Monday, January 09, 2006

New Years' Musings: Twenty is the Cruellest Age

Twenty or thereabouts. My sons are 21 and my daughter is 18. From a mother's point of view, these are difficult times. Nothing like the meltdown we endured during the high school years, but trying and depressing nevertheless.

The kids are, of course, revelling in their independence, as they should be. But how quickly they discard childish things, and how little they have created to replace them.

Over vacation they were mostly bored. Their friends and activities and lives are all elsewhere now. They spent a little time with high school friends, but none of them show a keen interest in going backward in time. Not so much interest in the present, either. I did all the holiday decorating and preparing myself -- the days when they enthusiastically pitched in to hang ornaments or bring in greens are apparently gone, at least for now.

I had some unpleasant moments with each of them over the issue of "parental pressure," as they describe it, or "acedia and inertia," as I describe it. I listened to many protests in which the key theme was an insistence that "I'd take care of it if you'd leave me alone." That, as a friend of mine and mother of six noted, is not the case. I said very little from September to November to any of my children about matters that they needed to take care of, matters pertaining to majors and courses and spring and summer plans. As a result, none of those things have been taken care of.

Yesterday I finally said to my daughter that (1) it might have been nice for one of her brothers to have spent spring break with Habitat on the Gulf Coast but the deadline for his school's program was in November (2) the job she has indicated an interest in is competitive and her three weeks at home have produced no completed application or requests for references and (3) she might remember that last winter break she similarly rejected all my pleas to explore a community theatre opportunity for the summer, announced in March that she was indeed interested, went down to apply, and was greeted with laughter -- all the jobs had been filled in January.

She rolled her eyes.

It is so hard to see three young people with the energy, freedom, and mental elasticity that I no longer have frittering away their time on poker, video games, and television. They could do ANYTHING at this point in their lives. The boys still have at least one long summer ahead of them, and parents willing to finance certain adventures. I told one of them that in a couple of years he will be wearing a white shirt and tie in a corporate environment that allows him four annual weeks of freedom, and he will wonder why on earth he didn't take this summer to work in Alaska or volunteer on another continent or go back to work as a summer camp counselor -- one last chance to play in the mountains. Or -- go and grab one of those summer internships that looks so impressive on a resume. Just DO something!

As I sat around with my own friends on Saturday morning (out post-holiday breakfast lasted over three hours), I said that I thought maybe we wouldn't be doing Christmas dinner next year. "The kids don't seem to care about being home, or about the family aspect of Christmas anymore," I said. "And there are fewer and fewer spaces on the calendar when all five of us can be in the same place at the same time. So I'm thinking maybe we need to develop a new tradition for a few years, and travel over the holiday. "

Somewhat but not entirely to my surprsie, two of my friends said they had been thinking the exact same thing. I'm afraid that this city is full of mothers wistfully decorating trees by themselves and trying to think of other ways to foster family closeness at least once a year.

When I started this series, I noted that there is little guidance for this stage of life. All those hundreds and hundreds of infant and childcare books -- but nothing for the mother who has to somehow master the final transition to independence. The kids barely notice -- they pack, they drive, they fly. And it's the ones who don't, who struggle to independence in the most roundabout ways, who foster the most dramatic parental grief -- the child who flunked out of college with only one semester to go, the daughter who had a baby and now struggles to combine single-parenting with work and college, the children who never went to college and whose mother finally decided to use the tuition money for her own graduate program. But those who navigate the last years of youth less eventfully are still capable of twisting the knife.

I guess there was nor reason to expect these years to be as delightful as some in the past have been. I know that it's a time of terrible struggle for the young people, as they come to terms with the looming spectre of employment and the possibility of making choices they will come to regret. They don't know how to tolerate the internal chaos on which the cusp of adulthood teeters, and their mothers, mixing memory and desire, don't want to.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

T.S. Eliot


Kathryn said...

