It may seem dramatic to compare the end of parenting to the end of one’s life, but treating this transition with seriousness will offer a foundation for moving forward. Ironically, it is only this kind of absorbing and accepting the past that allows for parents to build (once again) a new kind of relationship with their children.
As children establish their own lives and their own families, it is easy — especially in the setting of modern, Western culture — to imagine that parenting has come to an end. So many of the day-to-day tasks have faded into the past. Changing diapers, giving baths, driving to lessons or practice, monitoring screens: Much of these labor-intensive tasks are no longer needed. In reality, though, parenting has not ended so much as it has been transformed.
In this new world, parents are faced with a central task: a radical letting go of the kind of parenting they did for so many years. The truth is that adult children are engaged in the project of their own lives. Especially when freedom and autonomy are so prized, unwanted input from parents can seem like an attempt to prevent their move into full adulthood. Considering a metaphor of apprenticeship, we could say that adult children have now become masters themselves. Their parents’ task is not simply to acknowledge — but to celebrate — that fact.
This letting go is more difficult than it might seem. As one parent of an adult child said to me recently, “The hardest thing I have ever done as a parent is not saying anything.” That difficulty is real, but there are ways to support parents at this crucial moment. We do not always acknowledge how significant this task of letting go is, and we generally offer parents little help in undertaking it successfully.
Over the past several decades, psychologists have increasingly made use of a practice called “life review,” a process involving slow and deliberate recollection of past events, positive and negative. Most commonly employed at the end of life, it allows individuals the opportunity to consider and come to terms with the reality of their own story. Typically, they reflect carefully on each phase of their lives. They may direct attention to physical memorabilia or even visit people and places that have been especially important to them. Many report that this kind of intentional reflection on their lives brings a significant sense of peace and a greater readiness to accept the fact that their story is now drawing to a close.
This practice of life review bears interesting similarities to the Ignatian practice of an Examen. The Examen, developed in the 15th century by Ignatius Loyola, is also a habit of thoughtful reflection. This practice is repeated daily and is explicitly prayerful, but its essential character is similar to a life review. Traditionally, the Examen includes five steps:
(1) Giving thanks for the gifts and blessings of the day.
(2) Asking for enlightenment, particularly insight into where God has been at work and present in the day.
(3) Reviewing the events of the day, noting especially what led to “consolation” and what led to “desolation.”
(4) Seeking forgiveness for times where you have acted, spoken, or thought contrary to God’s grace and calling.
(5) Resolving to amend faults and to do better the following day.
A life review or Examen together allows us to imagine a possible practice for parents who have come to the end of their child’s growing-up years. A review of this kind would give parents the opportunity to reflect deeply on these earlier parenting years, to recall joys, to grieve losses, and to move forward to what will come next. Taking up this task could be done alone, together with a spouse, or with a larger group in which conversations might take place.
This practice could take several forms. Parents might retrace each phase of parenting, moving through the five steps of the Examen for each of them. They could also include elements of a life review, perhaps visiting, for example, the physical locations that were most important in their parenting experience. They could take up specific questions inviting them to reflect on their broad experience of parenting, perhaps:
- What is the best advice you were ever given as a parent?
- What parenting moments do you treasure most?
- If you could relive one single day as a parent, what day might you choose?
- What do you think you did well as a parent?
- What are the most painful moments for you to recall?
- Where do you think you fell short as a parent?
- What do you most wish had gone differently?
- Where were you most deeply disappointed?
- Where were you most aware of God’s presence?
- How was the experience of parenting different from what you expected?
- Is there anything you wish your children knew?
- What advice would you give to new parents?
Answers to these questions might well lead not only to reflection but to action: seeking or granting forgiveness, initiating much-needed conversations, or taking actions of other kinds. This reflection can assist parents simply to absorb more fully how it was that their years of parenting unfolded, celebrating or grieving as they recollect and recognizing more fully how God was present to them along the way.
Offering a practice of this kind would be a great service to parents at the end of a child’s growing-up years — and it would also offer a crucial way for them to say goodbye to one form of parenting and move into a new one. Perhaps one reason that parents of adult children can sometimes be overbearing is that they are struggling to move on from their child’s growing-up years. They are still trying to get it right or to rewrite the events of those years.
This final phase of parenting may last a very long time. I recall that when my own grandmother passed away at the age of ninety-six, I realized that she had parented my dad for seventeen years while he lived at home—and then for an additional sixty years after that! This long view is perhaps helpful for parents of younger children to keep in mind. It is easy to become lost in the haze of a child’s growing-up days. Certainly those are very important days. But parents can hope that those early days lay the foundation for something even richer and longer lasting: a lifelong relationship. Parenting offers a great honor: the possibility of walking alongside these people who have been given to them to be their children.
As with every new form of parenting, the possibilities for tenderness are everywhere.