Parenting Up, Parenting Down, Parenting Across

This year has brought many changes and transitions. In chronological order over the course of roughly six months: Second Daughter graduated from high school; I accepted a new job that meant leaving a job I'd held for 14-1/2 years; we moved across the state into a 500-square-foot borrowed condo, away from the town where Eldest Daughter lives with her husband; I took Second Daughter across the country to college less than a month after starting the new job, then turned around and spent a week at national bike conferences, then did another one-day trip for work; as I settled into the new (and very demanding, challenging, fulfilling, rewarding) job I realized I can't keep running the start-up Bike Style business I launched last year and started thinking about how to wind it down or hand it off; we got through a major fundraising event for the Bicycle Alliance and I traveled some more to meet more bike advocates and then visit my younger sister; and as we made plans to head back to Spokane for the Thanksgiving weekend we learned that after a fall, a broken hip, surgery, pneumonia, and a lung infection, my 95-year-old dad appears to be approaching the end of his days.

As I read the emails among  his six children about the issues and decisions I can see our upbringing at work and credit both Dad and Mom with raising us to be both pragmatic and compassionate.

That makes me think about my parenting, the kinds of adults my daughters will be when they face similar decisions in the (hopefully far distant) future, and where I stand right now as the filling in the sandwich.

My younger daughter chose a college 3,000 miles away to pursue her dreams in musical theater. Once she'd chosen that focus I knew she'd have to be far away to get close to the bright lights of Broadway. I'm okay with that--and I'm not just saying that.

The Buddha taught that attachment causes suffering. I don't want the kind of attachment to my children that does that--the kind in which you want them to be, do, or say certain things. (Think of the dad who considers his glory days as the high-school quarterback the high point of his life and pushes his son to play football and you'll get what I'm talking about.)

I know a few very attached moms who are what I call "smothers." (I might add that my daughters also use this term. They don't want one.)

The smothers cling to the sweet, dependent baby-years memories and miss recognizing that their children are growing up into amazing young adults. Those days are fond memories but if we focus too much on those we miss the wonders of the present moment.

If we've done our jobs well, our children are prepared to enter the world without holding our hands any more to cross the street. They start to make adult decisions with adult consequences. If we shelter them from those consequences we leave them unprepared for the day when we're not around to rush to the rescue.

I've been a free-range mom with free-range kids for years, with the goal of equipping my daughters with savvy and skills to negotiate life without my help. I've never been one of those attack helicopter moms who executes a strafing run on anyone who interferes with her precious darling's happiness. The latest term I learned from a magazine article is the "snowplow mom"--she removes all obstacles from Little Darling's path.  So how prepared can Little Darling be for the real world?

Maybe I feel this more acutely right now because I'm facing that day with my own parents. I'm not the first to point out the similarities between the care we provide our children and the care we provide our aging parents. I'm thinking about how their parenting prepared me to raise my daughters, and prepared me to cope with the changes they themselves face now too.

I still have some "parenting down" work. These days it primarily involves an electronic funds transfer with a touch of mothering, along the lines of, "You should get a winter coat. Here's some money because that's more cost-effective than shipping a coat from Seattle to New York." (As my best friend Betsy says, "It's great when your child's problem is one you can solve with a checkbook.")

I do a little "parenting across". That's how I think of what I do now with Eldest Daughter, who has just finished her first year of marriage. Right now she has to deal with her husband's recent surgery; I can't do much from a distance to be helpful but I can let her know I'm there if she needs to talk and tell her how happy the two of them look with each other.

And then there's "parenting up." When I visited my dad the day before Thanksgiving he was frail and weak. I wanted to give him a hug and tell him everything would get better the way I used to for my daughters. But that isn't true. I can give him the hug, but not the false reassurances.

I don't have the daily responsibilities now; my older sister takes care of the ER visits, the paperwork, the decisions. (I had those back when they lived in Spokane but they've been in Lewiston for over a decade now.) The resemblance to parenting is clear, but without the bright future we envision for our children.

Dad is very deaf now so we write him notes, to which he responds with a smile or a word or two. Mom's vascular dementia makes her impossible to communicate with, although she did say clearly, "We're having fun!" in telling us a long story in what I refer to as her Klingon speech.

Thus I can't tell either of them what good parents they were. They didn't smother. They expected us to do our chores, study hard, get a job. They wanted us to fall in love. (Not everything worked out every time on that front, mind you, but the fact that all six of their children persevered and ultimately found a lasting love stands as a testament to the example set by their 68-year marriage.)

I can tell them I love them as they face the final passage. I can't do the hard work for them. But that's not what parents do.