The parenting journey is a long and arduous one that requires more physical stamina than Superman, more psychological expertise than Freud and the financial resources of Jeff Bezos. At each age and stage of our children’s lives, we encounter and maneuver different joys, struggles and unknowns hoping that we can offer them the appropriate skills, tools and guidance necessary to become independent and self-sufficient human beings. And as they learn, so do we, although often not quickly enough, to feel competent or confident as parents.
My kids are no longer “kids” from an age standpoint, but they will always be my children. As adults in their 30s, they are off and running with relationships, careers, homes and even a dog. Our relationship is now long distance, marked by phone calls, texts, emails and the occasional visit, although my heart is always just a nanosecond away, connected by an invisible link called motherhood.
I worry about my children, not actively as I did when they were under my roof, but in a more amorphous way that takes into account the uncertainty of life and the turbulence of the world at large. I can’t ensure that their world will be as good as mine, that their air will be cleaner, their jobs more fulfilling, their neighborhoods safer or their relationships more meaningful. And while I diligently try to let go of what the outcome will be, I don’t always succeed.
There is a Hebrew concept dating back hundreds of years which sums up my emotions. Tzar gidul banim, which means “the pain of raising children,” acknowledges that part of being a parent is to experience emotional anguish and periods of stress, concern and fear about our children. Jewish parenting wisdom suggests that we can do no better than to teach our children what they need to become independent, and then place our faith in them, and God, that they will learn from their mistakes and find their true path.
Tzar gidul banim also means that children, as well as parents, must feel pain, discomfort and distress in order to become fully functioning human beings. As parents, it’s not our job to remove or eradicate all hurdles, disappointments or challenges from our children’s lives. In fact, we do them a disservice if we attempt to “sanitize” their lives because failure, stress and pressure are all part of life. It is through encountering these things that we learn to cope, accommodate, adjust and become stronger and more resilient.
There is another concept in Judaism that helps me in my relationship with my adult children called tsimtsum, which means “contraction.” Jewish mystics believe that in the beginning, God filled up the entire world such that there was not space for anything else to exist. In order for the world to come into being, God had to withdraw some of the Divine presence but in pulling back, God did not disappear. God withdrew but remained involved, caring and engaged in the unfolding of the world.
Tsimtsum suggests an appropriate model for parenting adult children: That as parents, we must “contract” our presence in order for our children to become fully functioning adults. We must withdraw – our demands, our expectations and often our ideas and opinions – to give them space to create their own realities, pursue their own dreams, falter and make their own mistakes. But we need not disappear.
As parents of adult children, we can continue to offer our support and love and remain close enough to be there when they need us. We can offer perspective and affirm our faith in them. And, we can hold their space – without taking up their space – as they struggle to make their own decisions. The trick as a parent is in finding that balance.