Raising children is arguably the most demanding job any of us will ever have. While they are under our care, we protect them, shape their character, inform their world-views, and lay the groundwork for their own spiritual journeys. We also referee, comfort, and perform thousands of seemingly mundane tasks. Though the nature of how we love and serve our children changes as they grow up, it doesn’t necessarily get easier.
In fact, it can become more stressful and more emotionally exhausting in midlife when teens and parents might both be going through hormonal shifts, facing the existential angst of what’s next?, and navigating major relational transitions — let alone the Covid19 holiday season of 2020. Because the intensity of midlife parenting can jeopardize even the healthiest marriages, it’s essential for us to prioritize transformation as we nurture this most important relationship.
A Catalyst for Change
Parenting turns up the heat from the refining fire that we unwittingly lit when we exchanged marriage vows. Where marriage invites us to love sacrificially, parenting demands it. In the early years of parenting I was shocked at how frequently I felt impatient and angry. Looking back, I think those feelings were mostly attributable to bone-deep exhaustion, recurrent losses of control, and the solitary LEGO block that I never saw but always stepped on. These daily humiliations became a powerful impetus to change.
Change is essential as parents because we have to stay at least one step ahead of our offspring. Often, just when we think we’ve got things figured out and feel some level of confidence, children catapult into another developmental stage—or, if they’re teenagers, make life-altering decisions without consulting us.
Because teens sometimes give off the vibe that the only things they really want from us are access to our credit cards and car keys, we may assume that our job is mostly done and divest or even check out. In reality, they still long for and need our acceptance, affirmation, and love. Since each child matures at their own pace, we have to evaluate how to meet their needs on an ongoing, individual basis. Even though we had three sons, they all had different personalities and needed different things from us. Despite our best attempts, we definitely did not always get it right.
From time to time, there will be relational pushing and pulling that will result in an epic battle of wills. When it comes to discipline, giving time-outs and playing the authority card no longer work. We need to seriously up our game because they can now support their positions with nuance and semblance of logic. We will be tempted to control them especially if we see them veering off (our) course. Once they hit seventeen or eighteen, this is futile. If they’re losing their way, we can—and should—pray. We can provide reality-based consequences. We can assure them of our love. We can even pay for therapy. But we cannot force them to be who we want them to be. We have to learn how to respect their autonomy even if we don’t agree with their decisions.
It’s not uncommon for these transitional phases to agitate our insecurities and widen any fissures in our marriage. When couples disagree on some parenting strategy or when the irritation that’s connected to our children spills onto our spouse, it’s easy to lose track of the presenting problem. In response, we may find ourselves trying to micromanage family dynamics or unconsciously aligning with a child who is temperamentally more like us. Friends who have blended families know how this can be particularly problematic because of the tendency to side with one’s biological children.
We all understand that the goal of parenting is to successfully launch our kids and work ourselves out of a job. Being aware of this reality does not make it any easier to let go. The love we have for our sons and daughters is powerful and profound. Next to our spouse, they know us better than anyone. They have seen us at our best and our worst. We cannot begrudge their leaving, but neither can we deny the losses that come with their departure.
Setting New Boundaries and Striving to Out-love Each Other
Raising children and going through midlife reveal our limitations on an almost daily basis. Though uncomfortable, this is a good thing. When we can no longer hide our limitations, and hopefully we are more likely to admit our frailties and ask for help.
One of the results of making peace with our limitations should be creating and maintaining good boundaries. These will be organic to each marriage and subject to change depending on many variables. Getting specific about what we can and can’t do, should help others to respect our limitations and adjust their expectations accordingly.
The goal of creating boundaries is not to shut others out and make our lives comfortable; it’s to be mindful about what we can and cannot (and sometimes should not) do for others so we can be available to do what God is asking of us. This means we’ll be saying no to good opportunities and disappointing people in the process. For recovering perfectionists, acknowledging that we cannot meet everyone’s needs is both crushing and liberating. Earlier in my life I weathered serious shame attacks when I disappointed people. My thinking has changed. I now realize that if no one is ever disappointed with me, I probably need to reset some boundaries!
It’s also imperative that we know what we need from our spouse and ask for it directly. That might be as simple as help making dinner or as complicated as empathy. To avoid feeling resentful, which often sneaks up on us in midlife, we need to routinely serve and sacrifice without keeping score. Marriage should never be quid pro quo. Instead, as much as we’re able, we should try to out-love and out-serve each other. Author Mike Mason refers to marriage as “a sort of contest in what might be called ‘one-downmanship,’ a backwards tug of war between two wills each equally determined not to win.”
For most of us, parenting in midlife will be dynamic, overwhelming, and gratifying—sometimes all on the same day. This complex season beckons us to simultaneously acknowledge our limitations, rise to meet the many challenges, and proactively nurture our marriages. By doing so, we increase the likelihood that our marriages will be characterized by radical love long after any children have moved on.
Adapted from Marriage in the Middle by Dorothy Littell Greco. Copyright (c) 2020 by Dorothy
Littell Greco. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
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