On Being an Adult Child

It is a lovely thing to be an adult and have a strong relationship with one’s parents and know them more as friends. Growing to adulthood is a lot about gaining agency and objectivity. One is less the subject of your parents, and more the object of your own life.

Yet in family, there forever exists a dynamic that one can never escape – the reality that you are forever their child, and they are forever your parents.

I recently enjoyed a holiday with my parents. When living far away, any quality time together, forming happy memories is a good investment. However, when returning to extended time together this family dynamic is reinforced in curious ways.

Is it being placed in a single bed again? Is it the conversation about a different generation of friends, their health challenges, their grandchildren which makes you realise you’re not with your peers? And that you are uncomfortably, the object of much of their worry, analysis and discussion.

We recently chose a holiday venue for the over 65+ which only compounded my feeling. I was definitely outnumbered and cultural differences did abound some of which I did not object to, including the early nights and afternoon naps, the schedule of coffee, cakes, scenic locations and group photos.

Around my parents’ friends, I find that in open dialogue they will bemoan unmarried children, talk of their welfare and concerns. I find myself patted and prodded, gently sized up, commented upon.

I realise that here I’m not the object of my life, the agent of decisions. I’m the subject of someone else’s life, their worries, decisions, their social standing with their peers. I am the object of devotion and love, but also of anxiety, surprise, disappointment and stress.

I am reminded that we are always tied into the fabric of a large community quilt. We are our parents’ children. We are the subject of their conversation the way they are the subject of ours with our friends. We will always be subject to care, commentary, criticism, gossip, humour, anxiety and love. As they are subject to ours.

But this makes us part of community, loved and well as loving. We are object and we are subject. We belong.

It’s My Birthday and I’ll Cry If I Want To

or Why FEAR is Like Hot Sauce – Part III’

Recently my colleagues bought me cake and a signed card with lovely wishes for my birthday. A [false] social media alert had triggered their interest and they had pooled together to congratulate me.

I stammered something about it not being my birthday but they clarified they had then done research and found my date of birth on our staff database and that it was only a few weeks prior.

I managed to thank them and mutter something about being a birthday ‘grinch‘. However, when left alone, I was overcome with a wave of emotion, humiliation, condemnation, and hot tears.

Why did such a lovely guesture catalyse such a flood of emotion?

As I paused to examine my feelings, I unearthed a deep sense of failure, unloveliness, lack of dignity and embarrassment layered there. These sadnesses about my life are emphasisesd at each anniversary of my birth as though mile markers taunt me to show my lack of progress or as a measuring rod, to highlight my lack of stature.

When my colleagues tried to cheer me for my birthday, I felt like a door to a private room of grief was suddenly thrown open, a door I was hoping to keep closed. Memories of relationship failures, griefs about unmet expectations and unrealised dreams came tumbling out; fears of social indignity and disrespect met the light of what I fear most of all, the knowledge of these failures in the faces of my colleagues. I felt crushed.

I looked down and focused on my work and I cried silently in the office that afternoon.

Joseph Campbell writes,

It is by going down into the abyss
that we recover the treasures of life.

Where you stumble,
there lies your treasure.

The very cave you are afraid to enter
turns out to be the source of
what you are looking for.
The damned thing in the cave
that was so dreaded
has become the center.

You find the jewel,
and it draws you off.

I don’t talk about my birthday because it reminds me of the failures of my life. I have not achieved XYZ and am still struggling with questions of identity, purpose and direction. I’m not where I feel like I should be and I am I feel shame.

My response to being warmly congratulated by friends, alerted me that there was a cave I needed to enter, a cave of vulnerability and to sharing my life experiences with my colleagues, my life story, with others that could yield a treasure of friendship and connection that I have not yet experienced with them.

Instead of pretending to be ‘A-Okay’, and a little distant, my story with all its honesty and griefs, could indeed be a treasure to encourage other people who feel they are failures, unlovely, undignified or ashamed.

On Distancing Techniques

Or Why Fear is Like Hot Sauce – Part II’

I have come to be aware of something I do to avoid [what I perceive to be] rejection. I use ‘distancing techniques‘: words or actions to put a wall down or to establish distance between myself and others to make me feel less vulnerable.

These range from socially acceptable to rude and immature and include: talking about independence or career interests or romantic relationships in an academic tone; establishing that one is busy or subtly stating a dislike of a shared activity or a desire to leave; leaving early; pretending to not feel upset about a result or an outcome; retreating to become a silent observer in a group or conversely becoming functional and doing chores or overly polite; pretending to have forgotten key information; avoiding certain people or conversation in company; using one’s phone in company; not saying goodbye properly.

This list continues.

All of these are reflexive and defensive behaviours, to put distance between self and the object of either affection (and therefore vulnerability) or threat.

The Mirror Principle

What has alerted me to these behaviours is what is known as the ‘mirror principle.’ When I encounter ‘distancing techniques‘ in others it can cause me intense pain. However, the minute I begin to resent others for behaving defensively, it dawns on me that this is in fact how I have been behaving.

There is no greater teacher than first hand experience.

The Remedy For Heartache

These behaviours only serve to bury feelings deep within and unfortunately, seal a firm lid on them.

I’m learning that the only true remedy for pain is to stay close to it, to suffer pain and discomfort, to open the heart to sensation, love, loss, sorrow and heartache.

For me, to own my own vulnerability and softness is key. I must do away with any shame or sense of weakness attached to emotions, and allow myself to feel, even if it causes me suffering.