Chapter 1: Regret and Reunion
The New York Times Metropolitan Diary quoted a sardonic item sent in by a man with grown children aged twenty-two and twenty-six, proposing a message for his telephone answering machine:
If you require financial assistance, Press One.
If you are in emotional turmoil over an impending breakup with a romantic partner, and require a few hours of sympathetic discussion, Press Two.
If you are being treated unfairly at work or school and wish to displace your anger to a nuclear family member, Press Three.
If your car or household appliances need immediate repair or replacement, Press Four.
If you are telephoning to inquire about our well-being or to pass a few moments of pleasant topical conversation, please check the number you intended to dial.
Underneath the barbed humor is deep regret and longing, tinged with bitterness. Doubtless the twentysomething children could compose a message of their own: "If you are calling to criticize my lifestyle, press one. If you are skeptical of my live-in companion, press two. If you are worried about my career, press three. If you wonder when I am going to produce grandchildren, press four. If you feel that I'm insufficiently appreciative of all that you've done, press five. And if you just want to communicate love and support, well, that would be nice for a change."
We suspect that the conflict of the adult generations is the cause of as much bewilderment, regret, and self-defeating behavior as the battle of the sexes. Nearly everybody struggles with these issues and everybody has a story to tell. Few people discuss them comfortably. Often, all of us find ourselves reenacting family scripts of which we are barely aware.
Having observed innumerable families struggle with this dialectic of evolving closeness and distance, having seen it professionally in a therapeutic context, wrestled with it in our own family from both sides of the generational divide, having watched friends struggle, we discern a common pattern: As kids grow up, parents' expectations and demands often lag behind their children's actual developmental stage. As children become adults, many parents unconsciously deal with the loss of the parental role by continuing to infantilize their long-since-grown children. Many adult children become hypersensitized to what they take to be criticism, and demonize their own parents. Both sides seek relief from pain, conflict, and frustration in the lowest common denominator -- distance. Though everyone hoped for something better, patterns ossify. Paradoxically, achieving more authentic family connections is the key to real personal autonomy. Strategies for bridging these family chasms is the subject of our book.
Charles Dickens began David Copperfield with the suggestion that all of us want to be the heroes of our own life story. No audience to that drama is more intimate than our own families. No emotions are more charged. No set of hopes and fears is more poignant.
As young children, we want loving parents who will give us patience, support, and protection while we are growing up, and then plenty of room to become ourselves when we are grown. As adult children, we want from our parents a generous appreciation of who we have become.
As new parents, we imagine that we will be the wise and loving mothers and fathers that our own flawed parents never were. We will raise accomplished and appreciative children. And when our children are grown, we hope, they will come to understand what we did for them, and perhaps bless us with grandchildren. They will be grateful for the parents we are.
Children and parents spend a lifetime yearning for each others' affirmation. It hardly bears saying that life often mocks these hopes.
Achieving a satisfying blend of closeness and distance in grown families is a universal human challenge. Most people under the age of fifty have at least one living parent. Nearly three-quarters of adults have children. There is no escaping these relationships, even if one finds them painful and seeks to shunt them aside.
Everybody lives with fantasies of what might be or might have been. Everybody has a vivid mental picture of his or her childhood, and of parents as a mix of positive and negative role models to honor or rebel against. As we were writing this book, we found our casual conversation with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances suddenly enriched. As soon as we mentioned the topic, everyone had a story. And the stories were astonishingly diverse, yet universal.
When we began this book, we had both just turned fifty, with newly separating grown children and one surviving parent in her eighties. So we were engaging these relationships on both flanks, as adult children and as parents. By profession, we were a practicing clinical psychologist and a journalist/editor. As a therapist, one of us was also hearing about these issues from her patients. As we discussed this book project with friends, more than one ruefully said, "I hope I have a better relationship with my grown children than I've had with my parents." This double sense of loss is often the shameful and largely unexplored secret of the middle-aged.
This dialectic of connection, separation, and secure autonomy is not just a drama for two-year-olds, adolescents, and young adults. A rebalancing of distance and closeness recurs throughout the life course, with different particulars at different stages of development, right on into old age.
If there is a single message of this book, it is that more satisfying relationships within adult families are worth the struggle; that change is possible except in the most pathological of families. Indeed, general systems theory tells us that if one part of any system changes, the rest of the system necessarily changes. This is also the fundamental insight of family therapy work with family systems. The irony is that many family relationships are built on patterns that seem hopelessly immutable but that nobody really likes. A family system often mobilizes its resources to resist change, even as each of its members craves something better. Improving these patterns can be immensely rewarding.
