Times are changing: on accepting vulnerability as a parent of adult children

Annette Byford is the author of Once a Mother, Always a Mother: On Life With Adult Children. In an extract from the book she discusses the complications in accepting vulnerability, particularly in light of the recent pandemic. Her book is available now. 

Being a mother of grown-up children involves having to accept, gradually but inevitably, that times are changing: it is the next generation’s turn now and as the older generation we have to accept that our position in our families and in the generational field is shifting. Even in families where mothers still hold the position of powerful matriarch for quite some time, there comes the point when the older generation may grow frail and need support from their children. 

During the recent pandemic something quite interesting seemed to be happening regarding the discourse about the relationship between the generations. Once it became clear that the virus was particularly dangerous to older people the language changed: seventy, or in some countries sixty-give, became the cut-off point for being described officially as ‘elderly’ and thereby ‘vulnerable.’ The constant discussions around how to protect the elderly and vulnerable led to parallel shifts in perception in families of the older generation, often to the surprise of all participants. Grown-up children were asked to take on board their parents’ vulnerability; parents were asked to accept both their own vulnerability and the corresponding concern or care offered by the younger generation. This has proved to be not uncomplicated to say the least. 

Accepting vulnerability, particularly a vulnerability that comes with growing old, is a very difficult and multi-dimensional process. It may well be easier to hold on to an image of everlasting strength, even if it is at times burdensome, as long as it allows one to avoid facing up to one’s own vulnerability and the inevitable challenge of old age. For the adult child it is one thing to fight a strong parent, it is quite another to deal with having won.

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