In the early morning hours of September 9, 1996, fierce contractions gripped my abdomen again and again, drawing my whole body, mind, and soul into the experience of becoming a mother. Though I had been warned it would come, I could not have fully understood the agony until I felt it for myself. These unrelenting birthing pains inaugurated my motherhood journey.
Many years later, in December of 2020, I sat in a dark car in an empty parking lot with a dear friend and sobbed from the effects of a different kind of birthing pain. My oldest child had brought his new fiancée across the country for a visit to meet our family. Fueled by a year of coping with a pandemic and abnormal patterns and rituals of life and connection, this anticipated time of bonding had morphed into an identity crisis for me. I now had no idea how to be a mother to my son, who had spent more than a year on his own at college, followed by two years living in a foreign country. Additionally, I had ABSOLUTELY no idea how to be a mother-in-law. My heart was experiencing birthing pains as my mothering journey continued in learning to give birth, though in a different way, to my adult children.
Just as these tiny beings transitioned from life in the womb to life in an external world, so too our young adult children must transition from a life in the shelter of our mothering arms to an independent life as an adult in the world. This process looks different and holds different challenges for every mother and every child. In search of wisdom and perspective, I looked to nine women who are exemplary role models to me of motherhood and asked them about the transition to mothering adult children. (See below for participant descriptions.)
How do you see your role as a mother differently now?
Rose “My children seem to still seek reassurance and love from me. They sometimes seek advice. More often I am a ‘safe person’ to bounce ideas, dreams, concerns, and worries, etc. with.”
Heather “With my oldest kids I am trying to allow them more autonomy. They need to be in charge of the decisions they make, and assume accountability for their actions. I can still guide them and give them advice along the way, but ultimately, they need to make the final decisions.”
Pam “I am no longer the teacher. I wait to be invited in with advice, otherwise I am compassionate and listen. No prying. Just praying. My stewardship is just to love like Jesus loves.”
Were there parts of being a mother that were a struggle for you as your children began transitioning to adulthood?
Lisa “The biggest thing I had to deal with was that my oldest son didn’t follow the plan I had laid out for him when the ultrasound said he was a boy! It was a huge learning curve for me. I had to accept that his agency is his…. I had to accept that loving him meant not criticizing his choices and trying to understand him as this new person who I didn’t get to make rules for according to my values anymore.”
Shannon “Yes. I feel there is always the struggle to know how much freedom to give and when. It is hard to find the balance for each child between setting boundaries vs. letting them make mistakes and learn from the consequences.”
Pam “Trying to figure out my role and who I am, my purpose now that it is not totally focused on mothering/teaching my children. I went through an identity crisis.”
Cay “It was hard to step back and let them make their own choices and face the consequences of those choices. It does get easier though. ”
What have you enjoyed most about having adult children?
Did your children becoming parents themselves change your relationship?
Linda “They begin to understand what I went through and appreciate the love and sacrifice that parenting entails.”
Lucy “They ask us the question, ‘Were we like that?’ ‘What did you do when we acted like that?’ Our children may appreciate more what we, as their parents, went through as they raise their own children. Maybe they have a bit more respect for the role of a parent and know all parents make mistakes.”
How has your relationship changed with your child into/through adulthood?
Cay “As young adults, they were trying to separate and establish their independence. So those years were sometimes tense and challenging. I didn’t always agree with their choices and it was hard. But now for the most part, they are just my dear friends. They call to vent or talk things out, but for the most part I just listen and love. That does not mean I have stopped worrying about them though.”
Rose “When my children moved into their teen and early twenties there was some ‘Push away’ as they struggled to make the jump from child to adult. Mom ‘knowledge and experience’ was not of great value. After a few struggles they started valuing me over friends and the internet.”
Linda “It has just gradually changed as they become involved in their own families and are so busy and involved. I am not as needed as I once was but that is good because my energy level doesn’t allow me to do all I have been able to do in the past.”
How do you feel you best support your adult children?
Rose “Be available. Be honest. Hold my standards but let them know I love them no matter what. I may not like or support their choices. They may not like or support mine. The bond of love is something I want them never to doubt.”
Lucy “Attending the grandchildren’s activities and events. Sharing their experiences. When our children know how much we love and care for our grandchildren that is an indication of how much we care about them too.”
