Mothballing Your Parents

Last night, we were out at our favorite restaurant, celebrating my daughter Emma’s birthday. After a fine meal, we came home and sat up late, discussing, as we often do, the fact that she seems more like 26 than 14 — not precocious in a pseudo-mature way, but genuinely older than her age. People with New Age tendencies have referred to Emma as an “old soul”; I think of her as a born psychotherapist, with insight and intuition that are remarkable for one her age. She enjoys adult conversation and loves to talk about what makes people tick.

While this is wonderful on one level, on another, it makes Emma’s life difficult. With her intuition and good people skills, she gets on well with just about everyone at school, but her emotional maturity also makes it difficult to find true peers in the Eighth Grade. Last night, she talked about feeling a little isolated and alone; she said she couldn’t bear to imagine a time when her parents wouldn’t be around. Unlike many teenagers I’ve known, she loves to spend time with us and our friends; she still enjoys hiking with us in Colorado, hanging out on the deck in the evenings and making “pleasant conversation,” as she calls it. She told us she was afraid she’d feel completely alone in the world without us.

This conversation reminded me of another one I’d had with my oldest son William during his last year in high school. He said (and of course this is indelibly etched in my memory): “The problem with having you and Mama as parents is that everyone else is less interesting.” As flattering as that was to hear, I knew at the time that it would be better for him to feel there were people his own age even more fascinating. I assured him that when he got to college, he’d meet a lot of young men and women he’d find even more interesting than his mother and father. I have told Emma the same thing, although she remains doubtful.

Paul, our middle child, has never felt that way about his parents. He began rolling his eyes at an appropriate age, in his early teens; he rebelled against authority during that time and I had more power struggles with him than the other two. He certainly has never felt that I was more interesting than his peers, which is probably as it should be, even it’s not as enjoyable an experience for the parent. A normal part of separating from your parents and growing up (as with all forms of progress, for that matter) is to believe that the future offers new and better opportunities than the status quo.

I’m glad to say (though not without some twinges of regret) that William no longer finds me more interesting than his peers. Whereas he used to tell me almost everything, now he has established what I refer to as the “two-text rule” for our communications. If I text him with a question during the week, he may or may not respond; but if he does, I’m allowed only one more question before he disappears into radio silence. I’m busy — you’re bothering me. I’m confident that Emma will one day do something similar.

Which brings me to the style of Levis I wear. I’ve been a 550s kind of guy for a long time now; in the last couple of years as styles have changed and pants settle lower around the hips, all three of my kids have teased me about my “old guy” jeans. They also make fun of their mother because she,too, wears her jeans higher above her hips than is considered stylish these days. The kids all take pleasure in viewing us as oldsters with outdated taste, clueless about the rules of fashion (which they mistakenly equate with good taste). Paul, who’ll be attending a top design school next fall, has been particularly scornful.

So I bought some new jeans — 505s, if that means anything to you. Lower rise, narrower legs. Styles do change so I decided to update my casual wear and maybe escape being the brunt of their jokes. Wrong! Now I’m a pathetic old guy who’s trying to look hip, still laughable but for different reasons. Even Emma made of fun of me, though she insists it’s only because she finds change unpleasant and prefers the “old Papa” look. What I subsequently came to appreciate anew is that an important and necessary part of separating from your parents involves putting them on the sidelines — “mothballing” them, so to speak, as if they’re quaint and no longer relevant. Not exactly a new insight, but it came home to me with greater force.

Once you’ve established your independence, maybe then you can come back and appreciate your parents again. I never felt that way about my own parents; I “outgrew” them at a fairly young age, and after I started therapy, the distance between us only became wider. While my in-laws were still alive, however, I always felt them to be among the most interesting people I’d ever known. I was lucky that way.

