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Adults still are kids to mom

Life with children

Last year, less than a week after I learned my mother's cancer was terminal, my daughter, Kathleen, called with unsettling news.

She was engaged.

Engaged to a young man neither her stepfather nor I, nor anyone else in our family, approved of. From what all of us had observed he was self-absorbed, spoiled, lazy and, at the very least, emotionally abusive.

I had to remind myself that Kathleen was 22, about to graduate from college, and for all practical purposes, financially emancipated. But every fiber in my being screamed, 'I forbid this!' and longed for the days when I could simply tell her, 'Absolutely not.'

Welcome to the world of parenting adult children.

It's a schizophrenic period where one minute your offspring is too busy to talk to you because of a social commitment, yet the next day you get a frantic long-distance phone call begging for advice on treating the stomach flu.

I thought back to a simpler period in my life, when Kathleen was still a sulky high school teenager. While working out at the gym, I entertained a friend with stories of my daughter's erratic mood swings and emotional outbursts. I ended my harangue by noting, 'You're in the easy phase - both of your kids are grown and away from home.'

My wise companion stared at me and shook her head.

'It's tougher being a parent now than when they were living with us,' she said.

Six years later, her message came home to roost. I was being asked to contemplate a death on one hand and a wedding on the other. The first thing to do was separate the two.

While it was tempting to employ a bit of emotional blackmail and tell Kathleen that her beloved grandmother, whom she adored, would be horrified and saddened by the news, I kept my mother out of the equation.

And then, in typical Russell Crowe fashion, I unleashed hell.

I pointed out how many times my daughter and her now fiancé had broken up. How he already had one broken marriage behind him. How often Kathleen herself had pointed out their differences and this young man's weaknesses.

Then my husband got on the phone, the stepfather Kathleen had loved and respected for more than 10 years. Karl gave it his all as I climbed the stairs, weeping, to get on the extension. At the end of his pleadings, we both begged her to reconsider. Then we told her we loved her and hung up.

The next several months were excruciating. Kathleen graduated from college and found a job teaching third grade in South Carolina, outside of my hometown. She thrived in her career and continued to have problems with her personal life. But she stuck to her guns and began making wedding plans.

Here in Portland, Karl and I agonized over how to proceed. In phone conversations and during one visit with our daughter, we continued to voice our concerns.

While we did contribute some money toward deposits, we also explained that even if she was marrying Prince Charming, we wouldn't be able to give her the wedding of her dreams. Kathleen was understanding. Her fiancé and his family were less so.

In the middle of all the drama I received a copy of a book by Jane Isay, titled 'Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents.' Aha, I thought, a road map and the answer to all of my questions.

Not quite, since one of Isay's key talking points for parents dealing with adult children is summed up by Sheila, a woman she interviewed for her book: 'Keep your mouth shut and your door open.'

In a recent phone interview, Isay agreed that few parents want to follow this mantra. She noted that while on her book tour she was amazed by 'the number of people who don't want to be told not to give advice.'

I was one of those people. If my daughter was going to call me with questions about this wedding, with stories of how unreasonable her future in-laws' expectations were and laments about her fiancé's unwillingness to help her with these issues, then I was going to comment. And, yes, give advice.

Needless to say, these chats were not always pleasant. But there was one constant that both Karl and I employed whenever we spoke with Kathleen, no matter how heated the conversation got. Before we hung up we always told Kathleen two things: one, that we loved her and, two, how proud we were of her.

According to Isay, the latter comment is 'the magic sentence that can make up for years of anger: 'I'm so proud of you.' '

Thankfully, my first introduction to the pitfalls of parenting an adult child did not encompass multiple years. Over one long and sad 14-month period, I watched my daughter lose a grandmother and, by her own choice, a fiancé. She terminated the relationship on her own terms, calling to tell us after the fact.

A week later she was back on the phone, lamenting the check-cashing policies of her bank. And asking for advice on finding a new one.