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 imagi