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What Do We Owe Our Parents?

Published on March 16, 2021

We lost my 87-year-old father-in-law a week ago. Gabe was a contradictory man, curious and cultured, self-effacing and kind, yet stubborn and curmudgeonly at times. In 1966, he led a daring escape from Communist Romania with his wife and only child, determined to create a better life in the West for his small family. In spite of our political disagreements, Gabe and I had a sweet relationship, sharing cocktail hour and grammatical annoyances, trading Netflix recommendations and updates on my twin daughters, his only grandchildren.

Peter and I had been to New Jersey several times during Gabe’s recent decline, and we arrived within hours of his death. Our daughters followed soon after. We held a lovely outdoor burial—on a sunny spring-like day—surrounded by friends and neighbors. Peter, our daughters, and I all gave eulogies, eliciting both tears and laughter, as we remembered Gabe’s life and antics. We then held a hastily organized reception in the driveway of their home.

I have been awed by Peter’s devotion to his parents over the years. There is only him, the only child of only children. Our daughters and I pitch in during times of need, but the truth is, the bulk of the responsibility has fallen on Peter’s shoulders. After being instrumental in Gabe’s medical care for several decades, Peter has now jumped in to help his mother handle all the sad but necessary tasks that come with burying your husband of 60+ years. It is a lonely endeavor.

And this is where I will share an opinion that may be controversial. Even Peter disagrees with me. While I believe parents owe their children love and acceptance, support (until competent adulthood) and guidance, I don’t believe children owe their parents anything, not even love or gratitude, no matter the extent of the sacrifices these parents made for their offspring. Let’s face it, children did not ask to be born. We made the choice to have them, with all the adjustments that may have required.

Many of us had kids without fully understanding the genetic and behavioral baggage, often unprocessed and unresolved, we carried with us into our parenting. We did the best we could, in all our imperfections, to raise our kids—but we likely saddled them with some remnants of our own dysfunctional childhoods. At some point, in adulthood, it is up to our children to take up the struggle to find themselves, heal from their past hurts, and address their current challenges. We can only walk beside them, owning our flaws and mistakes, and try to be the parents they need us to be now, without attempting to “fix” them or do the work for them.

But I digress. Here’s my point: Taking care of our parents in their old age is a choice. And the more we can view it as such, the less resentful we will be when such caregiving feels burdensome and frustrating at times. For my part, I refuse to use guilt or money or any other emotional or material inducement to coerce my daughters to care about me or for me as I age. I hope our relationship is a loving and respectful one and that my girls will choose to be there for me both in good and bad times, but only because they want to, not because they feel they should or have to—and despite my flawed parenting. Time will tell.

YOUR TURN: What do you (or did you) feel you owe your parents? Is there a way to reframe that to make it more of a choice?

Hélène Stelian, the Midlife Empowerment Coach

I’m Hélène, the Midlife Empowerment Coach. I help women who are struggling in midlife—who wonder if their best years are behind them and what’s next for them. I show them how to put themselves first, reclaim their identity, figure out what’s next, and feel excited about their future.

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