Bringing up Daddy
What to expect when the parent becomes the parented
Twenty or so years ago, I wrote a short-lived weekly column in the Chicago Sun-Times called Diary of a Dad Housewife. At the time, we had a four-year-old and a two-year-old, and although the topic, parenting, was ripe for dispensing advice, I did little of that, knowing that I didn’t yet have much wisdom to share. Instead, I focused on relating the circumstances that pave the path to wisdom — emergency diaper changing in sketchy gas station bathrooms, avoiding injury to your hands or ego during car seat installation, making sure you dress yourself at least half as neatly as your kids, lest someone suspect you’re a kidnapper.
In 27 years of being a parent, I’ve found only one universal truth about raising kids: All parents have the same goal — that their children grow up to be independent human beings. We may wish for them to be happy, healthy, and successful, but the only thing we are fundamentally responsible for is guiding a fragile, totally dependent newborn to the land of adulthood. Assuming that the journey has not been detoured by health problems, at some point they are on their own. Although you’ll always be the parent, the need to act like one will eventually diminish, and at some point, you might be the one who needs parenting yourself.
Waist-deep in our 60s, my wife, Barb, and I now find ourselves in that tricky transition phase between being a parent and being parented. It’s a phase that’s already underway by the time you notice. It begins situationally, in subtle ways. Take driving, for example. After our kids got their licenses, they volunteered to drive anytime we were going anywhere. Now they are still likely to insist on driving — no longer because they are eager to do it, but because they believe they are better drivers than we are. And they’re probably right.
For several years now, when we’ve gone to a restaurant, one of the kids has been likely to reach for the check. This started as a tentative, symbolic gesture, but now sometimes they actually mean it. The day is approaching when they’ll be better able to afford it than my wife and I — which I hope will be a reflection of how well they’re doing and not how poorly we are.
These days, one of our kids calls every other day or so. More often than not, their purpose is more to check up on us than to let us know what’s going on with them. Living in the same city means they regularly visit our house, where they take charge of any heavy lifting that needs to be done. But they still almost always bring their laundry. Adult kids lugging their laundry home may be a trite notion, but it has value as an example of the changing relationship from both angles. It signifies a continuation of their dependence, even if prompted more by convenience than by need, and it also allows them to check up on the parents without being too obvious about it.
One of the things I’m mindful about is not repeating some of the behaviors of my parents, my father in particular. Years ago, when my wife and I would visit them in New Jersey, my father would insist on driving an hour to pick us up at Newark International Airport, which is at the confluence of a half-dozen highways totaling about 60 lanes, many configured like a roller coaster, with traffic moving at about the speed of that carnival ride. Eventually, Barb was just as insistent — in private with me — that she wasn’t making the trip again unless we rented a car. She was willing to indulge my father’s need to feel helpful, but she drew a double yellow line when it meant putting our lives at risk. My father did not take the news well.
How smoothly this transition goes depends on how willing you are to step up, if you are the kid, or how willing you are to step aside, if you’re the parent. We probably erred on the coddling side as parents, me especially, and that may account for why our kids still turn to us for guidance on matters that they are perfectly capable of figuring out for themselves. But we have become more careful about offering unsolicited advice. This is a lesson Barb has had to learn while engaging with our older son. They both work at small nonprofit organizations, so they occupy some common professional turf. Initially, when they compared notes, he would welcome the wisdom she was eager to offer; nowadays, he’s more likely to be the one making the suggestions. It’s her turn to do the listening.
“Transitions go more smoothly if there is already good communication,” says Sally Strosahl, who has been a marriage and family therapist in the Chicago suburbs for four decades and has three adult children and two grandsons. Strosahl is the author of Loving Your Marriage in Retirement: Keep the Music Playing, a book that draws on her personal as well as professional experience and includes contributions from her husband, Tom Johnson, a retired newspaper editor. “Coming to terms with the effects of aging is an ongoing task for all of us,” Strosahl says. “Getting older is not a choice. But how we choose to feel about it — and deal with it — is a choice.”
Strosahl recommends dealing with it by keeping a sense of humor and approaching aging in a lighthearted way. “Tom and I laugh with each other about our senior moments, and we deliberately do that with our children,” she says. “We want them to know that we’re open to being teased about it.”
In Strosahl’s view, this helps to clear the path ahead for truthful communication when issues of serious consequence present themselves. “We set the stage for being able to say, ‘I need your help,’” she says. “Our children do begin to take over more as we become more impaired, yet we can still be the leader by allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and by seeing our vulnerability not as weakness but as truth. Aging gracefully is about acceptance and choosing to save our energies for what can bring actual results.”
Technology is one obvious, if clichéd, area in which vulnerability can show up early and often. Our kids are likely to be more facile than we are, and this can lead to frustration on our part and impatience on theirs. When these situations arise, I think it’s useful to have some defensive ammunition ready, like reminders of who showed them how to use a turntable or taught them to parallel park.
Forgetfulness and hearing loss are two all-too-familiar signs of senescence. Keeping a sense of humor can have some value here too. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Is it my age or is it the weed?” But memory loss should not be taken lightly when it’s an early warning signal of dementia, often accompanied by confusion about time and place or difficulty performing familiar tasks. I can deflect our kids’ observations about my hearing decline by attributing it to a long history of rock concerts, but soon I will have to face the music, as Strosahl and Johnson did recently.
“We had both noticed that we were having difficulty hearing each other, but neither of us wanted to admit that we were losing our hearing,” she says. “Our daughter finally sat us down and did a mini-intervention requesting that we get our hearing checked. We decided to do it on Valentine’s Day as a gift to each other. And we discovered that hearing aids do help! I’m sure our children had spoken about it, and we had all joked about it, but we needed the final callout.”
One major development that can complicate and enrich relationships is the arrival of grandchildren. Strosahl calls grandparenting “a dance of balance and boundaries,” noting that “the baby boom has become the grand-parent boom,” with many of us taking on the role of babysitter and some serving as primary caregivers to the next generation. Johnson points to the irony that, as a family therapist, his wife is often called upon to offer guidance on child rearing, but when it comes to their own grandchildren, they follow the recommendation of a friend: Do not give any advice unless it’s asked for.
That seems like a good tip for most of our interactions on the road to role reversal. Strosahl adds some deeper wisdom with an alliterative lift: “Let love lead.”
• Paul Engleman is a Chicago-based freelancer and a frequent contributor to The Rotarian.
• This story originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.