I have been pondering this off and on for the last several years. When it comes to parenting, family ties, friendship – when does helping cross the line into enabling or even harming the one you seek to help? Or harming you?
As a mother and a recovering codependent, I have had my lumps in this arena. There was a point several years ago when my son remarked with exasperation that I needed to let him be independent. If he dumped a cooler of ice water over my head I could not have been more shocked in that moment. I thought I was a good mother. I thought I had done a decent job of bringing him up to be an independent being. The idea of my not allowing him to be independent was an absolute jolt to my system.
Had I been a smother mother? Or even worse, was I a smother mother? Were my good intentions holding him back somehow?
It was a hurtful comment, yet enlightening on so many levels. I was in the habit of smoothing things out for my son, my daughter, everyone I love. My son, being a young adult and still living under the family roof, was probably more sensitive to it than my daughter, who had transitioned to her first independent living/roommate situation. I still helped her out periodically – funding an eye exam and new glasses when hers broke, paying her cell phone bill, carrying her on my health insurance benefits while a full-time student – but with my son it was a different story. If he mentioned wanting something I would automatically offer to pay for it or simply get him things I thought he would like. Frequently he did like the gifts, yet it was so unconscious on my part I suppose it seemed less a thoughtful gift than just something I did to keep him helpless and dependent. G has never, ever voiced it in those terms; that is completely a product of my overactive brain.
The changes in my behavior after that conversation were subtle. I listened to his comments and his desires, and quietly filed them away for upcoming gift ideas. He moved into his first roommate situation a few months later, and while I continued to carry him on my cell phone and car insurance plans, I did not offer financial help or present him with spontaneous “just because” gifts. If either kid used my credit card (I have them as authorized users on a one of my cards) I made it a point to ask them about it. I still paid it, but I would ask because it seemed appropriate behavior between adults, as we all were by that time. The charges were never excessive – rarely anything over $50 without advance permission – and nearly always they would repay me without my requesting it. Even now, when they both have credit cards of their own and independent lives, they remain authorized users on one of my credit cards for emergencies.
It was just a few years ago that they both finally dropped off my auto insurance, when we bought our home and realized it was time. Telling G and C it was time for them to acquire policies of their own was a source of enormous guilt for me, as if I were failing them somehow, and absolutely no big deal for either of them. When C decided to port her phone number over to a joint plan with her fiance, I felt a little grieved, as if we were cutting ties completely instead of just separating our cell phone plans. It’s silly and it’s huge, yet I did not say anything about how it felt to me … except to my other empty nester friends who either thought I was crazy or sympathized with my plight.
But I still buy them spontaneous “just because” gifts. Things I think they will like and enjoy, that might enhance their day-to-day lives. Or not. They are gracious in accepting them, and mostly I know they use those practical items. M and I are in a position to do this; it does no harm to our overall present or future financial plans. However, our circumstances have altered now, and I will be more careful about our spending. My mindset about giving is what has to change; my kids and family-by-choice have no expectations that will be crushed by our having to be more conscious of our gifting budget.
M and I have the ability to help the kids if they need it, but thankfully they are both thriving on their own. All my efforts to compile older and grayer years funds is with an eye toward M and I being self-sufficient and self-supporting, not to leave the kids’ an inheritance and a boost on their own older and grayer years. IF our financial stability was unstable, the last thing I would be doing is trying to make their lives easier. As they say in those preflight presentations, put your oxygen mask on first before trying to help the person next to you with theirs.
I do believe this is a tough place for a lot of parents – when to let go. From my own experiences, observations, and conversations with other moms and dads with grown kids trying to find their foothold in life, there is a fine line and tenuous balance with taking care of ourselves and still helping our kids. It’s hard to say no, I know. It’s hard to set them free to go forth to make their own mistakes, experience hurt and pain when we know better.
In her early 20s my daughter got into credit card debt. Not quite over her head, but deep enought that I felt it would be better to help her climb back out than tread water for years. A year later she had fallen back into old habits, and she had to experience the painful consequences of her shopping habits on her own. Although I was here to listen while she vented her irritation and aggravation with herself, I offered only advice and support that she would get through it. Thankfully the second go-round was much milder than the first, thereby taking a lot less time, energy, and resources to climb out of that hole. She learned from the experience, and these days she budgets, pays herself first/saves, and is a lot more careful with her spending. If things got really bad, we are here as a safety net. But “bad” would have to be something related to health, unemployment, or both for either G or C to ask for any sort of financial help.
Family dynamics, financial circumstances – each of us has a different situation and there is no one-size-fits-most solution. I understand that and try to remember to check my judgment when listening to friends discuss their unique issues. For each of us we have to figure out for ourselves where our threshhold lies with regard to how much help we can or will provide and an honest assessment of the effects of that assistance on those we love most. It’s not easy, and I frequently wish for clearer pathways and simpler answers.