I have worked with retired “senior” adults for many years. The other day a woman I had never met came in sobbing about the loss of her mother over a year ago. This was not the first time I have been surprised by the intensity of grief experienced by an older woman over the death of a very, very old mother.
But it did pose the question: Can you be too close to your mother?
A few weeks ago, the same thing happened with another woman in my office. Years earlier, someone else told me she had never married or fulfilled her potential because her mother insisted that she take care of her until she died. I recall a man who slept on the floor next to his old mother’s bed in case she needed immediate attention during the night. She lived a long life and by the time he got up off that floor, he didn’t have much else.
I understand that grief has no timetable, that sadness often lingers forever, that people feel bound by duty and love to care for their parents. But what is a reasonable cost? If grief is so deep and profound, so long lasting, it makes me wonder about the lives these adult children lived. Over almost 70 years of life, wouldn’t there be other relationships and experiences to help fill that well of anguish?
A married woman I know travels frequently with her single adult daughters. Someone else I know is expected to be the entertainment committee for her mother, always at her beck and call, even though she works, has a husband, children, and grandchildren. Other women claim that they are their daughter’s best friend and do everything together! (I always wonder if that sentiment is reciprocated by their daughters.)
I never wanted to be my kids’ friend. I’m their mother. And we all have our own friends.
Two years ago, I had a health scare. The thing I most worried about was that if something happened to me, my kids would be a mess. But I had confidence that, although they would miss me, they would recuperate from their grief, bounce back, and be able to go on with their lives. They have so many wonderful people around them and so many interesting things in which they are involved.
In my view, adult children should not be overly involved with, or concerned about, their parents’ lives. Certainly they should no longer seek their parents’ approval for their actions and decisions. Although when a parent gets very old or infirm, they do have some responsibility, I don’t think kids should, in any way, sacrifice the gift of their own lives, their own happiness and potential.
Further, they should not look to us to endorse or make their decisions, although we are happy to consult. We don’t need to approve of, or like, what they name their kids, where they live, what they do professionally, what schools their kids go to, how they dress, how they express their Judaism, or how they spend their money. They need to create their own lives with us cheering them on. They need to decide how much, and how, we are part of their lives.
I am honored and touched by how much my kids let me into their lives. But I think it’s partly because I am their mom, not their pal. We have set appropriate boundaries and we respect, as well as love, each other.
And when I am gone, I say to them, “Better by far you should forget and smile/ Than that you should remember and be sad.” (from the poem “Remember“ by Christina Rossetti)