By SUSAN ENGEL
Published: November 28, 2012, The New York Times
When I was 24 years old, I brought my firstborn son, 3-week-old Jacob, to my childhood home on the Eastern End of Long Island to meet his grandparents. When I arrived, an old family friend and neighbor, Cora Stevens, happened to be sitting in my parents’ kitchen. Cora, a mother to five grown children and grandmother to seven, grabbed tiny Jake, put her face right up to his and started speaking loud baby talk to him. Then, as she bounced him on her knee, she turned to me and said, “When they’re little they sit on your lap; when they’re big they sit on your heart.”
Oh, how right she was. Now that Jake is 28, and his brothers are 25 and 19, I can say without a doubt that this is way harder than having little kids. When my children were growing up, I groped my way through stormy nights, chaotic dinner hours, endless mess, nail-biting basketball games, tortured term papers, bad dates and the agony of college admissions. During all those wild ups and downs in the back of my head was the calming thought: once my children get into college, my work will be done. In retrospect, having little kids was a breeze. As long as you hugged them a lot and made good food, things seemed to be, for the most part, O.K. You could fix many problems, and distract them from others. Your home could be a haven from all that might be painful and difficult in the world beyond.
All of that changes when they are grown. They fall in love, break their hearts, apply for jobs, leave or lose the jobs, choose new homes, can’t pay the rent for those new homes and question their choice of profession. They forge their way, all just outside of your helping reach. Then, when bad things happen, they need you like crazy, but you discover that the kind of help you’ve spent 25 years learning how to give is no longer helpful.
Last year, one of my sons went through a series of devastating setbacks. Almost everything bad that could happen to a young person happened to him. He had a catastrophic accident at work that permanently damaged one of his fingers. He will never use it again, though almost everything he loves to do requires the precise and flexible use of his hands. He endured a devastating break-up with a longtime girlfriend. And he got fired from a job he cared about, without any warning or rationale. He seemed just about as broken as a young man can be.
I too had been through a tough year — my brother killed himself, one of my best friends died a slow death from cancer, and I had a serious setback in my work life. But all of that was mild compared to the agony of watching my handsome, vigorous son kicked to the ground. I didn’t know how to help him, and I didn’t know how to handle my own nearly unbearable feeling of pain. I wanted to be by his side constantly, I wanted to go out and hurt those who had hurt him, arrange new work for him, bring beautiful women to my home (where he had come to live) and yet I wanted to get as far away as possible, just to avoid the pain his pain was causing me.
During those difficult months, I kept telling people that I wasn’t cut out to be the parent of adult children. I felt my kids were facing disappointments and mistakes that I couldn’t help them solve and pain they were unlikely to outgrow.
I longed for help. I thought of starting a support group for parents of adult children. At first I hesitated because I thought everyone else’s kids were happily married, toiling away successfully at new jobs, working to do well in graduate school. Talking to others might just make me feel worse. Then I began to hear that others — the butcher, my neighbor, my oldest friend — were feeling a similar sense of anguish. Who knew? It was like staring at one of those three-d patterns in a drawing, which emerges when you hold the page at a certain distance. Suddenly I could see the uncertainty and worry that all the parents of grown children around me were feeling. Even so, I didn’t start the group. Between my work, and the time spent Skyping and phoning my sons about their problems, who had time for a support group?
Just when I thought I couldn’t take one more moment of it, Jake surprised me. He was on the phone, describing a crisis in his graduate studies. As usual, my first response was a palpitating heart and sick stomach. A plan of action began to take shape in my head. I started explaining how he should respond to the terrible graduate adviser. I wanted to ask if he was taking notes on my good advice. But I didn’t have a chance. He cut me off. “Mom,” he said, “when I tell you what’s wrong, I don’t want you to tell me how to fix it, and I don’t want you to tell me it’s not as bad as I think. I just want your sympathy.” I was stunned. Sympathy? That’s all he wanted? I could do that.
Last year I told my closest friend about the son whose romance was beginning to crumble: “I don’t know whether to hope he works it out with her, or ends it.” My friend, with two grown children of her own, looked at me calmly and said, “Don’t hope for anything.”
It’s now one year after all the terribleness. My son’s life is 100 times better than it was before all of his setbacks. He has a terrific new job, is seeing a lovely young woman, has bought himself a spiffy new truck, and just recently came in in the top group of an Ironman triathalon. His bounce is back. It turns out he’s as resilient as rubber, and as strong as an ox, inside and out. For now, I’m going to skip the support group. My new parenting plan is to buy a few books on Zen Buddhism.
Susan Engel is senior lecturer in psychology and director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College. She is the author of four books, most recently, “Red Flags or Red Herrings: Predicting Who Your Child Will Become” (Simon and Schuster, 2010).