What Kind of Parents Were We?

“What have you been doing since graduation?”

It’s the kind of question you hear from former classmates who still look vaguely familiar, even if you haven’t seen them in decades and have no idea who they are. No one at reunion replies “housewife” any longer, not even the elegant, bird-like alumnae from the thinning ranks of oldest graduates tottering across the spring-green quad, who mostly were. The rest of us cling to our professional identities, if we had or have them; mostly we did, as befits baby boomers who came of age in this ivied enclave of privilege at a time when women expected to have careers as well as families.

While raising kids is also what we did, we usually don’t mention that, at least not immediately. Yet it’s our longest and most durable role. We’ve been at it for more than half our lives. Some of us still are. And even the most accomplished, celebrated, distinguished women among us — of whom there are many — would tell you that motherhood is the hardest and the most important thing she’s ever done in her life. Ask Hilary if you don’t believe me.

We are, after all, the generation that made “parenting” a verb. We did it conscientiously, with plenty of advice from experts, support as well as scrutiny from our peers, and our own instincts, values and ideology. We may have been more ambivalent about the counsel of our own parents because for all the good things they did for us, there were other aspects of how we were raised that we found, variously, onerous, restrictive, soul-crushing or psychologically unhealthy, and hoped not to repeat with our own offspring. It was a New Age, Me Decade we were parenting in, which influenced our dreams for our kids; assuming that the advantages we gave them, especially education, would secure their economic future as it had ours, we focused instead on their personal happiness.

As midlife recedes in the rear view mirror, those capital letter words like Purpose, Legacy and Meaning clamor for attention, or at least resonate emotionally. Stirred by Hallmark holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Day and transitional events like anniversaries, weddings and graduations, they prompt us to reevaluate how well we did as parents, which is a key, durable aspect of our identity as well as a role and relationship . A central aspect of that evaluation — not only ours, but society’s — is how our kids turned out.

As boomer parents we’ve always focused on how our kids feel rather than what they do, which is consoling once we realize that despite their many gifts, they’re probably not going to be president or cure cancer. And given that the race to the top is steeper and more competitive these days, they may not realize our career dreams for them, either — something with redeeming personal, political, environmental, personal or social value, if possible, that will enable them to live as well as we have. Fortunately, two pieces of recent psychosocial data converge at a point that should give us some satisfaction. The first is that despite the fact that their economic and career prospects are much more daunting than ours were, as a generation they are more hopeful and optimistic about the future. The second is that, regardless of social and economic class, how we perceive our grown kids’ psychosocial adjustment is linked more closely than their accomplishments to our ownwell-being across every dimension, especially our self-acceptance and purpose in life.

In other words, we really meant it when we said, “I don’t care what you do, darling, as long as you’re happy…” And in general, they are.

By janeellen

Jane Adams PHD Social Psychologist