In a small minority of families, parents have been so abusive that efforts at reconnection will only bring renewed pain. We address this subject in Chapter 7. In such families, the challenge for grown children is to heal themselves and come to terms with a devastating loss in order to move beyond it. But this does not describe most parents. In most of the human family, relationships are not pathological, yet in some sense unfulfilled. Before concluding that our families are hopelessly toxic, they deserve a thoughtful second look.
ONE FAMILY, ALL FAMILIES
We conceived this project almost eight years ago. It was motivated, in part, by the conversations we found ourselves having with other parents of separating young adults, all of whom hoped that their relationships with their adult children would be rich, close, fulfilling, and mutually appreciative.
In our own case, this universal wish was reinforced by yearnings from our two families of origin and from our experience raising our children. One of us, Bob, had lost a father at age nine and had a mother who was loving, bordering on overprotective. At fifty, Bob still had a great deal of unfinished business involving his father, which influenced his relationship with his children, and, indeed, all his relationships. Sharland was the daughter of a father who was distant emotionally; she had lost both her parents as a relatively young adult, when our children were still very young. Her father, a taciturn man, had withdrawn further into himself as his health failed. Her mother, a gentle woman, had then abruptly become very ill. This history of incomplete connection with her aging parents intensified her desire for authentic, respectful relationships with our kids after they left home.
The general wish for close connections to our adult children was further affected by our experience with the older of our two children, Gabriel, a very independent-minded son. Having a firstborn who tested limits sometimes made us feel like inept parents. There were times when we managed to find just the right blend of firmness and love. Other times, the two of us would have clashing styles or strategies as parents, and we would find ourselves in unproductive and demoralizing three-way conflict. Nor was this good for our daughter, Jessica, whose tacit role in the family system was to stay out of trouble.
As Gabe approached high school, we all hit a wall. We had the sense that this was a boy who could grow up to be an original, successful, and self-aware adult -- if he could navigate the shoals of adolescence and learn to play to his ample natural stengths. But often, we found ourselves stuck in a cycle of reactivity, where small conflicts would set off a string of emotional firecrackers that ricocheted around the family system. And in a world where alcohol, AIDS, automobiles, and a variety of pharmaceutical temptations surround teenagers, the risks, the stakes, and our foreboding increased almost daily. Gabe's scrapes were still relatively minor, but his creativity and his schoolwork were not managing to engage with each other, and we wondered what perils lay ahead.
By the end of Gabe's ninth-grade year, we made a painful decision. We enrolled Gabe in a one-of-a-kind, year-round school, the Cascade School in Whitmore, California. We had resisted this course. Initially, it felt like a shameful indictment of us as parents and a confession of failure.
Cascade combined a strong academic program with peer groups, wilderness education, theater, and its own version of toughlove to allow teens stuck in self-defeating personal or family patterns to become authentic and compassionate young adults with the capacity to constructively pursue their dreams. Happily, in his two years at the Cascade School, Gabe was able to connect to his own strengths as a person; to throw himself into creative work with self-discipline -- and find real satisfaction; and to cultivate social, emotional, and leadership skills.
When Gabe did come home to finish high school in our community, with the same kids with whom he had started kindergarten, it was as a seventeen-year-old with new adult insights. And, miraculously enough, he was as interested as we were in building a closer family relationship. This, we realized, would have to be a relationship that radically changed the traditional parent-child idiom in which the parent is the source of authority.
After Gabe graduated high school and went on to theater conservatory in London, and as our daughter was entering tenth grade, we began to think more systematically about this challenge of constructing a close but not confining, lifelong relationship with our grown children. Though Gabe was now far away, we finally had the loving and mutually respectful relationship with our son that we had long sought. As he was becoming a more interesting and complex young adult, the relationship was becoming richer. But would it last?
Every parent, though perhaps not with the same poignancy, has some version of this wish. Parents, after all, spend nearly two decades interrupting sleep, juggling work and family, changing diapers, containing crises, stressing their marriages, making financial sacrifices, helping with homework, meeting with teachers, sharing in triumphs and setbacks, and often suffering what seems a brutal lack of appreciation -- culminating in the teen years when many children, defining selves, are particularly contemptuous of their parents. The deferred reward, if there is one, is a satisfying, mutually appreciative lifelong relationship with adult children and grandchildren. Yet many parents feel that after all the years of diligence and sacrifice, their grown children have little use for them.