My long-term clients who are therapists sometimes feel that they’ll never have an original idea, or that they’ll live forever “in my shadow.” I think it’s important that they come to feel differently, in just the same way that children need to get “out from under” their parents and go beyond them, at least for a time. When my own analysis ended, I felt that I’d never be as good as my own therapist. Then, years later, I went through a kind of delayed “rebellion” as I began to understand basic shame in ways he never did (at least not during my analysis) and to evolve my own ways of thinking and working with defenses against shame. With some disappointment and also anger, I went “my own way.”

But lately, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about how good he was, that not a day goes by when I’m not making use of something valuable he taught me. I know he wouldn’t have wanted me to remain wedded to his ideas; he always held that one of the goals of my analysis was for me to develop a mind of my own … and I definitely did. But I needed to separate from him, perhaps little forcefully, before I could do so. I needed to put him on the sidelines for a time, in order to make my own way.

The challenge — for children and for therapists-in-training — is to separate and strike out on your own without trashing or devaluing the parents, the teachers or analysts … at least not forever.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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36 comments

    I don’t really have anything to add – I just wanted to say that your articles are always so interesting and well-thought out. Your points were well illustrated with your own experiences, which made it really easy to understand what you meant. So that’s all, just a thank you from me for producing such consistently great content.

    This separating can be a challenge for the parent(s), too. When I was 12, 13 I started challenging my mother; insisting that I had my own opinion, and that I had every right to my own opinion. She did not like either of these related notions, especially that I was disagreeing with her, and more so, that I was becoming indepent from her, she reacted in ways that seemed to indicate she felt hurt and threatened by these things.

    She ended up hitting me whenever I did this, whenever I stood up to her. Eventually, I knew what was coming, and did it less, but I have a fiercely independent streak in some ways (ironically for a co-dependent lol) and could NOT live with stifling myself, with who I am, just to make her happy, nor even to keep away the physical abuse. I HAD to express myself sometimes, and yeah she’d hit me, but I was standing up for myself, and standing up for what I believed in. She just couldn’t handle my separating from her. My father is partly to blame as well, for he was around for some of these (maybe 25%?) and he said NOTHING, did NOTHING, except for once when she sent me to my room and then passed in a metal bowl saying if I needed to go to the bathroom, to use the bowl. I then heard him standing up for me the one and only time he ever did, outside the door.

    Anyway, some parents take this separation beyond an unsettled and sometimes bittersweet feelings. I know these feelings myself as my daughter is approaching 14. Certainly no (justifiable) basis for hitting your child, to me, but then I still have to process the abuse as I only recently was able to acknowledge it as such.

    Some very good points. I think it’s often when parents can’t tolerate this separation that the children have to rebel that much harder, as you did, in order to break free.

    Low rise pants do create the appearance of shorter legs, most likely because they have to be worn with longer tops.
    To correct the illusion, wear shoes with a minimum of a 2″ heel. 😉

    I think I’ll need to live with the appearance of shorter legs. I’ve never wanted to be one of those short men who try to hide it with big heels.

    Thanks, Peggy. I enjoyed writing this post even more than I usually do. Some painful elements, but also very funny. Old Guy Jeans. Hmmpf!

    World’s Most Interesting Man: “I don’t always wear jeans, but when I do, I prefer 505s”… 😉 Thanks this was funny and fascinating. I was particularly interested in how your oldest and youngest took a different path to mothballing than your middle child did, yet ended up (or you predict the youngest will eventually, at least) in the same place. Any idea whether this was simply temperamental difference, subtle shifts in family dynamics, or whether there is a general “template” in your parenting which led to this? Because not everyone gets to mothballing, or does is successfully. Thanks.

    I think my middle child felt crowded out by his older brother, as if there weren’t a lot of room left over for him, and so he launched himself into his peer group earlier and more forcefully than the other two. Plus he’s more gregarious and social.

    I like the way you have used your own personal experiences to mirror the relationship you had with your own parents and how the same dynamic seems to be echoed in all your relationships with perceived authority figures. It is so much more interesting to read it like this and I am sure you will have connected with a wider audience as a result. Thank you for sharing this.

