The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
In July of 1976, I arrived in Tucson with the intent of visiting my Aunt Gen for a few weeks and enhancing my already freckled tan. But what began as a pit stop on a cross country trip ended up 43 years later as my cherished home and community.
Aunt Gen Ginsburg was only 58 when her husband Martin had a heart attack playing tennis and died before he reached the hospital. When I arrived on her doorstep she was 61, the same age I was when my husband Ray died. That irony has never been lost on me: That at 22, I learned first-hand about loss, grief and resilience from the woman who founded Widow to Widow and wrote the “go-to” primer for recovering and rebuilding your life after widowhood.
Gen was always there for others; driving friends to doctor’s appointments, counseling them on relationship issues, bringing meals when they weren’t well. But in her late 60’s, she shared a story with me that has only recently taken on meaning as I enter my “Medicare years.”
Gen got a call about a neighbor who had an accident. A group of women were creating a food tree and asked if she could “bring dinner on Tuesday for the family?” Almost 40 years later, I can still hear her voice. “You know, I think it may be time for someone else to bring the chicken soup.”
What I witnessed in that moment was a solid life lesson. Simply put: there is a time to step up, to go the extra mile for family and friends, to guide the actions of our children. But there is also a time to step back, reevaluate our commitments and make space for others to take the reins. As Kenny Rogers sang so succinctly in the Gambler: “You’ve got to know when to hold them, and know when to fold them.”
Now, 65 years young, I wonder if and how I can borrow from Gen’s chicken soup wisdom. When, how and to what do I decide to hold on or let go? What baton do I pass and to whom?
I ask myself these questions a lot — particularly regarding my relationship with my adult children.
Because, at the heart of all parenting, is the idea that we are responsible to teach our children to become independent, competent and self-sufficient human beings. We guide our children when they are young by educating them, giving them skills, tools and values so that they can become self-reliant, autonomous adults.
The natural corollary of this however, is that we must also learn to promote and honor their independence at the appropriate time and let go of managing their lives, relationships and decisions. We must step back and relinquish control in order for them to evolve and take responsibility.
Stepping back from the active role we long played as parents when our children were in their formative years is not easy for many of us. It requires a certain type of discipline on our part — to not interfere in their lives or family dynamics or offer advice when not asked. The idea of “zipping it,” of keeping quiet and not meddling or becoming involved in a way that is neither needed or welcome, requires a conscious commitment on our part as parents if we hope to truly accomplish the goal of creating fully independent adults who can “fly from the nest” when its time.
In letting go, we create the space for the next generations to engage in the values and traditions that we have hopefully inspired. We also manifest our faith and trust in their ability to craft a life that is authentic, gratifying and meaningful. And, in so doing, we accomplish our task as parents and can take joy in a job well done.