I have four siblings, and I consider each of them a great blessing in my life. I only have one child, and I sometimes feel some guilt that she has no one with whom she can share the experience of being a child of her parents. Our journey with our parents is one that is different for each child, but it is nice to be able to share it with others. The parent/child bond is kind of like the Jello coming out of the mold. It starts in one shape that our parents determine is best, then may dissolve and have to be reshaped, or cut into pieces and put back together again. It's always jiggling, always moving, sometimes solid and sometimes liquid, but it's not going anywhere.
I find it interesting to observe in my own family the different jiggly dynamics between my mom and me, and between her and each of her other children. In my family there are three girls and two boys. There is always a bit of different flow between mothers and sons as opposed to mothers and daughters. Mothers and daughters tend to talk more often with each other, to talk longer and about things that seem inconsequential or minor in the big scheme of things. Daughters innately grasp that their mothers need this interaction about what their friends are doing, who was at the grocery store, or who just got out of the hospital. While I realize this is a broad generalization, which is something I try to avoid, sons have more of an inclination to get directly to the point, to call only when there is something specific to discuss, and to drop by when there is a task to be accomplished.
The Downing five (not to be confused for a singing group under any circumstances) do a pretty good job as both daughters and sons of giving our mom lots of time, lots of attention, and engaging in lots and lots of conversation. But our individual relationships with her remain unique and eternally jiggly. One of us might be more direct with her. I claim the weight of this mantle. One might try to talk around a subject or take a wheedling approach. One might focus on a particular subject with her as their special area of concentration. As a team though, we pull together to try to achieve what is best for her. Because that is what she and my dad always did for us.
As I work with families and observe how adult children interact with their parents, I always try to note the parents' reactions. When adult children live away, their instinct when they come home is often to lavish time and attention and activities on their parents. While this is a nice theory, in practice it can be overwhelming and exhausting for the parents. What parents more likely would prefer is family dinners at home, real conversation, going through old photos, or talking about what happened at the church potluck last week. In short, what parents seem to want when adult children visit is more listening and less going; more understanding and less glitz; more discussion that leads to knowledge that everyone is on the same page as parents age and less avoidance of uncomfortable subjects.
When adult children live in the same town, it is beyond simple to let things slide. It is easy to think we're paying attention because we've arranged to have the yard mowed, we've done the grocery shopping, or we've spoken on the phone once a week. The thing that I think is important for us as adult children living in the same town as our aging parents is to go to sleep at night knowing we have learned our parents' stories and that our children appreciate that history; that we rest well understanding what is important to our parents in the last decade or two of their lives; that we have encouraged our parents to make smart, safe and sane decisions about their own health, safety, and well-being.
Every child has the opportunity to forge an original connection with their parents. Whether one of a dozen children or an only child, each offspring will form a jiggly, malleable bond that no other child has. And as our parents grow older, that bond must stretch and reconfigure in order to serve what is in the best interests of our parents. Because on the day we were born, the Jello was molded for what was best for us as children, and now it is our turn to jiggle around and make sure we are doing what is best for our parents.