Is My Relationship With My Adult Children The Way It’s Supposed To Be?

I don’t know if they have forgiven me. I do believe they are, in their own time, as their lives happen to them, making space for the mystery and the force of me—permanently their mother.

My friend believes it is hopeless—the situation with her daughters. Their love for her is dead. Gone. Two grown women with spouses and children, these daughters have shut her out emotionally for almost a decade because of a divorce she initiated. She phones and texts and emails them, she sends gifts for holidays and birthdays. She visits—when they allow it. What they give her is the cold shoulder. Disdain. A display of the judgment they have passed on her for the pain her choices and her mistakes caused them.

It did not go that way for me. Nearly 20 years ago, I initiated a divorce. Getting through it was a painful, protracted mess, and my two children suffered. Five and 9 then, now young adults, they have raged at me in their individual ways at different times about the wounds unjustly inflicted on them, but I can say they have, on balance, allowed me to be who I am: flawed, human, generally well-meaning, and heart-bound to them. I don’t know if they have forgiven me. I do believe they are, in their own time, as their lives happen to them, making space for the mystery and the force of me—permanently their mother.

My own mother remained a mystery and a powerfully distorting force in my life for at least a dozen years after her death when she was 89 and I was 44. When asked about her by strangers or acquaintances I often judge her in a single word: crazy. With more accuracy I may label her: mentally ill.

With some clarity that required most of my adult life, quite a few years of therapy, and more years than that of a sitting Buddhist practice, I have, with an effort at compassion and self-compassion, written about her as vicious and vulnerable, an abuser who’d been terribly abused. Through that process of examining what she did, what I did, how we arrived at an emotional impasse that caused me to shut her out of my life completely for most of a decade, how that blockage began to dissolve as I became a parent and then a single parent, and how, in her last days, I felt profound pity for her and the beginnings of love returning, I found not an answer but a view.

She was who she was.

Whoever she was—different people at different ages under the influence of shifting stresses and evolving obsessions—she hurt me. But she loved me. She caused me to suffer and cost me much effort to survive, and along the way she wired into me limits and misconceptions that continue to hobble me.

But she gave me gifts. She gave me my life. She was my mother.

I have her work ethic, her love of nature, her affection for the joy and pain words create. One of the less obvious gifts she gave me was the determination to be a better mother to my children than she was to me. To be, at least, a different kind of mother. I am sure I succeeded at that. The jury is out, of course, as to whether I did “better” with my children than she did with me. I surely inflicted different damage, limits, pain, and misconceptions. “Better” is defined by who sits in the judgment seat.

I told my friend that life is long—sometimes. I told my friend that her daughters have as long to yet live—probably—as they’ve lived so far. There’s no telling what either or both of them may eventually come to understand, or believe, about her. Who she was, and what she did wrong and right. There’s plenty of time for insights to form, for some clarity to manifest in them, even years after she has died.

What’s called for now is equanimity about the way things are. The situation does appear hopeless. The cold shoulder is a judgment, private and public, she must bear. But hopelessness need not be synonymous with despair. The absence of hope could be the absence of grasping for an outcome we cannot dictate. Its alternative, equanimity, offers us the relief of facing with an open heart the possibility of blessings we cannot now foresee while remaining humble about just how little we can know, and control, about others.

My children puzzle me. They have good jobs and attractive significant others, but I know they have problems, too. They don’t call or come to visit me often but when they do our connection feels—at least to me—warm and mutual. They observe family holidays and my birthday sometimes but not always. They have their own lives and they have another family—their father’s—to attend to.

Is their relationship with me the way it’s supposed to be? Did I get it right? I sit in judgment of myself, secretly comparing myself to my friends, asking, obsessing, worrying, like a scab I can’t stop picking, my contribution, my culpability, in every shortcoming I perceive in my children and in every career or relational struggle I watch them cope with. If I can blame me for what’s hard for them, won’t they blame me, too?

Equanimity is not a place where I can dwell in comfort. It is not a state I have achieved. Like everything else in the world, a moment of equanimity is impermanent. Hard-won or spontaneous, it is the practice of letting go, one finger at a time and repeatedly, the branch of hope, the cudgel of fear we all cling to, sometimes.

Christine Hale has written a novel, Basil’s Dream (Livingston Press, 2009) as well as a memoir, A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice, about growing up hostage to her mother’s madness, recovering a relationship with her teen daughter and son through the ritual of repeated tattooing, and finding a way out of loss and into love at mid-life through a series of unconventional Buddhist retreats. She manages a Dharma center in Asheville, NC and is affiliate faculty in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Antioch University-Los Angeles.

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