My wife, being from another country, is often puzzled by the way of life in the United States. Actually, me, being from this country, I too am often puzzled by this way of life. She asks me about these things and I don’t have an answer.
The relationship between parents and adult children is one of those places. I’m not talking about my own relatives here, because one thing I’ve learned through the years is that my familial relationships are not normal – normal for people who are in prison, have drug or alcohol dependency, or maybe even for coworker status – but not normal for parents and children. No, I’m talking about the great majority of American familial relationships – families like our neighbors – families where the parents actually put themselves out a little bit in order to ensure the well-being of their children. I think, perhaps, one of the reasons that parents did that was to build a safety net for themselves later in life when they became old and feeble.
I spoke with my father the other day. He mentioned his cataracts and how his sight was failing. I felt a genuine compassion for him because now that I am in my mid 40s, my own vision has been getting worse – reading has become more difficult and I can tell that the vision in one eye is weaker than in the other – so I felt a sense of empathy…a real connection, I even felt a desire to take care of him because he is my father …but he went on and told me how he went to an eye doctor and paid for a surgery that not only got rid of his cataracts but made his vision perfect and how it has improved his daily golf game. Not only can I not afford to play golf, but there is no way I can afford to get that kind of surgery even if my insurance covered it because it would certainly have a high deductible.
I’m trying to write about how the parents of adult children no longer need to ask their kids for help and as a result, they no longer have a personal need to help their children to succeed. There is no longer a selfish need to protect one’s young to protect one’s future. And, it’s my belief, that as a result, there is no longer a significant even sacrificial investment in the success of one’s children. Further, as a result of that, there is now a hoarding of wealth and the ability to accumulate things like vacation houses and expensive eye surgery and personal trainers and a veritable fountain of youth of products, procedures, and formulations – that the children cannot afford but the parents can – which not only preserves the parents, but allows them to be more healthy than the children and quite possibly to live longer than their offspring.
My dad is 82 and I am 45 and he sees better than I do – I am happy for him and I don’t begrudge him that – not by any means. It wouldn’t surprise me if he lives longer than me. I’m sure he has more frequent dental appointments and he doesn’t live in a molding cheap rental – so his respiratory and heart health are probably better than mine too. There is no real incentive for him to invest in me except for altruism – a trait which seems to be missing from a large segment of our society and which many believe to be imaginary.
It’s my observation that a great many parents (in particular the parents of my generation) went about teaching life in the same way they went about teaching swimming – 1) throw the child in the pool and let them sink or swim or 2) let someone else do the teaching 3) leave it to the child to find a teacher when they reach adulthood. I believe that sort of parenting has led to the broken family relationships we have today.
When my mother was injured, we offered to stay at her house and take care of her. To do the cooking and cleaning, take care of the dogs, and take care of the house. “She’s got a physical therapist and the house takes care of itself,” was the answer her husband gave.
That’s the paradigm shift I’m trying to write about. That’s the thing that baffles my wife because she comes from a country where the parents are cherished by the adult children – and here – quite frankly – I think there is resentment on both sides. Of course in her country of origin, the parents sacrifice everything to give their children a better life and the children understand that when they become adults and take care of the parents – quid pro quo – but it’s not like that here among families like mine.
Granted, my family is an extreme example with divorces and remarriages etc, but I see this sort of behavior happening with a majority of American families – the parents no longer sacrifice greatly for the children and when the children become adults, they feel no great debt to the parents – and the parents seeing this hoard more for their own well being – and the children seeing this feel a growing sense of resentment and isolation. I think that is why we don’t have big family dinners. The parents are scared of being caught in their selfish hoarding, the children are scared of being asked to care for the selfish hoarders, the grandchildren are watching and learning. A family dinner is a meeting of people who could have helped each other, but did not.
I see this daily. When baby boomers come in my shop and talk about their children and their adventures. I see it in the ads directed at baby boomers. I see it in the movies that are appearing. My wife is baffled but it simply makes me sad.