Monday, October 22, 2012

The art of shutting up

Mother not minding her business
 but in a nice,supportive way

I got some conflicting feedback recently on this blog:

This: "I love when you write about your kids."
And this: "You might want to write about things other than your kids."

So today, I flipped a coin: 
Heads:  Benghazi
Tails: Changes in communication with adult children


Two things happened (that I want to know about) after Sam turned eighteen in his first week at Elon. He became an adult, and he developed a bad cough.  Last weekend,  bright-eyed and fresh-faced after a month and a half on his own, exhilarated by a successful round of midterms, and full of stories about friends and campus antics,  he arrived home for the fall break, barking like a seal.

"Still? I asked.
"It's okay," he said. "I sound worse than I am. I'm not sick."

His dance card, as my father would call it, was full for the weekend: rounds of visits with old friends, an overnight in Boston, a day of football with his brother, and more. 

Six months ago, Sam developed pneumonia. The onset was sudden, it had been no more  than a bad cough for a few days.  Then his fever soared into the seizure zone, he was unable to stay hydrated, and he was hospitalized. It scared me to see him that sick, it scared  him to see them coming at him with an IV bag.

But teenagers have short memories after they realize they're going to live through something.

Had Sam still been seventeen last weekend,  and therefore, had I still been the boss of him,  I would have made an appointment for him, made him cancel those weekend plans, made him go to the doctor. But now, as I listened to him cough, I considered:  how to make this happen while respecting his new right to make such calls on his own? How to sway things  now, if, as an adult he places the priority of his social calendar above his health? And not at home anymore, where I can sit and plan an ambush, but at school where he says he will, but I think he won't, take the time to put a little hat on the Thermoscan, touch it to his ear, and wait those long 3 seconds for a read?

In other words, how to assure he handles these and other priorities my way, his way?

All too aware am I of the line that can be crossed by the over-mommy, and like most lessons, I learned this one the hard way, through an experience with Sam's older sister.

Jacqueline took a summer job between her  junior and senior year  in college. Anticipating the tight rental market in Boston, she enlisted the help of friends to rent an apartment while she was abroad - sight unseen. When she returned from Australia, she found a job. She put the whole thing together without so much as a request for "T" fare.

We saw it together for the first time. It was smaller than our front hall, it was filthy,  and it was unsafe. The locks on the back windows would not secure properly and the wiring in the bathroom needed repair. Light fixtures in another room wouldn't work properly and the short-term rental was contingent  upon her allowing the rental company to show the place to prospective fall tenants whenever they wanted to.

I was able to exert my "influence" enough to be sure the locks got fixed. But she had her own way of negotiating with the rental company which, when she shared it with me, struck me as passive. "You're out in the world now. You need to advocate for yourself really assertively," I said, only failing to tell her exactly how to do that to make it completely ironic.

Of course, this well-intentioned but insensitive statement made her angry - very angry -  and so she did what many adults would do whose choices and decisions were being second guessed, which was to stop  talking to me for a while.

It confused me.  Why wouldn't anyone want an experienced resource like me at their disposal? And not only someone who had dealt with her share of bombastic, uncooperative landlords, but a mommy, who, if necessary, could make that bad landlord very, very unhappy and guilt him into behaving properly?

Nothing makes you reflect  faster and more effectively on your behavior than when your child elects to stop sharing their decisions - any decisions - with you because of "how you get."  Very quickly, you learn to stop elbowing your way into a problem and wait, instead, for an invitation.

I shared this reflection with Sam over lunch  on that Saturday.  I told him that it's hard to know after so many years of being in charge, where the line lies between responsibility for our children and respect for their privacy. I told him that mothers are at their best when they exert what they believe, in their own minds anyway, is their power to keep their children safe. I explained that he should feel free to point it out if I miss the line while we both adjust to his now-adult status.  And, I told him that we can both look forward to an even nicer relationship based on relating to each other as adults. And then I asked him  if he thought it might be a good idea to consider stopping at the walk in clinic after lunch.

"Absolutely. Great idea," he said. "Let's do it."

My way, his way. All is well.

Next on Worth Mentioning:  Maybe something about the debate tonight, maybe something about other people's adult children and their life choices, I don't know.  I have my coin ready.

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