"Call me when you get there!" It's a common refrain, but this time I wasn't reminding my daughter to confirm her arrival; she was reminding me. On the same trip, a friend's daughter phoned to say the weather was bad back home. "Can't you stay another day? I don't like you driving in such rain!" Another woman revealed that whenever her kids come to visit they start cleaning up her computer and sorting out her closets. Who is parenting whom as we grow older and our kids become more responsible adults?
My own experience with parental role reversal began when I was very young. Both my parents suffered chronic illnesses that left my siblings and me in charge of daily life a good part of the time. We became responsible for ourselves, and often for our parents' wellbeing, at an age when most kids were focused on parties and proms. Perhaps that's why I became such a worrier. I've fretted about all kinds of things since I was a child, beginning with the fear of polio to being scared to death by the Cuban missile crisis.
As an adult, I regularly imagine worst case scenarios ranging from nuclear disasters and terrorism to killer diseases. Like the late humorist Erma Bombeck, I worry about "a snake coming up through the kitchen drain, the world ending at midnight, and keeping up with the times in a world that changes daily."
I most frequently experience bouts of anxiety when it comes to my children, who are now in their thirties, especially if they are traveling or can't be reached. Once when my daughter was in college and traveling alone in Europe she phoned from Hungary. "I'm staying with a dentist I met in the train station. He runs a bed-and-breakfast." For four days, until she called again, I was convinced she was chained to a bed in a bordello somewhere between Budapest and Barcelona.
A friend told me once that she never worried about her kids until she met me, and now she worries all the time. I assured her that was a good thing because there is so much to worry about.
But that's not the kind of worrying our kids are doing. They may have their own demons to contend with, but they are not, I hope, neurotic. They are simply expressing the concern that grown-ups feel when children could be in harm's way. They are taking care of us, watching out for our best interests, loving us. It's interesting to experience this kind of attention as we grow older. It makes us glad and sad at the same time: Glad that our children have matured into caring adults, and just a bit sad at our own aging.
Recently my daughter called to check up on me because I hadn't returned a message quickly enough. "You're not the only one who worries," she admonished. That was nice to hear. Of course I still do most of the worrying, but it's oddly gratifying to know that my parental angst is now reciprocated. (And that my kids would miss me if I weren't around.)
Once, when my daughter was younger and bemoaning all the things I said that she promised herself never, but never, to say to her own kids, I told her not to bank on it. "When you become a parent," I cautioned, "I'll be right on your shoulder, whispering in your ear." She's not a mom (yet), but I think she feels my breath on her neck all the same.
It's nice to know she no longer minds, and that she has all the right instincts for nurturing. After all, who doesn't want someone to be concerned about them now and then, and who better to do it than the ones we've spent so much time worrying about all these years?