Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Enjoying one's children - as adults

In my generation, marriage at a fairly young age was common. Since hormones were flowing and birth control unreliable, children came early. My first wife and I had our first child at age 23; the second less than two years later. I use to think this was a disadvantage. We were young and inexperienced, with little knowledge of life, apart from imperfect role-models our parents provided. And we were poor. Our income - my salary as junior military officer and my wife’s as a salesperson - was modest. When our daughter was born, my my wife stopped working for a time. Later, when I was a graduate student, our principal income was a modest stipend plus funds from a research project and a small boutique my wife opened. As a young family, we had fun with our children and each other, but always seemed to be close to the edge, financially. We were often exhausted from efforts to balance the conflicting demands of child-rearing, the boutique and my doctoral studies. Many others were worse off, but I sometimes wonder how we survived.

Now, US couples marry later and often defer child rearing until the thirties or even later. I used to envy these couples. They had so much more life-experience and income. I assumed they must be better parents and that their family circumstances must be more worry free and fulfilling.

Now I am less certain of this. For one thing, divorce is common among couples in their late forties. This is a time when marriage partners may tire of each others and ask themselves “is this all there is to life and relationships?” They decide on another roll of the marital dice. My first wife and I divorced in that time frame. When a couple splits, my impression is that children’s needs do not much enter into the calculations - “staying together for the needs of the children” is no longer popular. But they are very much impacted. I know academic couples where one erstwhile ‘life-partner’ lives in Boston and the other in San Francisco. Their two children, both under 10 years old have joined a legion of compatriots whose holidays are punctuated by trips from airport to airport with their names on signs around their necks and documents identifying them as ‘unaccompanied‘ minors. Our children, born when we were young, were at least much older.

When I began this posting, I had not intended to dwell so long on past history. Nor is it my wish to pass judgement on decisions other couples make, in very different circumstances, that might be different from ours. Rather, I wanted to share the joys of being able to relate to one’s adult children, as adults, while still being young enough to do so.

My daughter is a successful landscape architect, living in the Southern US, beloved by a legion of friends. My visits to her home can be a time of candid, personal sharing, relaxation and fun. Our interactions are largely unencumbered by the pretenses, pretensions and resentments that so often trivialize - even poison - relationships between parents and children, husbands, wives, siblings and relatives.

My son leads a international company with offices and outreach in a growing number of Asian countries. We spent last weekend in Kuala Lumpur, where he was leading an event for 500 of his top Malaysian distributors. All arrangements, in the “Club” section of a top Malaysian hotel were made by his staff - but it was not a vacation jaunt for him or even for me. We both arose early and attended to business on the internet. Mobile phone calls and text messages demanded attention. He was sometimes busy with meetings plus preparing for a major speech and two more informal addresses. Sunday was a day-long event, concluded with eight course Chinese dinner banquet. During many informal conversations with event participants I got to play a role valued in Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures, that of an admiring father, nearing the end of his own productive working life, rejoicing in the success of a child, in this case their “International President.” Scores - perhaps hundreds - of group photos were taken.

There was also time for several hours of uninterrupted conversation in which my son and I not only shared memories but also work-life experiences. We discovered uncanny similarities in how we had approached similar management problems, were able to laugh at each other’s foibles, acknowledge differences and share good advice. Seated in a front row during events events and the head table during the final banquet. I could enthusiastically applaud the success of distributors who were being acknowledged and my son’s speeches, The applause was genuine, not dutiful or contrived,

We left the banquet early. My son had a 1 AM Beijing flight to catch. The following day he would begin a similar round there - his company is opening markets in a number of Chinese cities. As he packed we shared similar and different international travel mishaps and explored the possibility of a later meeting in Beijing. I helped with his baggage as we descended in the elevator and walked through the cavernous hotel lobby. We hugged briefly. Then he climbed into a waiting taxi and was off to his next adventure.

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