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5 Lessons Chronic Illness Taught Me About Parenting Grown Children

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My home is quieter today than it was 15, 10, even five years ago. My children are all in their 20s. And yes, it happened overnight, just as I feared. I bowed to pray holding chubby toddler hands, looked up and they had moved out of the house.

But retirement has not set in; the mothering never ends. In fact, it gets increasingly complicated. I have found it much more difficult to parent grown people with ideologies, lives and free wills of their own. It is a tricky tightrope walk most days. And much different from the discipline and teaching posture we held with our preschoolers. Somehow, I never saw the relationship transformation coming.

Something else I never anticipated was extremely limited energy due to a chronic illness diagnosis. I have no family history and no risk factors, and I was broadsided by its early, unwelcome arrival. Strangely, these two unexpected situations have been working together to make me a better mother. And I’ve learned some valuable lessons I wish I’d known all those years ago when I still held little hands.

1. I have learned it’s vital that our children make mistakes.

I’ve always had the idea that it’s OK if they stub their toe here and there, but it’s actually much better if they do. My older children living away from home has given me the distant view I needed to see this truth. And my illness has prevented me from rushing to their side. They are growing and stretching and gaining a resourcefulness and an independence they may never have found had I rescued them from every tumble. And I’m learning to be OK with that because my health has taken on a new priority.

2. I have learned that we discourage our children, we strip courage from them, when we do for them what they can do for themselves.

And it’s not just tying their shoes or cleaning their room. It’s choosing a major and paying their rent. As I get older and continue to parent these adult children of mine, I have a new understanding of the delicate balance it takes to support and let go at the same time. Too often in my early motherhood days, I donned my mama bear façade and charged right into the middle of that science fair project, sibling squabble, or coach trouble. I tended to do things for them long after I should have stopped. Because I was wiser. Because it was easier. Because I could trust the result. But now, limited energy brought on my diagnosis has forced me to let them do things their way, in their time. And my children are braver and more resilient because of it.

3. I have learned that putting my health needs first doesn’t make me a selfish mom, it makes me a better mom.

Since the birth of my first child, one of my mantras has always been to “act better than you feel,” especially with the sleep deprivation from raising infants, and perhaps even more so, from raising teenagers and young adults. I remember an older mom telling me as an exhausted mom of babies that the tiredness never goes away. It is just a different kind of tired, an emotional fatigue that comes with mothering independent adult children. Still, I scoffed at friends who would take an “emotional health day” to get a manicure or a massage. I may never have discovered the value of rest had it not been forced on me by my diagnosis. I am learning to give myself a break. Literally. And everyone seems to be better for it.

To actively and effectively manage life as any type of caregiver, we must be aware of how we feel and find a balance between everyday life and our human limits. Caregivers often harbor the notion that to effectively give care, we have to put ourselves last. Otherwise, we’re not doing a good job. In reality, being aware of our limitations doesn’t make us weak, it makes us strong. Stronger for the future, stronger for our families. Although it was a required course in the major of chronic illness, I have learned to intentionally take a deep breath. Take time for myself to recharge. And always put my own oxygen mask on first.

4. I have learned that it’s actually true: We have to say “no” to some good things to say “yes” to the very best.

Grown children and chronic illness have demonstrated in my life that we really can’t do it all. We have to choose. Adult children are only home for narrow margins of time. Phone calls only last as long as their commute to work. Texts are even shorter. At the same time, chronic illness allots a certain amount of daily energy. We have been forced to prioritize. When we finally do get together, we make our limited time and energy count. We spend time visiting at length, eating meals slowly, playing board games. In short, not sweating the small stuff as I did as a young mom. We don’t get a professional photo every year, host elaborate parties, or go to every community event. I don’t make homemade everything for dinner. We actually sit on the couch together in the evening. None of that happened when I was healthy or when littles occupied my home, but it all probably should have.

5. I have learned that sometimes not meeting expectations is a good thing.

It takes courage and self-esteem to disappoint people, especially your grown children. Christmas and birthday celebrations were a big deal in our house when the kids were small. We formed countless “traditions” (i.e. expectations). My adult children are often not home now for their birthdays, and we have begun to share holidays with in-laws. Every mothering fiber inside me wants to keep up the traditions, but my disease and empty seats at the table have forced me to be OK without them. Still, it hasn’t been without disappointing other family members.

Since my diagnosis, I have become accustomed to upsetting people who may not fully understand my condition. But somehow, it has been more difficult to disappoint my family. I want to be the mom they remember growing up, and I’m not. None of us are. Now I’m learning that I can be a better mother by letting go of certain traditions, even when it means letting people down.

While my home is no longer cluttered with mounds of laundry and school projects, and my days are now not crowded with slumber parties and swimming lessons, I am still learning to be a mom. Those little hands I once held are the size of my own now, and hold adult-sized responsibilities of their own. A mother’s job description changes almost daily. I continue learning, from my chronic illness and from my grown children, how to do this job best.

Getty photo by Monkey Business Images.

Originally published: September 15, 2020
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