A response to the question of “…what it means for adult children to honor their parents. When we’re young, it means obedience. When we get much older, I think it means caring for them as they need help. But what of the decade or two (or three) of mutual independence?” Bronwyn Lea to me
“Call your mother!” The age-old imperative is so important, but it is only the beginning – and the ending! – of so many ways we can honor our parents. As one who has seen my mother, my father, and two mother-in-laws through those transitional ages from saying goodbye to them as I walked out the door – their grown baby leaving home for the first time – until that gut-wrenching moment when I as that adult child said goodbye to my parent or beloved mother-in-law for the last time, I have had many opportunities to be challenged to understand: What does it mean to honor them when we’re all adults? When we’re no longer their “child” and they are no longer actively parenting us?
And now I have four grown “children” of my own and am a widow. How does that cause me to see this differently? I taught them by my own example what I thought it should look like, and what it shouldn’t! Will they forget my failures and learn from my stumbling attempts?
My own mother was mentally ill, severely paranoid and irrational, but loved God wholeheartedly. Does “honor” look different toward her? My mother-in-law #1 was in terrible pain, and alone, for most of our married life. How did “honor” look toward her? My step-mother-in-law was mostly rejected by my father-in-law for years. Do we reject her too? How does it look when it’s a step-parent? An alienated parent? Is there a normal family anywhere? (Yes.)
But for the rest of us: Does God say “Honor honorable Fathers and Mothers” (No).
On a particularly maddening day, after I had completely lost my last amount of willingness and blew up at my mother over some very irrational decision she had dug in her heels making, I was driving to an O.B. appointment. I had (still have!) a VW bus, and it had a cassette player. In my fury and guilt and mother-loathing and self-loathing moment, I knew music would help tame the Beast in me, so I put in a Phil Keaggy tape. The first song softened my rage a bit, and the holy words and beautiful music began its healing work. A few songs later, just as I was approaching the parking lot, a song came on with these words:
“If love’s a gift, how then can it be earned?”
My heart was pierced through with a grace-coated, cross-shaped Sword. I was trying to make my mother EARN my love – and my respect – and my honor. No. No. I am commanded to GIVE it. As freely as I have been given it, undeserved, unappreciated, in all my failure and pride and crazy decisions, I had received it: Grace, love, gentleness, direction, friendship had been given to me unmerited and freely, and freely I was to give it. Yes, even to her.
I pulled into the parking lot and sobbed and sobbed. I’m sure the receptionist thought I’d just had bad news about my baby. No, I had had good news about my mom.
I’d like to report that I never lost my temper with her again, but I can’t. However I did gain such a new paradigm that change began, and slowly I gained mastery over my responses because I saw her in a new light. My rage slowly turned to pity, compassion, and long-suffering (punctuated by an occasion sense of going crazy myself!) But I learned what it meant to “Honor my mother.”
As time went by, I was able to use that insight toward my husband’s mother and stepmother, who presented different challenges, and I still walk alongside my departed husband’s 89-year-old father, who began failing when he stood by his baby boy’s 60-year-old comatose and hopeless body. At that moment he went from being the cantankerous Sicilian patriarch to a broken man in a body that won’t fail, checking another day off the calendar, waiting to die.
The biggest way I have found to honor them is to “Call your mother!” (or Dad!)
* Call them often – once a week at least when they are young and healthy. Be glad when they call you, and offer to call them back as soon as you can if they call at a bad time. Then do it! But when you can beat them to the phone call, do it! Show you care! Call when you have news, when you have questions they could answer, and teach the kids to call them just to chat.
* Ask them their opinions on things; respect their experience and understanding of the world. They’ve seen and gone through more in their lives than you have, and you may not agree with them, but listen carefully. There’s probably something there for you to learn from or ponder.
* You are no longer required to obey them but you are still required to honor them. So if they are critical of a decision you are making, or insist that you do something you hadn’t planned and don’t want to do, still – listen carefully. Put their counsel in among other counsel, then do what you need to do, but let them know you seriously thought about their counsel, and thank them for it.
* As with our children, so with our parents: there are few phrases more powerful and unanswerable than “I’m sorry.” I’m so sorry you don’t think this is a good idea… I’m sorry you can’t give this plan your blessing… I’m sorry you don’t want to go with us… I’m sorry I can’t take you with me… I’m sorry you feel that way… It is a way to listen, to retain your adult decision-making responsibility, but to express honor and caring.
* Ask them to pray for you, for your needs, without violating confidences or inviting them into your bedroom.
* Give them permission to discipline your children if they are able to do so without damaging them! Or at least give them freedom to mention concerns or observations to you. You think your children are so cute and funny, but just perhaps they are a pain in the neck to some people. It’s good to know. Remember we all have blind spots in our parenting!
* Ask to see their photos of their trips. Take no-doze if you need to, but listen to them and their stories. Who else will?
* Remember that “every old person is a book burning.” Ask them for their stories! We all have stories. Do you know about their earliest memory? Their school days? Their childhood hero? (Mine was Annie Oakley!) Their first car? Their first crush? Their spiritual journey? Their memories of major family and culturally significant events? Their unfulfilled dreams? Their attitudes about difficult world problems? It may be opening a known can of worms, and you can avoid those pot holes, but do you really KNOW them? Ask!
* Take care of them where they need it. Visit them often in their own home and take note of things that need fixing. Take a trip to the hardware store, come back and fix it! Change the light bulbs or install a new washer in the leaky faucet. Leave the bathroom cleaner than you found it. Offer to fold clothes while you chat. Find ways to bless them. They may not need it, but everyone needs to be loved.
* On that note, remember them on the holidays. Help them be a part of yours, or help them host. Help them get out the decorations and put them up together, even before they’re old enough to NEED the help. Make those traditions for your own children, and tuck away the memories of these times into your own heart, because your parents won’t be with you forever.
* If they are at all local, include them when you do a Costco run or take the kids to the zoo or the beach. Everyone will benefit. Make them a part of your life. Then when you exclude them they’re less likely to feel hurt or unloved. Find out what they would like to do, what movie they’d like to see, and invite them out to do it together.
* Offer/try to go with them to difficult appointments. Be part of their support system. (Especially if that parent is alone, or either of them are getting old.)
* When they make a decision you disagree with, don’t criticize. Ask them questions, listen to their logic, their underlying goals and desires. Suggest ways to make it work rather than naysay.
* When it comes to end-of-life care, respect their wishes. If they want to stay in their home and you feel it is unsafe, express your concerns then find as many ways to make it happen as you can. Remember that they might prefer to die sooner with independence and a sense of being honored and loved than to live extra days afraid, treated like an imbecile, and without respect in a convalescent home.
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Bottom line? What does it look like to honor your parents when you and they are all adults?
“Do unto them as you would have your own children do unto you.”
Your children will never be what you want them to be. They’ll be what you ARE.
So “Call your mother!”