“Adult children.” Could there be a more humiliating term?
Adult daycare. Adult diapers. Adult children. One and the same.
On the other hand, who is this person who is now in his late 30s but at one time was six months old? Or three years old, or eight, or even 16, and used to live in my house with me? Who is he? Is it someone I don’t know or just a bigger, more independent version of the original one who lived in my house and begged for Fruit Loops every morning?
Remember him? The one I used to hug and kiss and strap into a car seat. Who asked endless questions: why is the sky blue, why do I have to eat green, why did you let my brother have the red fire truck? Who explained in detail the complicated history of rap or recited the lineup of every baseball team in the league.
The question is: Who is this person now?
Our history together is long. When we were first together, I meant the world to him and he to me. We lived at the same address. We ate the same meals, and went on vacations together.
I washed his clothes and mine in the same washing machine, and dried them in the same dryer. We drove together, to school, to work, to birthday parties. We knew the characters in one another’s lives, the gossip, the stories, the scandals. We had a relatively peaceful life.
Of course, there were bumps and rough patches along the road, the way there always are in relationships. It frustrated him that I wouldn’t even try to learn how to use the remote control.
“Why do you always have to ask me? You’re not an idiot,” he would say. “You gotta learn how to do these things for yourself.” I knew he was right, and was just trying to help me become more independent. But instead of asking him, I’d just find someone else.
Someone a little younger, but still capable of working the remote control.
But as it always seems to do, time passed and along the way we grew apart. (He did.) We became different people. (He did.)
The day came when we both knew it was time to end things. He moved out, went to college, and never lived at home again. He had a number of different addresses, and who knows how many different washers and dryers. He went on different vacations. I no longer knew all the characters and specifics of his life.
None of this was sad. It was all in the course of a normal life. It’s how it goes.
He was still part of my life, just not a part of its everyday clockwork. Honestly, I didn’t even think about it until he told me he was getting married, and they were planning a wedding. I was so happy. I said, “Weddings can be difficult. Are you sure you guys wanna have one?” They said yup, they were planning all of it, I didn’t have to do a thing. Great, I said. That’s amazing. Let me just give you this list of the people I need to invite.
There was a pause. “Ma,” said my son to me. “You might not know this, but weddings are actually supposed to be fun. They’re celebrations, not a means to pay back obligations and soothe ancient wounds.”
I heard what he said. Really, I did. But I knew he was wrong. He just didn’t realize it, and I would have to explain it to him. I was, after all, still his mother, and he, after all, was still my child. I started to say something, and he said, “Ma.”
I tried having the conversation with him two more times. It seemed he just didn’t get it. “These people will be hurt,” I said. “All these old friends, some family members, they won’t understand.”
Every time the answer was the same. He was never unkind about it. He said he understood, but he was firm. There was no swaying him.
“Ma,” he said gently. “I understand what you’re saying. I do. But this is our wedding. We’re gonna do it our way. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”
And that was when I understood that without my realizing it, there had been a seismic shift in our relationship.
All these years since he had moved out and started doing his own laundry, earning his own money and going on his own vacations, all these years I had been referring to him as a grown-up — I realized I had never truly believed it.
Deep down, I still believed he belonged to me as my child. And by “child,” I meant a person who, when it really mattered, would do what I wanted him to do. Now, thanks to this wedding guest list, I was forced to recognize that that was not true. There would be no guest list composed by me for this wedding. People might be hurt, people might be insulted. But there was no way around it.
Adult children. So demeaning. A bearded man with a hairy belly in a diaper is the image it evokes. I remembered my own wedding. All those people there I didn’t even know!
Why were they there? Because my mother and my mother-in-law had had obligations to repay, family wounds to heal, business interests to maintain. They had had a list, and honestly, I never even saw it. If anyone was truly the definition of an adult child, I thought, it was me.
But now, this wedding, this young man — he is my son, right? Why isn’t he doing what I ask?
All this time I’ve let him be an adult, I haven’t interfered, I’ve let him be independent.
Why is he not behaving like an adult child, the way I did when I got married, the way I thought that adult children were supposed to behave!
It’s like stubbing your toe hard on a rock underwater. That’s how the truth feels. It’s this word that’s been going around my head, like a single sock in the dryer. “Let.”
“Why is he being so unreasonable? I’ve let him be a grown up, I’ve let him be independent, I’ve let him do whatever and I’ve never said a word. But a wedding guest list — that’s different.”
It turns out it’s me who needed the re-defining. All those years ago when he left home, when he grew apart from me, when he changed, I forgot that I was supposed to be doing the same.
This “adult children” thing? It’s Just a made-up term to make those of us left behind feel better. It does everyone a great disservice. I thought again about the path this young man and I have traveled. We were together, we shared a life, we grew apart, we separated.
The answer was so obvious. He was no longer a child at all. He was certainly no longer my child. He was an ex-child. He was my ex-child.
Honestly, once I embraced this concept it felt like a huge weight off of my shoulders. It felt like a liberation.
I applied it to the two other people who used to be my children and now were my exes as well, with the same freeing result.
Yes, we are all still a part of the same solar system, but we no longer share the same orbit. Their decisions are their own, and nothing I can do will effect a change in them. My gravitational pull, whatever it was, is over. I am weightless, and can now float free.
It’s not always easy. I often don’t agree with the choices and decisions they make. But it’s a relief to remind myself that it’s not my role to comment. After all — what do I really know, anyway? They’ve gotten themselves this far. They are my beloved ex-children and must pick and hack their own way through the forest.
One last thing, though.
In the tips of my fingers, in the pit of my stomach, and in the deepest corners of my heart, I still love them the way I did when they were my children.
Don’t tell them that.