    This probably wasn’t written for the hand-wringing mom of a teenager, but it put a lot of things in perspective for me. I can’t see the forest for the trees sometimes, and I forget that she’s a young adult on her way out the door to adulthood. I’ve become purveyor of sustenance, and not much more. I worry about unraveling bonds, and I laughed at your two-text rule. It’s like that, isn’t it? So thanks for this.

    Great post-and discussion. It’s abundantly clear you value your kids for being the unique individuals they are. And when one has not had the type of parenting you describe it clearly articulates what we “missed” with a Personality Disordered/”Character Disordered” parent. I often wonder at this age and stage of life who or what I might have become with a parent like you or the others who truly want their kids to individuate. I’m sure my life would have been very different. However, the struggle to master this normal age/stage of life was stymied and undercut by the ‘needs’ of a parent-that-wasn’t. There’s a “spot” in this world for all of us. And I can assure you with insight and more importantly the courage to make decisions that are NOT going to please your ‘parent’ but will be true to yourself, your talents, abilities and true interests will bring you to your “spot.”
    Nonetheless, parenting is a HUGE challenge in every way. Humility as demonstrated by your responses is not an “insurance policy” the kids will “Be OK.” But it’s a damn good start to launching kids into independent, confident young adults. It seems to me as parents our most fundamental role is to prepare our own kids for independence. We provide the “Wings:” They fly knowing no matter what, they have parents who love them-unconditionally. And they’ll soar in ways we never could have imagined. And if they mess up? They’ll “fix it.” Because they have internalized the concept of personal responsibility as demonstrated by their parents.

    Yes, yes, yes. I suppose what I feel best about is that my kids are confident enough to venture far away from home at an early age — William to Chicago and soon to New York; Paul to California and to London in the fall. Who knows where Emma will land, but I’m fairly sure it won’t be Chapel Hill. I will miss having them nearby, but then I now have an excuse to go visit in those cities!

    Funny post, and insightful. Nice job.

    Kids coming up sure do go in a lot of different directions. I find kids who relate to adults better than they do to their peers both charming and a bit suspicion-inducing. Charming, in that they often have social skills, vocabs, and interests that are quite different from their peer groups. Suspicion-inducing, because relating to grownups is actually easier for kids than relating to their peers. Adults are more forgiving, more patient, and less demanding than other teens or other kids are. In some ways, it’s an easier relationship to maintain, if the adult is willing to enter into it with the kid.

    Anyway, by the time they’re off to college or to the military, it all evens out.

    I like this piece doc :)
    I have been one of those kids ( now 26) who sidelined her parents not because other people seemed cooler, but in general i have experienced a long antagonistic phase with my mother. And now that she is terminally ill, i have made attempts to be emotionally open to her. I see that the past couldn’t have changed because i have been “messed up” in many ways.
    Its a little sad when you realize your shortcomings too late, and though we are good right now, i feel guilty and remorseful that i wasn’t open to her earlier and that whatever i do will not undo my insensitivity in the past.

    Its nice to read your articles anyway. thank you. :)

    Are you sure you were being “insensitive”? Maybe you just needed to separate and find your own way.

    I found so much of value in this post, thank you!
    I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on times of closeness and distance with my own father, who passed away recently. Now that I can’t talk to him anymore, I have a lot of regret about a period of about five years when we weren’t in close contact. I was well out of the nest at that point, but it coincided with me moving away from the town he lived in, so that we had to rely on phone and email to stay in touch. I have been berating myself for not working harder at maintaining the close connection we’d had before that. But your post reminds me that there are cycles for all these things, even in the best relationships. And in a way, having not rebelled much at all as a child, that mid-life move across the country was the separation that allowed me to build my own life on my own terms.

    That sounds right. You might have maintained that closeness if only you’d worked harder, but maybe then you wouldn’t have achieved the kind of mature separation you needed.

    I feel as though you just described me as a child. I was also the 14 year old going on 26. I have always been fascinated with trying to determine what makes people tick and been described as an “old soul”. I am sure Emma would be a wonderful therapist. I am going to school now for psychology and I hopse to be a psychotherapist as well. Helping people has always been a major passion of mine, even when I did not realize it.