Hmmm. It's not going to get easier, is it. I'm sorry that there is more struggle than joy with your children this holiday. You have terrific kids -- someday they will know how lucky they are to have you as their mother.

betty said...

Oh my gosh, I can relate to this and I have a 16 y/o son still living at home who would rather be anywhere else than here some days and a 20 y/o on her own somewhere (long story). I was just thinking that we probably wouldn't take a summer family vacation this summer since our recent trip to San Diego over Christmas (the hubby, 16 y/o son and me) was nice, but not that wonderful experience of pre-teenage years. 1.5 years from now he graduates; wonder what the future holds for us.

excellent entry!


Anonymous said...

Ah, The Waste Land - how a propos, Robin.

I am so sorry you are going throught this, my dear. But this unfortunately is your struggle, not theirs, as you say. I do understand, for I have two sons, aged 22 and 20 respectively. It is so hard to hand over their lives to them, but hand them over we must, if they are to grow and learn from their own mistakes. What we see as priorities, they see as parental meddling, and the more we push, the more they will dig in those size 12 heels. We live in a society where the kids are not allowed to learn and be independent from an early age (for many reasons, lots of them entirely justifiable) but if we keep telling them how to act, they will never be able to do it themselves.

May I suggest an incredibly deep breath, a firm concentration on Iona and other Robin-based projects, and a trust in your offspring that they have the tools to dig themselves out of any holes in which they find themselves. Be strong, and do this for them as well as for yourself.

As you know, I am going through a similar identity crisis in that I am no longer primarily a mother, so these are not idle words. i feel your frustration and your heartache. But let them sort it out, and trust them, Robin. That is my advice. Thinking warm thoughts of you,


sunflowerkat said...

Does this ever ring true with me. I look at my 18 year old daughter and think....she could have almost any opportunity or experience in the world. All she has to do is want it enough to make it happen. They have no concept of what's coming and the responsibilities of "real life" come down like a ton of bricks. It's hard not to shake them and scream....GO LIVE LIFE!! I don't think I was quite as lethargic at that age. Have things changed?

BTW - we have travelled the last few holiday seasons (except this year). In general, it has been rewarding, but be prepared....they always find something to complain about.

Paul said...

Yes, youth is wasted on the young. Just when the time is so propitious...

tess said...

I don't think that there was ever a better pair of parents than mine that were disheartened with their children. They taught us to think for ourselves and make decisions. They afforded their children opportunities but hardly any were taken in the turmoil of the late 1960ies. As my siblings and myself moved into our own lifestyles, we rarely followed their wishes or wisdom but did use all those childhood lessons. We all succeeded in becoming adults, responsible for our own lives, and by our mid twenties, we again fell into love, respect, and admiration with and for our parents. As your children learn to respect their own decisions, they will learn to respect your advise. You have put your best into them, their best is yet to be returned to you.
My parents did not always approve but they were very proud of our outcomes. I know you are proud.
LOL, I'll bet that if you change your holiday routines, there will be an outcry!

MarianN said...

Some of those thoughts and conversations were the exact ones in this household also. I can't imagine doing it times 3, although my time is near.

Coy said...

My youngest just turned 19 yesterday, she was the last to leave home (that was 1 year ago} The other two are 21 and 22.
Struggling through the divorce from hell over the past few years, left me much less in control over the steps and direction that each of them would be taking as they began the transition to independence.
With the older two moving 1000 miles away at 17 and 18 years old, I had to learn earlier than expected to release control of their lives to them. It was the hardest thing that I ever had to do, as a mother I was accustomed to handling the details, since the minute they were born.
This past year was especially difficult, with Mandy moving out and now to Georgia. The nest was really empty and I could sure have used that transition book for mothers you mentioned.
Good luck with your task at hand. It does get easier once you begin to take advantage of the opportunity to focus more on yourself.
*** Coy ***

Anonymous said...

I myself have a twenty year old daughter. Uh-huh. All manner of all manner of what I consider important intruments to furthering her education and her chosen career are done in the last final stretch! It's exhausting.