On vacation this summer, we are invited by Uber son and family to join them at their condo for dinner. They've spent their day doing things they love to do--skipping rocks down at the creek, picking wild berries from bushes and swimming in the pool. Paterfamilias and I, ensconsed in a nearby hotel, had walked a hiking trail and been to town to check out the crafts scene.
This particular evening, my daughter-in-law and my grandson had just gotten back from a 3-hour mountain bike ride on trails in the foothills of the mountain. It had been a challenging, adrenalin-rush ride; they were both exhilarated by the adventure.
It was all we talked about at dinner: the rocks, tree roots, sudden twists in the trail, sharp uphills, scraped elbows. Tales of other rides by other mountain-biking members of the family were relived and remembered--including some parental falls and pratfalls into or on top of bushes.
Paterfamilias and I don't mountain-bike ride. We are road bicyclists. We tried to connect our experiences with theirs (the closeness of a fast-moving truck versus the challenge of knee-high tree roots) but that flopped. So did our attempts after a while to change the subject.
That's when one of the realities of parenting adult children hit home: We are no longer in charge. Not even close. Of course, when our kids were young and growing up in our house or going on vacation with us, we ran the dinner-table conversation. Now when we're on their turf, our grown kids own the flow of conversation, and we don't necessarily know what it is or how it works. It isn't as though we're cut out of the conversation. We're welcome to join in, but it's sometimes hard to figure out how. PF and I often remind each other, 'We're no longer center stage; we're bit players now in our children's lives.' It's one thing to say it. It's another to feel it at the dinner table.
On her blog, psychotherapist Kathy McCoy talks about re-framing the feelings of being on the side lines: Instead of feeling we are a bit player, we could see ourselves as having a front row seat. McCoy likes to quote her Aunt Molly on the changing family dynamic as we age: "We're welcome at the party, but the party isn't for us."
Nor is leading the dinner conversation. If the table talk isn't to our liking or interest, tough luck. Feign interest. Try to connect. Listen for nuggets of insight. It's their turn.
To be fair, the table talk isn't always devoted to mountain biking or its equivalent. One of Uber son's delights is in presenting complex math questions that take a healthy dose of logic to solve. The conversations that revolve around solving the questions are profound. I'm often stumped by them (lazy mind refusing to go to work) but I relish hearing how the two older Grands (5th and 7th graders) work their way toward an answer.
The conversation on this particular vacation evening finally broadened out, thanks to our youngest Grand who does not yet ride a pedaling bike, no less forge through mountain trails. As we finished our chicken and corn and brought the farm-market peach pie to the table, she piped up: "Can't we talk about something else, like skiing?"
We weren't the only ones having trouble connecting.