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When Life Takes You Off the Beaten Path of Parenting

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Remember the aisles upon aisles of parenting books that mapped out the way forward from infancy to “teenagerhood?” All of them shared what to expect, what to do, provided troubleshooting and offered encouragement.

You know what else they did? Ended at 18. Like it was some sort of parenting finish line you cross, celebrate and accept your congratulations.

Most people are not so naive as to believe parenting ends at 18, but the typical pattern falls into a gradual path of children to independent adulthood: education, partnering, careers and starting a life of their own.

But what if it doesn’t?

What if that trajectory is temporarily or permanently altered by a mental or physical health diagnosis or addiction? What if your family find themselves leaving the well-worn path forged by so many before them, to battle the underbrush and branches blocking their way and tripping their steps as they fight to keep up forward momentum?

Congratulations and consolations, you have entered the world of off-road parenting.

You are parenting an adult who is autonomous in seeking care and divulging their truth publicly. It’s their story to tell and, while you strive to respect their privacy and their rights as a person, it can be incredibly frustrating to watch your child (and they are your child, always, even in a mature body) try and fail, rise only to fall and struggle under a weight that would crush even the strongest soul.

The dichotomy between life inside your home and outside your home is enough to give you the bends.

Within the family, there are appointments to make and keep, red tape to untangle and a steep learning curve that everyone seems to be sliding off of rather than climbing. There are power struggles between loving parents who want what’s best, but also wanted a break and a young adult who found their wings clipped just as they were supposed to soar.

Outside the house, you field unanswerable questions with a choreographed exchange of information designed to explain while not divulging. Inevitably, you feel unauthentic and somehow unsupported if you avoid sharing anything and disloyal if you share too much. You smile and grit your teeth as you hear about graduations, job offers, engagements and babies, and steel yourself against queries beginning with, “What is (insert child’s name here) doing these days?”

And, lest anyone mistake me here, I want to emphasize none of these feelings are born out of embarrassment or shame! Most of us are witnessing feats of strength and a depth of character that make us proud every minute of every day.

There is a sliding scale of meritorious accomplishments depending on the battle. Getting a shower in the midst of disabling depression, using a mobility aid for the first time in public, going to rehab, or simply saying, “I’m ready to try again,” are all victories.

All of this to say, I don’t have any of the answers. I’m not qualified to write, “What to Expect When Things Go To @#*&.” What I can say is, “I see you, off-road parents. We’ve lost the trail too. I can’t draw you a map, but I can recommend some good tick spray.”

Photo credit: LSOphoto/Getty Images

Originally published: January 3, 2020
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