As parents, it is our job to help our children develop and grow into adulthood in small steps. We do this in many ways. To enhance decision-making, we let our infants choose what they will play with from a collection of safe toys. We let our toddlers choose what clothing they will wear so they begin to develop confidence in their decisions and learn what is appropriate for the weather and the situation. (A skill they often lose in adolescence, when in our attempts to continue to help them grow into responsible adults, we have many arguments over what is appropriate clothes and take back some of the freedom of choice over clothes that we gave them as toddlers. This is also part of guiding their development.)
Our expectation is that as they grow, they will develop more and more skills in making appropriate choices so that they can function as adults in an adult world. It is not a task that is done easily. Parents, while desiring the growth and development of their children, have a hard time letting go. This is often seen the first day of school. The child, prepared for weeks by the parent is eager to begin, but the tearful parent has a hard time letting go of their hand. And so the dance continues.
From the first day at school to the first time they drive with their new license, we give our children, with trepidation, more and more responsibility over their own lives, as they get older. We do this with fear, sometimes with guilt. But we know it is something we must do, for their sake. And then our children become adults. They marry, have children and for a whole gamut of emotional reasons that have everything to do with us as parents and nothing to do with them as adult children, we seem to take it all back.
All the independence we fostered over the last 20 years seems to be stripped away by our need to be there for them; our need to help and support them. It is even worse for children of well spouses. The well parent has tried to protect the child from the pain of living with chronic illness for so many years that the need to protect seems to spill over into so many areas of the adult child’s married life. And so we see our acts as a means of help and support, emotional and financial, a way of making their life easier, a way of helping them have a better life. And, after all, we all would rather give “with a warm hand, than a cold one.” But are we really helping them by doing this or are we slowly taking away the independence and resilience we have tried so painfully to build up over their childhood years?
Malky was the oldest daughter of a chronically ill father. She married a learner. It was what everyone wanted. And so for five years, Malky’s parents supported the couple financially, despite the illness. Malky’s part time job helped, and the couple (even with three children) managed quite nicely with the parental support. Each time Malky became pregnant, she travelled to her mother for the birth and a month of nurturing and pampering. She missed her husband during the month, but enjoyed not having to do anything but rest, while her mother and sisters cared for her and her baby.
Malky’s husband enjoyed his freedom to continue learning. He did feel that he lost something by not being there to take care of his wife and children during these times, but that was what his mother-in-law was doing. He guessed it wasn’t his responsibility since it had, so willingly, been taken away from him. No one was expecting him to do anything, even though he thought he should. And so, he didn’t. After a month when Malky went home with her children there was always a bit of tension as everyone tried to figure our what responsibility they had toward each other and who was responsible for what tasks around the children.
But five years had passed, and Malky’s parents now had three other young couples with children they were supporting. They also had a few more weddings to look forward to and even a bar mitzvah to make. They reached the point that the bank would not loan them any more money. They had already refinanced their home and had trouble paying those bills. They just could not continue the way they had been.
They felt terribly guilty when they told Malky and her husband Dovid that they could no longer help them financially. Malky’s father felt like a failure. Dovid, however, was fine with this. He said he would get a job and support his own family. He appreciated having had the chance to learn for five years. But, now he would become an earner and learn whenever he could.
Malky’s parents were beside themselves with feelings of guilt and failure for what they were “imposing” on their children. Malky and Dovid for their part were looking forward to this next part of their lives where they would be independent and self-reliant.
As much as we enjoy helping our children, it is important to be very conscious of what we inadvertently take away when we give to our children. Is the intensity of the help we give and the form it takes, hampering a chance for a man to grow emotionally in his relationship to his wife and children, and a woman to grow as a mother and wife? Are we denying our children the opportunity to take on the financial responsibility when we can no longer afford to support them but keep trying anyway?
And will it be a help to our children that we become more financially in debt as we age so that we can continue to support them when they are young? Will this help become a disaster later? Perhaps we need to think of our adult children as adults and act accordingly.
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