Nothing prepares you for the parenting phase that never ends.
In every other stage of parenting—from conception through the milestones that define childhood—we can turn to countless books, blogs, magazines, websites, experts on radio and TV, podcasts, and more to help us navigate unfamiliar terrain. Plus, there are family, friends and sometimes even strangers who freely share advice about everything from teething solutions, weaning and potty training, to first haircuts, handling tantrums and disciplinary techniques. Sure, there are variations but the overall patterns are fairly predictable from the “terrible twos” to the throes of adolescence through the terrifying teens. You muddle through the best you can, holding onto the milestone of high school graduation as the point where you can exhale and feel like you’ve reached a major parenting finish line.
They morph into that creature that nobody warned you about, and nothing can fully prepare you for: a young adult.
They can drive.
They can vote.
They can procure a fake ID for alcohol and partying.
They can engage in activities—some of them downright dangerous—and make all kinds of life choices without your permission and over which you have zero control.
They make educational moves, career choices, and must figure out “adulting” each in their own way, on their own schedule. And you don’t control any of it! When they mess up, the fallout often lands at your feet, everyone confident that you’ll move heaven and earth to fix it.
There are no directional signs on any of the paths they might take: college, gap year, military, a trade, seminary, or drifting towards an undefined future with no clear goals on the horizon. There are no books, blogs, articles, podcasts or apps to guide you through this stretch. Too soon the “young” becomes irrelevant and you realize there is truly no end in sight. This isn’t a phase of parenting, it’s the rest of the story. While those zero-to-eighteen years once felt like eternity, you now realize that they represented only a brief blink in time. This is permanent. And you are truly on your own.
The voice of my late mom echoes as I recall how my brother and I took her through decades of ups and downs in our adult years: “You never stop being a mother, no matter how grown your kids become.”
Now I know what she meant. My beautiful, brilliant, independent-thinking Millennial son and daughter are in their mid-twenties. Technically, I’ve been in the parenting-of-young-adults stretch for nearly a decade. My first response was culture shock: I couldn’t simply instruct them what to do or not do and I couldn’t apply disciplinary consequences in the hope that they would learn to make better choices. While I was no longer legally, medically or financially responsible for their well-being, and past the day-to-day parenting consumed with meeting their basic survival needs, I could (and did) still experience the consequences of some of their life choices—especially the scarier ones.
As they’ve grown, I’ve struggled how to parent them and manage my own stress as they’ve done things like drop out of college, marry in secret, drive cross-country, live outside the United States, walk away from secure paid employment to pursue creative dreams, create medical emergencies, choose non-traditional living situations that include periodic stretches on my couch, ride bicycles as a mode of transportation without wearing helmets, drive without insurance, live without health insurance, and refuse to take the vitamins I raised them on to ensure maximum health.
I’m proud that they’re independent adults with passions and ambitions befitting their brains, talents and skills. Both Number 1 Sun and Babygirl are successfully pursuing career paths of their choosing. They are focused, industrious, confident and buffered with a healthy, grounded sense that their Blackness does not make them “less than” anyone, anywhere, in any way. It’s great to see them moving unapologetically through the world.
They were raised to have—and speak—their own minds, and pursue their own pathways. Even as I marvel at how well they’re easing into “adulting,” I’m painfully aware that now the risks are steeper, the consequences deeper and the potential for life-altering trauma so much higher. They’re making decisions that don’t require my knowledge, permission, or approval, yet odds are that I’ll be called to duty if things go awry. That’s when you start questioning the lines between helping and enabling, supporting and smothering, aiding and crippling.
As I’m adjusting to the (mostly) “Empty Nest” phase, learning to place myself and my desires at the center of my life, the mother in me still wonders: Are they healthy? Seeing the dentist? Getting their eyes checked? Paying those traffic and parking tickets in time? Practicing safe sex and contraception? Handling car insurance and repairs? Managing their finances? Saving money? Making good choices? Taking their freaking vitamins? And of course, the biggest, most terrifying one of all for any Black parent: can they somehow manage to stay out of the sights and hands of the police, violent racists, or anyone who doesn’t value their beautifully precious Black lives?
As I recall my late mom’s warning that motherhood has no expiration date, I remember how my brother and I took her through decades of ups and downs in our adult years, and I have to chuckle because no matter what changes my kids have taken me through in the last few years, my brother and I dragged our mother through countless peaks and valleys—up through her very last days.
I try to remember this while stumbling along the parenting-young-adult path. That perspective helps to keep my pressure down, but it doesn’t always make the process easier. Unlike the childhood years, I never feel a sense of mastery over any of their phases, because they’re no longer predictable. I’m still learning new ways to talk—and listen—to my children, bite back the words of guidance they’ve come to resent and resist, and fight the rigidity of my ideas and opinions as they push back against some of my most cherished notions. I try to be supportive without being intrusive, and understanding without sharing my opinions. I’m always weighing the cost of helping out versus letting them suffer the consequences of their choices. The lines between what’s right and best aren’t always clear.
As they become increasingly independent, I struggle to overcome my natural maternal worries and send positive, affirmative visions and words about my son and daughter into the Universe, hoping to override the risks and dangers they face. I add extra-strength prayers, light additional candles, learn to breathe through the flutters of anxiety and reach for the phone when I need a trusted voice to talk me off the ledge.
Somewhere along the way you realize that all the preceding phases were just the warmup. This is the real workout that builds your spiritual muscles and tests you as never before. This is where you’re served your karma on a silver platter, where you can heed the call to grow, to stretch beyond your limitations, to evolve into someone more.
While it’s occurred to you before, you now realize the inevitability of the truth that our children are our greatest teachers, and they deliver our life lessons without fail. We gradually learn to make sense of this reality that comes with only one guarantee: while parenting never ends, it requires different things of us at every juncture. Nothing else we do will be as challenging or potentially rewarding, and the dance we do with our grown kids is the ultimate footwork of past, present and forever, of Ancestors and descendants, of the endless circle of life.
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