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On Successful Adulting for Children of Flawed Parents

As we stood on the front porch and hugged goodbye, I looked at Miranda and realized that this time of separation is the best thing for her. It is time for her to discover who she is as a person, outside of her role in our family of daughter and sister. I look forward to watching her journey.

— Crissa Boyink, Ditching Suburbia Newsletter

Miranda, the last of Crissa’s children, moved out on her own not long ago. The family (Miranda, her brother Harrison, Crissa, and her husband Mike) had come together to hang out for a while before everyone went their separate ways – Mike to a months-long training class, Miranda to a job, Harrison to an out-of-the-country volunteer mission, and Crissa out on her own journey after being something other than solo for 25+ years.

Crissa’s words resonated with me, albeit in a bittersweet way. I loved the way the family intentionally marked this time of transition in their lives. But it made me ruminate on being thrust into adulthood at 17.

I arrived home after school to find all of my belongings on the front porch, in two cardboard boxes.

3 1/2 years ago the last of our kids left home. It was an angry, defiant break. His siblings set out on their own in prior years, in various stages of maturity and readiness. The three who left with a warm, fuzzy, parentally-approved start (college), all wound up back in our house.

We pushed them out on their own again when it was evident they’d become complacent. No cardboard boxes or abrupt notice, but still – no graceful transition.

Brian & I with the gang – minus David, who’d joined the Army.

Like Crissa, I sensed when separation was best for each of the kids. I knew they needed to get out and figure out how to be responsible for their own lives. To feel the impact of mistakes, ideally before making big ones. To figure out what really mattered to them, without our constant influence. And hopefully to start pursuing that without getting themselves mired in jobs, relationships or economic situations that didn’t support their dreams.

I just didn’t know how to stop being angry with them, fearful for them, or trust them enough to do a better job of sending them on their way.

Baggage

The biggest mistake I ever made was jumping into someone else’s life before I even finished high school. At the time, I didn’t understand how critical it was to figure out who I was and what I wanted out of life before deciding who I wanted to accompany me on the journey.

Brian and I constantly had dinner table conversations with the kids around this topic. Even if they didn’t seem to get it before leaving home, I have no doubt our words come back to them.

When I was a teenager, nobody talked to me about how doing things to take responsibility for my own life – and only my life – should have been job #1. But, no – I was focused on attaining the love and security I lacked. Looking for someone else to deliver it seemed like a handy shortcut.

I literally fell into a relationship, then ignored numerous red flags along the way to make a permanent commitment. Before the age of 25 I was effectively a single parent, while the kids’ dad stayed at work, went out after work, stayed in the garage with his oscilloscope (really!) or spent hours obsessing over computer programming.

But, it was okay. For now. I had a vision of the life I wanted. Why let my partner’s complete lack of interest in it stop me?

Then one time, I decided to take responsibility

I tried things here and there to push my life in a better direction. The more they affected my husband, the more resistance I met and the sooner I ended up giving up. The insanity caused by a single two-night-a-week college class was…challenging. That I needed to take many to earn a degree made it unrealistic under the circumstances.

It wasn’t the threat of my independence that bothered my ex as much as it was having to “babysit” his children for a few hours every week. Yes, that’s a jerk attitude for any father to have. But remember it was my idea to have a family with someone who really was not into it.

I’m not sure being a fool is much better than being a jerk, but we are easier to love. 😆

Me & the two oldest kids, shortly before making my single parenthood official.

I got on with life, ending the misfitting marriage and becoming a legit(?) single parent. Somehow managed to earn a degree and start a professional career by the time my oldest was in high school, ten years after going solo. Eighteen years after walking away from parents I’d vowed to do better than.

No harm done, right?

Well…yeah…in the sense that life is a mixed bag. If I could somehow magically cut out all the parts that seem bad, or go back and do it all over, I’d have to forego all the wonderful things that came out of even the crappiest of situations.

If you do what I did, you’ll get what I got

Even though I can’t change the past, I promise you there’s nothing in these mistakes but hard lessons:

  • Getting married before I’d proven my worth to my self.
  • Moving so quickly into a serious relationship that the stars in our eyes made us forget about long-term feasibility.
  • Excusing a partner’s inexcusable behavior, because confronting it or rejecting is uncomfortable.
  • Starting a family without the wholehearted support of a partner. Single parenting is not ideal. Sorry – not sorry. Calling it like I see it and lived it.
  • Bringing all of the above personal drama to bear on my role as a parent.

Some parts of single parenting were fun. We broke a lot of rules. We had the craziest and brainiest dinner conversations (like the time we were eating pizza at Fellini’s on the day the sixth-grader had watched “The Film” at school and decided to tell us all about it).

Me & the two oldest at Army Basic Training graduation.

Overall, though, my overtaxed mental and financial capacities made it so hard on the kids and I that I think regular teenage angst – difficult enough without complications – was multiplied x 10.

Everybody’s cranky

The kids wanted to leave the nest the second they graduated from high school. If we’re being honest here I have to say that at the time, I was relieved to see them go. Mostly not because the house became a little more peaceful.

Finally, I thought, they’d be forced to figure things out on their own. Maybe someday once they realized how hard “adulting” is they would cut me some slack for all my failings, and for being Ms. Cranky Pants so much of the time.

The younger kids (officially my ‘steps,’ and also products of single parenting via Brian) didn’t stick around long after high school, either.

Brian & the three youngest, back in his single dad days.

Mostly, each newly-independent “adult” lost their attitude and got their act together a helluva lot more quickly than I did.

Healing the strain of spending our last days living together under such contentious circumstances is an ongoing process. Where broken trust was involved has been especially difficult for me. I struggle to lock away the wrongs in that “he/she wasn’t yet grown” box until I see signs of maturity.

Brian deals with it differently. Better, mostly. He’s quicker to forgive, at least on the surface. But then he feels the need to give the child at least an annual reminder of the time they snuck a boy/girlfriend in through a window (or whatever the offense).

It might take me longer to move on, but once I’m convinced the child is on the right track I let it go forever.

Coming full circle

I expect that, as they grow emotionally, the kids will experience some of the same epiphanies I’ve had about my parents.

The ones that make them suddenly realize their part in a problem, yes. It’s always nice to get that confirmation, even when it’s delayed. By years. 😆

More importantly, I hope each of the kids eventually experiences the flashes of insight that don’t just illuminate my failings as a parent, but enable understanding and acceptance to transcend even justified resentment.

My parents did some unquestionably awful things. Mostly, I don’t know what kinds of demons drove them. Every once in a while, though, I get a glimpse of perspective. It’s strange how that brings me peace.

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