    I have to be careful not to push Emma in that direction, even though I think she’d be good at it. If she’s like you, she’ll find her own way to the right profession. Sounds like you were “made” to be a therapist. Good luck with your career!

    As a younger parent of three almost and fully fledged individuals 23 (left home), 20( still at home), and 18 ( just left home) I really resonated with that experience you described ‘dammed if you do or dammed if you dont’ in terms of their critical evaluations. What it says to me is that a process very separate to me is going on and my role is continuing and it is is to stand still enough to withstand and observe it without losing the love and relationship we have. While my heart aches at the loss of active role, circumstances,memories, wishful and perhaps onesided longing for the past ( helped by having my own interests), I feel the satisfaction that three amazing talented loving people have set foot in the world, making their unique mark and that I have had the privalege of being a part of their process , indelibly entwined in relationship but also at times utterly separate and mysterious.
    Thanks for sharing your personal experience , as it seems to affirm a universal process for all parents :)

    I feel very much the same way about my kids — missing them, but also proud to see three such interesting people making their way in the world. I look forward to being a spectator to their fascinating lives, but also an active participant (at times). I’m still their father!

    Yes while I am enjoying a less active role now , my children invite me reguarly into their interesting worlds now and we can share life as co creators and companions without living in each other pockets and thats nice in regular doses. Its less intense but meaningful and I am grateful . The social media has made this all the more accessible too and am grateful to be part of the massive technlogical transition with them as guides somehow! I think the ultimate success in parenting is seeing our children be truly independent happy and connected!

    I’m not sure what you mean by that question. Is it actually a question? Or is it a caution: you shouldn’t be disclosing so much. My goal on this site has been to use my own personal experience to demonstrate many issues, especially about how we continue to work with our defenses and what we know about ourselves “after psychotherapy.” It’s impossible to do that without disclosing many details about my life.

    Also, during my analysis, and in the analysis of most of my peers, we were part of the same professional community and knew a great deal about our analysts and their families. It didn’t make much difference, as far as I could tell.

    I envy your children’s upbringing and the centeredness they’ve achieved. Congratulations for your part!

    I wonder if I can’t let go of my parents because I never got over their absence.

    What if one comes from a distorted family system where somehow separation is sabotaged? That’s how I always felt about my family system, extremely demanding and enmeshed. As a married adult, I live in another country and even if my parents and I talk to each other on a daily basis, they just burden me with their problems, ignore my life and my relationship. Healthy boundaries and genuine interest in a person who is an adult with personal preferences simply do not exist. Very glad to read about a much healthier situation, and congrats for your site, one of the most interesting informative site existing. A child being at ease with adults rather than peers can be just going through a phase, what shouldn’t happen is an adult crossing a boundery to keep children where they don’t belong, and that is what sadly happened in my family, where I feel my personality was squished to make room for a narcissistic mom and a codependent dad. I think your conceipt of separation is very healthy because it underlines the need for an adult child to be treated with respect even if they not embrace their parent’s script, in other terms even if they have their own personality. I’m not sure I am making sense.
    Thank you

    Perfect sense. You probably need to be the more adult party in this relationship and put some distance between you and your parents. You are not obligated to speak to them every day and accept the relentless burden of their difficulties.

    Thank you for your answer, very nice of you to respond so quickly. Very sound advice, I will try to follow it or at least avoid being burdened…although old habits are hard to die!
    Congrats for your very informative site.
    Thank you

    Such a wickedly beautiful and freeing article for the free-spirit desperately trying to find peace in withdrawing from her parents, well into her 20’s. What a stunning job you have done handling the separation that occurs – they will all thank you for that one day, as they watch the lack of grace so many other families display. Thank you.

    On a side note, your daughter Emma sounds a LOT like an INTJ. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked about Myers-Briggs before and have already typed her, but from a fellow INTJ, I hear her sing the song of my people!

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