So, as imminent empty-nesters, we began work in earnest on this book. We were fortunate to begin with an emotional vocabulary and a set of professional skills, Sharland as a clinical psychologist, Bob as a writer and editor. We also had a personal story with something of a gratifying happy ending -- or beginning -- in that our daughter was becoming a young woman of strong connections and good values, and our adult son had traversed childhood and come out not just whole, but emotionally available, self-aware, talented, and very good company. In early 1994, Sharland began researching the literature in several different fields, and conducting her own set of intergenerational interviews.
REUNION AND LOSS
Family Re-Union has turned out to be a different book than the one we set out to write, because our lives took an unexpected and tragic turn. In late 1994, we learned that Sharland had incurable, metastatic cancer. For three years, she remained mostly well and living an active life. The coming together in our own family would be more profound and abbreviated than we imagined.
Sharland continued the work on this book, as a research fellow at the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute. She continued seeing patients as a clinical psychologist. Remarkably, Sharland was able to integrate the reality of impending death into her work as a therapist, her role as a mother, wife, and friend, and as an author. Beyond the devastating tragedy that it was, her impending death became the basis for celebrating and more fully exploring life. She approached the last phase of her life not with dread, but with curiosity and engagement.
A month before her death, Sharland told an audience at Radcliffe, "If one is very lucky, a sense of foreshortened time can deepen relationships immeasurably. Although I did not anticipate an end-of-life stocktaking for another twenty-five or thirty years, I am able to see this process that I've been thinking about, reading about, researching, this process of how one comes to terms with one's children as adults, with new intensity and clarity. Mortality allows one to invite intimacy, if one dares look it in the eye. My own children are growing in the face of my impending death. I can see it, feel it. Most importantly, we can talk about it more openly than I would have thought possible. So there is one final paradox: death, oddly, can be a gift of enriched life."
Sharland's candid, exploratory manner of facing her illness and death also invited a profound family reunion. Her engagement with mortality, far too soon, became a quite unexpected chapter in the lifelong drama of attachment and separation in our family. Strangely enough, it was a realization, too briefly, of the yearnings behind the book. In wrestling with Sharland's impending death, each member of our immediate family got to know and respect and love each other more deeply, not just as parents and children but as people.
Although only one of us is composing the words of this particular paragraph, the book is still, emphatically, a joint endeavor. Major portions of this book are mostly Sharland's work. The narrative voice and wise insights are essence-of-Sharland and this is very much a loving collaboration, written in the first person plural.
At the time we began work on this book, we had experienced the intergenerational drama -- as children, as young adults, as new parents, and finally as the mother and father of newly grown children. But we had not experienced old age or the near anticipation of death. We had not personally experienced how people in later life do (or do not) achieve fulfilling connections with grown children and grandchildren. Nor had we personally experienced the stocktaking that comes (or doesn't come) toward the end of life, and the long-deferred repair of connections that sometimes takes place and sometimes doesn't.
The Epilogue of this book deals in greater detail with our own odyssey and with the theme of impending mortality as a final chance, paradoxically, for family reunion. Death, after all, is universal. Some of us leave this earth feeling horribly alone. But we can also approach death feeling connection and affirmation. Death is the ultimate, permanent separation. Whether we engage the fact of our own mortality and that of loved ones influences our capacity for connection while we are alive.
Sharland died in November 1997. Although she died three decades too soon and although our children were just twenty-three and twenty, as a family we went through something of the same process that all families can, in anticipation of the death of an aged parent. Sharland's courage in facing death invited all of us to realize a closer connection. For that to occur, a family has to give itself permission to explore one of life's great taboos -- mortality. And if a family can face the ultimate taboo subject unflinchingly, it can address other taboos and break loose from old, hierarchical and mythical roles.
As a distinguished family therapist, James L. Framo, has written, when a patient lacks the courage to even try to repair badly frayed relations with an aging parent, "My heavy artillery consists of having them imagine that their mother or father has just died, and they are standing by the grave. What would they regret never having said to the dead parent?"
Another therapist, Lorraine David, who faced an early death from cancer, wrote in a moving essay entitled. "The Use of Terminal Candor":
I came from a family in which, as far as I know, death or anything unpleasant had never been discussed for at least three generations on both my mother's and my father's side....I [became] determined to change our family's pattern of avoiding such unpleasant topics, such as death, or expression of strong feelings of anger and sadness, so that we could all become more comfortable and less vulnerable during this period of stress.
During the first year of my illness, with its gradual opening and expanding of feelings, particularly around separation and loss, an interesting phenomenon happened. My father suddenly emerged from his cocoon and started participating in a daily athletic program at the Y; and my mother's depression finally dissipated. It was as if confronting the finiteness of my life enabled each of these family members to accept more responsibility for their own lives and their own time limits.
