We’ve heard phrases like “parenting is a calling from which you are never released[i],[ii]” over the pulpit many times, but rarely do we actually reflect on what this means. When taken literally, that it’s a parent’s job to continue to be their child’s caretaker throughout their lives, this belief can create enmeshed families with weak boundaries that undermine the adult child’s agency. Here are some ideas to consider about the danger of parents who are overly involved with their adult children and adult children who don’t fully transition into an adult role.
Too often, this belief of eternal parenthood is used to justify a parent giving constant (often unsolicited) input or criticism into an adult child’s life decisions. Does never being released from parenthood mean parents are forever held responsible for their children’s choices, no matter their child’s age? At what point can parents let go or responsibility and let their child become a respected adult, even if their choices differ from their parent’s wishes?
In my therapy practice, I’ve listened to individuals express heartbreak about their adult child’s decision to leave the church, date someone they don’t like, delay childbearing, or be single in their thirties. Sometimes parents are so distraught by their adult child’s choices that their quality of life, mental health, or even their sense of worth is negatively affected.
Approval-seeking, Insecure adults
This idea of eternal parenthood can also keep adults in a child-like position for their entire life by constantly looking to their parents for validation. At what point are adult children actually treated as adults, instead of as children? At what point can an adult confidently say, “It’s unfortunate that you are disappointed Mom and Dad. This is my life and these are my choices. I hope you will support me.”
I’ve worked with adults who express devastation because a parent disapproves of their decision to divorce their spouse, or adult children whose parents undermine and criticize their parenting choices. In an effort to gain parental approval, I’ve seen adults try to please their parents in their marriage, educational, and work choices.
So how can we think of this concept of “never being released from parenthood” in a less literal and more helpful way that promotes agency and decreases unhealthy relationship enmeshment?
The relationship continues, but not as “parent” and “child”
Once children are adults, what continues throughout eternity is the relationship, not the same parent-child dynamic. A bond between parent and child is one that can not be supplanted, but it should evolve into a mutually respectful adult relationship.
In the hereafter, we won’t be living in little houses as parents and children. We will all be equal. This life is the chance to transition from a parent/child to an adult-adult relationship in preparation for the next life. The sealing ordinance binds us together, but doesn’t keep us stuck in unequal positions.
Agency releases you from responsibility for your adult children’s choices
The difference between Satan’s plan and Jesus’s plan in the pre-existence was agency. Our Heavenly Parents’ plan was for all Their children to choose their own path in hope that they would choose return to them. When parents try to control their child’s decision or feel responsible for their adult child’s decisions, they are denying the critical component of agency and modeling a relationship that is not aligned with God’s plan.
Respecting adult child’s agency means not letting your child’s choices dictate your happiness, or your sense of worth. It requires emotional boundaries that distinguish whose life is whose and who is responsible for the choices made.
As the parent of two adult children, I have found that focusing on the mutual give and take in the relationships, and emphasizing personal agency has helped me to let go of an unnecessary sense of responsibility for their choices. I realized that I could try to control my adult children or try to love them, but I couldn’t do both. In a sense, I “released” myself from my calling as a mother and re-called myself to a relationship with adult human beings that I love with all of my heart.