God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Is there anyone more idealistic than the parents
of a newborn? We looked at that baby in endless fascination, overcome with
awe and with fear: awe at the mystery of life and this creation that we held
in our hands and fear of the responsibility for raising this child to adulthood.
At some point in this mixture of emotion we promised to that child and to ourselves
that we would be perfect—or near perfect—parents, for this newborn babe deserved
We were determined to pass on to this
child all the values that are most important to us, including our Catholic faith.
Then, we believed in all innocence and ignorance, when our child reached adulthood,
our parenting responsibilities would be completed. We would reap our just rewards
and, with humble gratitude, receive the honor
and adulation of family and friends.
But then, as one parent described it, “Life banged us up against
mystery.” We learned very soon of our own imperfections and limitations and
of the definite personality of our child. Now, instead of the realization of
our dreams, we are confronted with crisis.
Despite our efforts and our waiting times of faith, despite years
of words and example and prayers, we are in a situation that we never envisioned.
The details vary: We have a son who has married into another Christian denomination.
Our daughter is pregnant and not married. Our son is living a materialistic,
no-time-for-religion lifestyle. Our daughter has become a Jew (or Buddhist or
Muslim or...). Our son has “come out” and is in a gay relationship. Our daughter
is getting another divorce. Our son is into drugs and has severed all ties with
our family. The list of possibilities seems endless.
We are heartbroken. We feel both guilty and betrayed. Our pain is
We struggle with knowing how to respond. How do we sustain a relationship
with our child? Or should we?
When we parents are confronted with an adult child who decides
to go in a different direction, we are often glibly told, “Let go!”
But let go of what? The relationship? Dreams? Guilt? Love? Embarrassment?
The desire to be friends with our child? Anger? Feelings of failure? Disappointment?
Our values? Communication? The pain? Our integrity? The memories? Our hopes?
Having survived our child’s adolescence, we know how little control
we have over our adult offspring. While we may harbor a remnant of desire for
control, most of us are quite ready to enter into an adult relationship with
this person in whom we’ve invested so much. We cannot erase the joy-filled memories.
Dreams do persist. The longing for a close relationship remains. Hope and love
continue beyond all reason. As St. Paul reminds us, “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians
13:8). That is true of God’s love for us and our love for our child.
So What About ‘Letting Go’?
Desire to control may linger out of habit, for we’ve had responsibility
for this child for many years. Letting go of control is not difficult when our
adult child is mature, well-established in a profession, married to someone
of whom we approve, faithfully practices the Catholic faith, lives an approved
lifestyle and still has time to honor us appropriately.
Letting go of control when the situation is, according to our expectations,
not acceptable is another matter. We wonder, is this our last opportunity to
influence our child? If we don’t control our child’s behavior, will we lose
both the child and the relationship? Are we responding out of guilt or resentment
or parental pride? Is it possible that we need to maintain control because,
deep down, we really don’t believe in God?
Unfortunately, just feeling that we must be in the director’s place
may contribute to the problem! Intellectually, we know that parenting is the
vocation of weaning a child to independence—physical, psychological, spiritual.
However, there also comes a time when we need to wean ourselves, not only from
our desire to control, but also from feelings of responsibility, from guilt
and embarrassment, from resentment and anger.
We did the best we could with what we had at the time. We love our
child and we have always wanted to be good parents—we were and still are!
So we are not to let go of parenting, which has merely shifted into
another phase, one as important as all the preceding phases.
Our parenting continues through the example of our actions: To our
child, we remain the prime example of love, of faith in God and the guidance
of the Holy Spirit.
In addition, we set the tone for how others respond to situations,
for siblings and friends and the extended family often take their cue from us.
As we have taught Christianity, so we are now to be Christianity
toward our own child. As we have taught acceptance and respect for all people,
so we are now to accept and respect our child and that child’s decisions and
lifestyle. As we have taught God’s all-embracing love and mercy, so we are now
to embody that love and mercy toward our own child. Blessed Pope John XXIII
said, “Remember that Christ’s eighth sacrament is you.”
We are to let go of control, of resentment and anger and pain and,
yes, even of dreams and goals that are ours but not our child’s. None of us
is to be held rigid by the bonds of either memory or wishful daydreaming, no
matter how loving those bonds or praiseworthy those dreams.
Some people perceive letting go as passive and weak behavior, an
admission of defeat. They’ve never tried it! Often we do not let go until we
have exhausted all other actions and in absolute desperation cry out, “I surrender!
I don’t know what else to do. I give my child back to you, God!”
We are not mouthing the words—it is a wrenching heart cry emanating
from our core being. In that exact instant, even though the situation has not
changed, we have!
In letting go, we are eloquently enumerating our beliefs: We are
recognizing that God is active in all our lives. We are affirming our child
as a unique creature of God who is directed by the Holy Spirit. We are making
an act of absolute faith and trust in God. We are moving from the parent/child
relationship to an adult/adult relationship. We are opening ourselves to the
inspiration of the Holy Spirit and to continued learning and growing. We are
admitting that, while we don’t understand God’s ways, we do believe in the miraculous
working power of the Divine.