Our daughter, Jessica, was very moved by Hope Edelman's lovely book written in 1994, Motherless Daughters. The book is a series of letters, memoirs, and extracts from conversations with women who had all lost mothers at a relatively young age. The common thread is profound regret, not just for the loss of a mother, but for words that had been unspoken in a well-intentioned effort to shield the daughter from the mother's impending death, and feelings that had been kept under wraps afterwards. One woman wrote: "For a number of years, probably ten, I just couldn't deal with her death. In my family, we never even mentioned her name for years because it upset my dad so much. Because it hurt too much to feel, I just numbed out that part of me."
Like the women interviewed in that book, Jessica suffered an irretrievable loss. But unlike most of them, she didn't "numb out"; little of importance had been left unsaid that she wished had been said. Sharland's candor and courage, and her capacity for emotional connection, live on in our children.
Family Re-Union is deliberately eclectic. We draw on the insights of developmental psychology, family systems theory and family therapy, and research on attachment and separation. We also draw on fiction, theater, and mythology, where these universal questions recur, often speaking to our hearts in ways that the drier scientific literature does not. We recount the stories of diverse families, relying on case histories and interviews by clinicians, including interviews that Sharland conducted for this book, sometimes with three generations of the same family. And we draw on our own lives as children and as parents.
Our book is intended mostly for non-specialists who are curious about their families. Though it is not quite a "self-help" book, we hope it gives families practical information. We also expect it to be useful for researchers and therapists.
For truly dysfunctional or violent families, this book is not a substitute for psychotherapy or for support groups. We believe ordinary people in ordinary families can do a lot of constructive repair work without extensive professional help, if one or more family members takes a sincere initiative.
The plan of the book for the most part follows the life course. In Chapter 2, we pick up the story with the drama of newly separating young adults and the echoes of issues from early childhood. In our interviews, and in literature, we find examples of healthy and unhealthy separations. The process is a minefield, but there are paths around the booby traps.
Chapter 3 adds some thoughts about the dynamics of families. It explores the lifelong dance of attachment and separation, a dialectic in which growth requires new comprehension of the other, and new balance. We explore the tendency to get trapped in family roles that nobody likes and to trap others in family myths. This chapter borrows some insights from the work of family therapists, especially the observation that by changing our own behavior we alter the behavior of systems.
Next, in Chapter 4, we take a closer look at parents of young adults. This can be a time of new growth for midlife adults, which has the happy side effect of keeping parents from being overly intrusive in the lives of their young adult children. We also pursue the question: Am I destined to repeat the mistakes of my parents? -- and find that life offers a good deal of free will. Connecting with an intimate partner, having children, struggling with a career, are pivotal life events when positive or negative associations with one's parents are vivid and raw, and there is either reinforcement of old identities and myths or new understanding and growth. Adult children, moreover, have much to teach parents.
The middle chapters of the book go more deeply into variations in the human family. In Chapter 5, we look at the new extended family in which adult children may have a more prolonged period of dependency than either they or their parents bargained for. We examine conflicts over money and life choices in families where grown children well into their twenties and even thirties return "home."
Chapter 6 addresses divorce, early death, and stepfamilies. A majority of grown children in the United States will find themselves with a stepparent at some point in their lives. Divorce and remarriage raise loaded issues of loyalty and betrayal, and complicate the process of family reunion.
In Chapter 7, we examine other family complications, including seriously abusive families. And what happens to relationships between grown children and their parents when a child doesn't choose the life parents expected? When a child is gay or lesbian? When a child intermarries or rejects parents' religious faith? How do parents keep their disappointments in check and remain affirming of the people their children have become? What do adult children have to teach their parents?
The final three chapters address the later period of life. In Chapter 8, we examine more closely the project of revisiting our parents, coming to know them better as people, partly as a way of freeing ourselves from often disabling myths. In taking a second look at our families, as adults, we enable all three generations to grow.
Chapter 9 is about grandparents in the family constellation, and the role of grandparent as an opportunity for either renewal and closer connection in relationships between parents and now-adult children -- or for greater tension and animosity.
Chapter 10 deals with old age and the developmental challenge of stocktaking and making sense of it all as the end of life approaches. This reflection also offers new opportunities for reintegration of families. In old age, we look back on our life. If we pay attention unflinchingly, we find there are still unresolved questions of relationships with our children and grandchildren, and, mythically, with our own parents.
Finally, the Epilogue tells more of our own story, and examines the paradox of impending death as a renewal, reaffirmation, and reconnection of family life.
As we look at the whole life course, we conclude that in nearly all situations, the effort at reunion is worth the trouble. Throughout a lifetime, there is a striking consistency of patterns and ways of breaking through them -- or failing to break through them, as they recur and evolve in different contexts and at different stages of life.
