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The Hardest Thing a Parent Does…

I thought when my girls were grown that parenting would get easier. I’m finding out it’s just different.

For sure, the physical demands have eased. No more long nights up with a crying baby or late nights waiting up for a teen. No more schlepping babies in car seats or chauffeuring teens to and from activities.

But the emotional demands continue. And if our grown child is struggling, it often takes a toll on us, their mothers.

As you can guess, I’m a big fan of support groups. I attend at least one a week, and now lead some too, having been trained in group facilitation.

In one of these groups, one woman spoke such a powerful truth that I wrote it down.

She said: “The hardest thing a parent does is watch their child go through pain.” Ok, you might say, what’s so powerful about that?

It’s what she added that stopped me in my tracks: “And we don’t get to take that away from them.”

Their pain is theirs to own and come to terms with and get help for and learn from and process through. Their pain is their lesson, their opportunity for growth.

I spent years trying to protect my children from pain, even taking theirs on as my own, and striving to fix/manage/control at all costs. I see now how destructive this anxious parenting has been, both for me and for them.

When I can’t tolerate another’s pain, I invalidate their feelings. I communicate that they need to help me manage my own anxiety, and in so doing I ask them to take care of me. And I distract them from their job, which is to work through their pain.

That is not ok. I am working hard to change this ingrained pattern in me. I am learning to listen more deeply to my children when they share their pain. To sit with them however they show up. To refrain from offering unsolicited advice or resources. To create a safe container for understanding and compassion. To simply be, alongside them.

This is very hard to do. But this is my work. I am trying, and sometimes I am failing, but I will continue to try.

YOUR TURN: What challenges have you experienced parenting adult children? What’s your best advice to other parents? Please share in the comments!

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  1. Beth Havey

    I have been so blessed with my children and yes there has been pain for them.
    And thus for me. Probably the hardest occurred when one daughter could
    not have children and my other daughter has three. But in life we adjust.
    My childless daughter has an amazing career. We all walk forward. Thanks
    for your post.

    • Hélène

      So hard when one child struggles with the exact same thing the other comes by easily. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Sabrina

    Right now my biggest challenge is watching my children raise their children and not give them too much advice. I know how quickly children grow up and want them to cherish every milestone. They saying “don’t fight the little stuff” always pops up in my mind, but I don’t say anything. I want to be with my grandchildren everyday, but I know that is not a wise thing for their family unit. I try hard to respect all the rules my children have put into place for the grandchildren, but behind closed doors I must admit I sometimes do what I want. I watch the grandchildren four days a week and sometimes I feel like they are my own! Its hard for me to step back. My kids are doing a good job. I am working on sitting on the sidelines more.

    • Hélène

      Boy I can’t even imagine what that will be like if my daughters have kids of their own. You highlight a struggle I can imagine having myself!

  3. Molly Davis

    Thank you for sharing these wise words!!! Like you, I never knew that being a parent of adult children would continue to impact my heart in the profound ways it does, and as far as I can tell, will for as long as I am on the planet. I am learning to embrace my role as an “elder” (my next cake will need room for 70 candles), holding a calm, quiet, loving, and solid space for them to engage with, experience, and be transformed by their own pain and struggles. It’s as simple as that and as hard as it gets! It can be so difficult and painful to hear of their struggles and pain, knowing that it is not mine to solve or ease, but rather to witness and to give them a place to be seen and heard. Holy shit! Who knew it would be this hard, and, this good!

    One thing I’ve discovered is that one of the best gifts I can give them, as one blazing the trail ahead of them, is to invest in my own life and the life I share with my husband rather than looking to them to meet my needs or fill my emotional cup. They’ve shared that seeing me/us age and continue to embrace life with energy, curiosity, and passion is giving them a vision for how they want life to look.

    Thank you again, Hélène! You are a gift.

    • Hélène

      I resonate with everything you said! And such a great point about investing in your own happiness. So important not to make them responsible for that! Thank you for your wisdom.

  4. Laurie Stone

    I’ve heard it said, a mother is only as happy as her least happy child. Such true words. We never stop worrying.

    • Hélène

      I am fighting like tooth and nail to make that not the case!

  5. Diane

    Ohmyword, yes! I remember thinking: When these kids are grown, my job will be done. Ha! That’s when the easy part’s done. Then it gets complicated. Grown children have grown-up problems. And all you can do is sit there and let them cry. Gone are the days when you could march up to that bully’s mother (or that teacher who, for some inexplicable reason doesn’t like your little angel!) and demand that they do something. Now you have to sit there and cry with them, but let them figure things out. Ugh. This is the MOST painful part of parenting. (And then when the grandkids start to venture out into the world, it’s even worse!!!)
    I find myself wishing for the carefree days of toddlers!

  6. Rena

    I think as parents it’s so hard to turn that off. I can’t stand to see one of my kids struggle, but you’re so right. When they hurt we bleed, but it’s their pain, not ours and we have to remember that and not make it harder on them. It’s a learning process every day and all we can do is be there for them when they need us. I wear my body down trying to make their lives easier but I am learning that is not what they need. They need me healthy and whole it’s a hard line to walk.

    • Hélène

      You are so right! It is hard work but ours to do.


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