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The urge to exert

By Larry Krotz

I had it all planned. My kids from Alberta — daughter, son- in-law, four-year-old grandson — announced they were coming in the summer for a holiday. At about the same time, my wife’s younger sister (much younger, a contemporary of my daughter, actually) let us know that she, plus husband and two babies, wanted to come from England: an academic conference for the husband and a first-time-ever holiday in Canada as a bonus.

Okay, I said. This being Ontario, I’ll rent a cottage. I knew of a very nice one that was large enough to accommodate all. We’d have a splendid time; we’d swim, canoe and barbecue our suppers. The little children would play together, and the 30-something parents would discover what they have in common. My wife and I would preside. Presiding, I’m discovering, is what I like to do at this stage of my life.

Then it fell apart. My daughter called to say she had a conference to attend in Ottawa, not in the summer but in May. “I think it’s better if we visit then,” she said. “What about the cottage?” I asked. “Some other time. It would mean two trips.” I started to protest, offering to help pay for the extra air tickets that would involve, but to no avail.

Then the English relatives e-mailed to cancel as well. Oliver, our brother-in-law, was still coming to his mathematical conference, but Miranda and the children were begging off until further notice. No blueberry pancakes at dawn. No marshmallows over the fire.

I spent a day feeling grumpy. It had been a good plan. What had gone wrong? What had happened, I realized, was that the young people’s agendas had emerged, and they had trumped mine. Which is what this is about.

Our relationship with our children, whatever good things it might be (and they are legion), is also a perpetual power struggle. It begins at birth, after which every little item they master — learning to walk, putting on their own snowsuits, staying home without a babysitter, learning to drive — increases their independence and correspondingly diminishes our control. That’s the way it should be, and at age 20 or 30, the project should be finished. For the children it usually is.

But on our side, the side of the parents, it’s harder. We can’t get rid of the great internal conflict: the urge to exert ourselves is irresistible; the frustration and disappointment when we don’t get anywhere is palpable. Try as she might to stop herself, my wife still cannot resist telling her 24-year-old son when his hair needs cutting. Needless to say, this has no impact whatsoever. Nor should it have. We claim to raise our children to be independent. When they turn out that way, we should rejoice.  

For their part, our children need to respond with quiet grace, all the while standing firm. Our own little interchange made me recall and then admit to my daughter how when I was her age, all visits to my mother were on my terms. I meant no disrespect, but I had a life and the parental relationship had shifted. Now the shoe, as they say, is on the other foot.

In the end we had a good time. In May. I still feel a little bad about not getting to do all the things I wanted to do at the cottage. But now, I need to get over it.

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