on the ground — for such a dynamic life stage it’s less studied than any others, and the primary self-report instrument, the PARQ (Parent Adut Child Relationship Quality scale) a measure that captures positive and negative aspects of support and interactions in relationships between adults and their parents, is more often tested on a captive population of college students than middle aged or older parents, their own or anyone else’s. Beginning in the early 80s, studies in the field focused on “generational solidarity,” which provided evidence of cohesion between parents and adult children; more recently, a psychosociological perspective in which both generations report feeling mixed or torn in the relationship and experience both positive and negative sentiments toward the other,known as the intergenerational ambivalence model, has gained empirical as well as theoretical attention from researchers. What that data indicate is that parental support is important in early adulthood, has an overall beneficial effect on young adults, and does not compromise their (eventual) attainment of independence.
Maybe not. Our kids have felt independent since early adolescence, even if, in fact, they weren’t. We encouraged it, and often the circumstances of our own lives, personal and professional, required it. That may be why their lack of desire for actual independence is so surprising to us — a generation that couldn’t wait to be on its own. They don’t think about independence the same way we did — to them it’s the freedom to make their own choices, not necessarily their own living. That may be the boundary between parent and child that’s changed the most.