Paradoxically, letting go of control, of feelings of guilt and responsibility
and regret, can be the most positive action available. We are affirming that
we are no longer responsible for our child’s actions.
Letting go of our dreams and parental goals makes room for our child’s
dreams and life goals. Letting go creates space for relationships to change
and mature. Letting go allows us to cast off negative thought patterns, becoming
open to new and creative ways of relating, imaginative ways of loving.
A spiritual director I know says, “When a parent comes to me,
concerned about an apparently wayward adult child, my first question is, ‘What
do you, the parent, fear?’”
A good starting point in any quandary is to ask ourselves, “What
do I fear? What is my deepest concern?”
Ingrained in the minds of some parents of fallen-away Catholics
is a despair of salvation for their own children. Memories and rumors and handed-down
sayings continue to haunt us, like ghosts delighting to appear when we are most
fragile and vulnerable. Thankfully, the Church has officially corrected such
distorted theology—theology that painted an insultingly unloving picture of
God. As the Second Vatican Council assured us, God wills the salvation of everyone!
God is not the avenging judge, the meticulous record-keeper, the
harsh disciplinarian. God judges and disciplines with mercy and loving kindness.
God does not and will not abandon us or our children. God is love—inclusive,
radical love. When we wander astray, God never forbids our return. When our
child wanders astray, God never forbids that child’s return but instead promises
an open welcome.
Of course we are all God’s children, each of us loved more than
we can possibly comprehend. Of course God is bigger than any one church or group
or religion. Of course someone can be saved even if that person does not know
Christ or his Church.
And of course we continue to pray, praying prayers that reflect
this theology of love. We pray that our daughter has the courage to be open
to the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. We pray that our son is sensitive to God’s
call, whatever that call may be. We pray that we ourselves are liberated from
the fears that rule our narrowness of thought, for faith is broader than religion.
Our fears may also be of matters quite practical. We may fear that
our empty nest will be called upon to house grown children and energetic grandchildren.
We may fear for the physical safety of our gay son. We may fear that this latest
crisis will cause deep divisions within the family. We may fear for the financial
security of the family.
These matters do indeed need to be addressed. We turn to the Serenity
Prayer to help us determine what is under our control and what is not—and then
tend to those matters we can, relying on available resources and assistance.
We do not hesitate to call on others for help, for that is community. The rest
of our fears we place in God’s hands.
Fulfilling God’s Dreams
Another common fear is the loss of a dream. All people have
hopes and dreams of the future, but parents have them in abundance. Raising
a child is an act of faith into the forever-future. This faith comes accompanied
with wonderful, joy-filled, laudable dreams of what is to come! Our dreams provide
goals and consolation, sustaining us through both difficult times and the dailyness
We have dreams that affirm us as good, dedicated parents: our child
following in the family business, our child’s children united with us in the
practice of our Catholic faith, our child a close and loving friend, our child
ordained or in the religious life, our family as our solace in old age.
Unfortunately, dreams can also become roadblocks in the unfolding
of our child’s personality and talents, especially when the very giftedness
of our child does not conform to our dream. The macho dad has a violin-playing,
ballet-loving son. The artsy-craftsy homemaker’s daughter is a radical feminist.
We look at some families and cringe at God’s sense of humor.
Dreams may help sustain us during the tough times. When our dreams
conflict with reality, however, they can blind us to the Spirit’s gifts within
our child. As a father who is a biblical scholar is fond of saying, “God forbids
graven images of the Divine. We parents should do likewise—our children are
not to be images of us.”
Children are not to become clones of parents; neither are they to
be the fulfillment of our personal dreams or goals. Children are to be the fulfillment
of God’s dreams for them. We cannot hold our children in bondage to our wishful
daydreams, no matter how loving we consider those dream-bonds.
But relinquishing our dreams can be extremely painful. To dream
of being united with our child and that child’s family in a close relationship
is a most worthy dream. Many parents do enjoy such relationships, but not all.
The ‘Perfect’ Parent
How do we define success in parenting?
Our worth as a person is not dependent upon our child’s accomplishments;
our identity as a person is not dependent upon our “success” as a parent. We
are of value not because of our achievements or those of our child; we are of
value because we are God’s creatures, created in the image and likeness of God,
totally loved by God. All else is secondary!
Parenting is the unveiling of the wonderful mystery of God’s creation
that has been entrusted to us; success becomes a matter known only to God. God
notes our efforts that seem fruitless, our frustrations of not knowing what
to do, our faithfulness in loving. God sees our own childhood scars, the pressures
of culture, our fatigue as we age, the times we have sought support and were
disappointed by family and friends and even Church.
God sees all this and continues to hold us in love. To God, we—and
our child—are never failures!
© 2002 by Theresa Cotter. From the book When
Your Adult Child Chooses a Different Path,
in the series “Handing on the Faith,” published by St. Anthony
Messenger Press, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202. Reprinted