Heather “We hope to make our home a place of peace and love so they will always know they have a refuge to turn to when the seas of life get rough. Creating an atmosphere of joy and laughter is absolutely imperative in our home. And maintaining an open avenue of communication.”
Linda “At my age my children don’t really need my support. They support me! But just listening to them and not giving advice unless it is specifically asked for. I think keeping the family together and complimenting them on their successes and doing everything you can to encourage love between siblings and parents. Families should be happy and loving and I think the mother sets the tone.”
Pam “Don’t ‘expect them’ at family activities. Invite with no strings attached. They have a good communication between themselves and I don’t have to be involved with everything. (That’s actually hard to let go of that position that you had with them as the parent.)”
How do you handle differences of opinion with adult children?
Rose “I recall myself at their age. It is sometimes hard to acknowledge, even to myself, how foolish I was. Honesty, humility to acknowledge when I do/did wrong and ask for forgiveness. Being willing to forgive and forget while retaining the knowledge gained from mistakes and challenges. Understanding that my viewpoint is not the only one. Perspective can make a lot of difference. Sharing and acknowledging that what I thought was right and good may not have been the best or not understood or perceived differently.”
Linda “Telling your children you are sorry when you lose your temper or say unkind things is necessary for you and them.”
Lucy “We don’t talk about certain subjects and we stand back and trust they have been raised with good principles and they can make good decisions and choices even though they are different than what we would do. Working with in-laws (our children’s spouses) is hard sometimes and there are conflicts and differences of opinions, but so far, we have never let any conflicts or differences keep us from letting them know we care about them.”
Pam “I handle it like I handle differences of opinions with friends. My way is not the best or the only way….I have to let them make decisions and reap the consequences. It is NOT a reflection upon me.”
What is something you have learned from your adult children?
Cay “To allow and honor agency. That they don’t have to do everything the way I would. To see good and not place conditions on my love.”
Rose “My children are always expanding my understanding and knowledge of everything. They are my go-to for new tech info.”
Linda “There is no one best way to do things. My children achieve their full potential in different ways, There have been times when I have worried about things my children were doing or going to do but sometimes experiencing the consequences of poor choices is the best way to learn.”
Lucy “How important family is. There is so much purpose and richness in life with children and grandchildren.”
What advice or encouragement would you give to parents preparing for launching a young adult?
Lisa “Just love them. Remember that love is most important. You did your best, and they have to live their lives. Their choices are not a reflection on you. You do get to take a little credit when they do things that make you proud though.”
Heather “Love is key. They need to know that no matter what happens they can know that there is someone in this world that loves them unconditionally. And, laughter helps!”
Cay “Be gentle with yourself. It’s a challenging transition for them and for you. Have faith in them and their future. Allow them room to grow and be on their own. Expect mistakes, and don’t condemn. Let them know you believe in them and will always be there for them. Don’t micromanage. I’ve known some parents that just could not let go, and it wasn’t good for their children. I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes. It’s all worth it though!”
My Closing Thoughts
The varied perspectives and experiences of these women have illuminated much about the path of mothering through adulthood. Many of them spoke of their weakness and mistakes along the way and how that is an indispensable part of the journey for all of us. I loved this comment from Heather:
“Sharing stories and laughing about my coming-of-age years and the lessons I learned then, and since then, hopefully helps my adult children get to know me better while also allowing them to learn from my mistakes/successes and know that I’m human too and had to go through the ‘growing pains’ of young adulthood. They can know that individual evolution is a life-long journey and personal change is possible and necessary.”
I now have four adult children, (soon to be) two wonderful daughters-in-law, and our first grandbaby on the way. Though I am more comfortable with navigating the experiences with my children, I agree with Heather that there are and will still be “growing pains” for mother and child. “Mother” is still an identity I am working to fully give birth to. I close with a beautiful reflection from Linda: ”My children from their conception to the present day teach me patience and what love really means.”
Cay (mother of 5, ages 29-40)
Rose (mother of 5, early 30s to early 40s)
Lisa (mother of 4, ages 15-20)
Shannon (mother of 3, ages 11-18)
Heather (mother of 4, ages 11-21)
Linda (mother of 8, ages 37-50)
Lucy (mother of 6, ages 41-51)
Pam (mother of 9, ages 15-37)