As parents we are hard-wired to find or preserve peace among our children and families, and once our children are married, we sometimes have to learn new and different ways of responding to our children (whom we know terribly well) and their significant others (whom we are coming to know better and better).
More often than not, a crisis will necessitate our adapting to a new means of communicating with our children and their mate, because so many things can be implied, ignored, or assumed during a period of stress. Your child’s mate is building a new life with your child, and a milestone, such as a celebration or notable event, will arise, and there will be a sense among many of you to have the last word on how things are done. How often have you heard someone from another family say that “This is how we do birthdays”? or “But we always have Thanksgiving at our house”? It is important to breathe and pause if you hear such things, even from your own child. When people feel disrespected, they are hurt, and a beloved family tradition might be disregarded with no feeling at all. It is also true that people can often make a pronouncement rather than inviting conversation, and you may quickly feel irrelevant, and you may express your defense by simply removing yourself from any involvement. As a parent, you need to remember that you have every right to make decisions about family milestones, but your children, with their new families, are creating their own rituals or traditions, and to quote Arthur Miller, “Attention must be paid.” It is during this development of your child’s life that you find out there are aspects to your child that were never clear before, and we need to look at them as their partners now do.
It can be very helpful to NOT react with words we actually want to say, or feel justified saying. It can be much better to breathe deeply and ask “Is what I would like to say going to HELP or HURT my relationship WITH ________ at this time?” If you’re not sure what the response to that question is, write down your thoughts and feelings. If you feel as if you are in a particularly precarious situation, perpetually walking on egg shells and living under a microscope, you may have to be extra careful. As you are saying things that may not be your truest reaction, you will feel inauthentic. Yes, you will feel stifled. No, it is not fair. Yes, you will feel that you are compromising, and you’ll be stunned if you and your child have had a very open and direct communication for years. Why should you be different now? Simply because you cannot lose sight of your goal, which for now is to try to be in the room (so to speak) with your adult child and family for this holiday or celebration. To be in the room (or any room, for that matter) you need to breathe through it and not speak what is in your heart or head at this time. It is not about you, even though it feels as if it is.
Adult children with their own lives and families often expect others in the family to simply adapt, and it’s not that easy. We cannot assume what our children are thinking, or what they’re “up to.” We have to talk to them, calmly and lovingly. Remember that our children will always protect their significant others (just as we do) and the last place they need to be is in the middle of an argument. Your child’s spouse’s has a totally unique experience with your child, and a new and daunting relationship with you. Do not interpret what this difference may be. Work with it. It is also true that your own children, in supporting or defending their spouse, may say things to you that you find cruel or insensitive. You do not have to take this, but remain calm and say that the comments are not helpful to the matter at hand, and they have hurt your feelings. If you regularly assert to your children and their spouses that you want to honor them and listen to what they have to say (and back this up with actions), you can avoid unpleasant situations and disruptions in the family.