There are many doors into this mansion. In some situations, professional help may be indicated. And in a small number of cases, where most relatives are dead or otherwise lost, or where a parent was truly abusive or a family deeply dysfunctional, the best that can be attained is an exploration and a reframing of the meaning of the childhood experience rather than a literal present-day reconnection. One man, semi-joking, reported after a heroic effort at family therapy, "I still hate my parents but now I hate them on a more mature level." Most of us can expect better than that.
Our book is not meant to be encyclopedic. The more complex variations on the theme, such as divorce, adoption, religious and racial intermarriage, the early death of a parent or parents, alcoholism, abuse, and ethnic and sexual preference differences, each has their own small library of books. We include a brief appendix where we suggest other authors whose work we particularly admire.
The theme of family, as a universal human experience and puzzle, is pervasive in literature, in theater and poetry, in biography and memoir, as well as in diverse schools of human psychology. It is as old as the strained relations between Cain and Abel. It pervades Greek mythology, Shakespeare, and modern literary classics like Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.
This book is not written for any subgroup of the human family. It is for anyone with parents and with children. We think it will be especially useful for parents of newly adult children, looking forward to close but necessarily different family bonds; for grown children with distant or conflicted relationships with parents, but who have begun to have some compassionate curiosity about who their parents really are; for parents in later midlife who want more authentic connections with their adult offspring. It is also for people revisiting family relationships as part of a final stocktaking of their own life.
This book deals mainly with middle-class American families. But with all of its cultural and class variations, the emotional quest for connected autonomy across the life cycle is close to universal. Today, the broadly "normal" family is a far cry from the stereotypical Ozzie-and-Harriet nuclear family of the 1950s. Well-functioning families include all sorts of unconventional and recombinant ones, and any family where real pathology is not overpowering can hope for constructive change.
Is it really possible to generalize about what makes a healthy, multigenerational family? We think so. In a healthy family, there are clear boundaries. Children are neither pawns in their parents' marriage, nor are they made responsible for rescuing it. As adults, children are accorded their parents' respect, and reciprocate by honoring their parents' experience and wisdom. The family ethic encourages and affirms the autonomous development of each family member. Affection is not demanding or possessive. There is a capacity for honest communication, not conducted in an idiom of blaming. The family does not view itself as "us against the world," but is open to other friendships. Is this ideal too much to ask? Perhaps, but isn't it what all of us want? We may never perfectly attain it, but we can work toward it.
This is emphatically a book for all three generations. In reviewing other books that addressed relationships between parents and grown children, we noticed something curious. There were books for parents on how to deal with separating teens; some rather sad books for young adults with irremediably "toxic" parents; hopeful books for the anxious middle-aged on how to repair relationships with grown children; books for adult children of alcoholics and survivors of abuse; books on grandparenting; and books that deal with aging mainly as a management problem but offer little about emotional reconnection. There was virtually nothing that addressed the common dilemmas of the entire life course. Even in fiction we noticed a disjuncture. There are countless "coming-of-age" novels, where the young hero wrestles with how to break the bonds of confinement with his family, but far fewer literary works in which an older person is struggling with his isolation from young adult offspring.
Yet all of us who live out a normal life span pass through all of these stages: the twenty-five-year-old who finds her parents overbearing and not respectful of her adulthood; the forty-year-old who hopes he has a better relationship with his son than he did with his father; the fifty-five-year-old trying to find some emotional solace and connection amid the practical burdens of caring for an invalid mother; the seventy-year-old looking to repair a painfully distant relationship with a midlife daughter. To underscore what should be obvious: these are the same people at different stages of life. We are they. How much richer we would be if we paid attention sooner -- if we cultivated these capacities instead of waiting for crisis or regret.
As individuals, all of us flatter ourselves to believe that we acquire more maturity, insight, and wisdom as we get older. And for the most part, we do. Nearly all of us are wiser at fifty than at twenty. But we often find it hard to credit that capacity for growth to others, especially to our aging parents or our adult children. If we do, we may be pleasantly surprised and rewarded.
In a society that prizes and celebrates youth, the natural inclination is to emphasize the young. The old have had their hour on stage. But in fact, even old dogs can learn new tricks. And the young, as much as the old, have a stake in family ties that affirm. People are capable of growth and constructive change at all stages of life. So, if there is a unique contribution here amid a forest of books on parenting and on families, it is to emphasize the commonality of all three generations and the universal human capacity for repair, renewal, and reunion.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Kuttner and Sharland Trotter