On our way home from a recent visit with Uber son--his is a family of five that lives some 350 miles away from us--Paterfamilias and I were in accord: The 2-day visit had been bittersweet.
The sweetness was in the welcome when we arrived; in observing how grand our three Grands are, each in their own way; in seeing the closeness and strength of our son's marriage; in marveling at the way he's built his career and in our daughter-in-law's ability to build a warm home around challenging demands.
We spent almost all of our "Blitzkrieg visit" (in one day; out the next) at indoor soccer games (a Saturday night tournament, no less) and hanging around the house. When the sun shone, we were outside with one or all of our Grands, the wee-est one riding her trike, the biggest heaving a football to his dad or Gramps and the three Grands building a snowman with the remains of an early-Spring snowfall. All of that comes under the general category heading of "Sweet."
So what was bitter? Maybe bitter is too harsh a word. But what had us feeling a good deal less than warm and fuzzy about the visit was the feeling of being excluded--of being on the outside looking in. It was likely not intentional, just the reality of not being part of the in-group of a very tightly knit family.
A few days after we got home, Uber son posted on his Facebook page a description of a game he and his family had just taken up: Sardines. It's a variation on the theme of hide and seek. They go down into the basement. One person turns off the light and hides. Everyone else tries to find him/her and when they do, they hide with him/her. The last person left still looking is "it" next time. Uber son noted happily that "My three kids ALL love it and how many things can keep an 11 year old and a four year old happy? All of them would choose it right now over a movie pretty much hands down."
It struck me that Sardines was the perfect metaphor for what we experienced. They huddle together and we can't really find a way to be part of them.
We are not alone in feeling this way. I know that--from friends who've experienced similar visits to their grown children and from therapists who offer advice to those parents of grown children who are feeling their way through the unhappiness of exclusion. Dr. Kathleen McCoy, a psychotherapist who blogs on midlife and beyond, noted that some parents complain that they feel they are "on a socially accepted ice floe when it comes to their adult offspring." or that they are "bit players in the lives of their adult offspring."
McCoy suggests that we reframe the feelings of being on the side lines. "Instead of feeling diminished and left out, one can get in tune with the rhythm of life. We can reframe being a "bit player" to "having a front row seat" or "cheering them on." Letting the pleasure of generativity flow over you as you marvel at the accomplishments of your children and grandchildren can be life-changing."
She admits there may be times when you miss being central to your children's daily lives. "My Aunt Molly used to say that, as you age, 'you're welcome at the party, but the party isn't for you.' " McCoy adds, "participating in the party, minus the burden of being the central focus, can be even more satisfying."
Intellectually I know she's right but it doesn't feel that way when we're in the moment. Her Aunt Molly's line is a zinger that reminds us of our deepest feeling: Most of us don't necessarily want to be the life of the party but we do want to be part of it. And when we feel somehow pushed away--however unintentional it may be--it's bittersweet. And a reminder that we did the same thing to our parents. So much for the pleasures (and guilt trip) of generativity.