Monday 20 May 2019

Every parent’s worst nightmare

I’m not going into the specifics of the Erin Tanti/Lisa Maria Zahra tragedy. That is what the courts are for, and unlike so many people who have appointed themselves judge and jury, I prefer to keep my mouth shut rather than create a whole soap opera script about “what must have happened” in the early hours of that fateful day.

(It goes without saying, of course, that from the facts which have emerged, the illicit relationship was wrong on all levels and, as her teacher, Mr Tanti crossed the line.)

But, to me, what has really come out of all this is the chilling reality which parents have to live with the moment they decide to become parents: you never know what your children might do or what risks they will face in life. The fear which clutches at one’s heart never stops from the moment they are born, not when they stumble through their first steps as toddlers, through their school years, adolescence, or even adulthood.

The teenage years are especially fraught with turbulence. Foul temperaments, wild mood swings and a general feeling of doom and gloom (locking oneself up in one’s room and refusing to participate in family life) is considered quite “normal’ behavior as teenagers try and grapple with their identity, their self-image and the bumpy transition of what it means to be not quite a kid but not really an adult. It’s a roller coster ride for both children and the poor parents who have to hang on and brace themselves, wondering if this phase will ever pass and whether that glum, scowling face will ever revert back to the cute grin and happy disposition of the child they once knew.  The dilemma, of course, is to recognize what is normal teenage rebellion as opposed to the signals that something is very, very wrong on a much deeper level. How can you tell? Sometimes, you cannot, which is when tragedies occur, leaving devastated parents who have to live with the tormented knowledge that they did not catch the signs in time.

But let us not overlook the fact that these traumas can happen at any age, and are not necessarily relegated to just the teenage phase. It is every parent’s worst nightmare to to have to deal with the tragic loss of their child. But it is also just as tragic to hear of parents who have to perpetually solve their adult children’s (self-inflicted) problems.

Parents whose adult children come up against some sort of adversity,whether it is a psychological problem, substance abuse, marital difficulties or financial woes often find that they are still worrying themselves sick over their children at a time when those children should have long reached some sort of stability and maturity.

In the past, by their early 20s, most people were already married with a couple of kids – and while it is not everyone’s ideal, it is also true that nothing matures you faster than that kind of responsibility. It is typical that in this, as in so many other things, we have careened from one extreme to the other: today it sometimes seems that we have been lumped with a generation of young people who want the trappings of being independent adults while paradoxically extending their dependence on their parents for as long as possible.

As more students continue their studies at university, we have created what I describe as a “prolonged adolescence” with adult children still living at home, free from the responsibilities of paying the bills, or even doing their own washing, while enjoying the laid-back lifestyle which the stipend culture has created. And before anyone objects to this as a generalization, let’s just say that those who actually hold down a job while studying are the exception rather than the rule. I can just picture the uproar if students had to graduate  with the burden of thousands of Euros of student loans which have to be paid back, as happens in other countries.

In other scenarios, with separations being so rampant, more and more parents over the age of 50 are finding themselves in situations where their adult children (with their kids in tow) are moving back into the family home, at least until alternative accommodation and finances are sorted out. So, once again, we find that the dynamics of what it means to be an independent adult have shifted. No matter how comfortable it feels, the reality is that you are now back living with your mother who will automatically fall back into her comforting “let me do everything for you” nurturing mode. The longer it lasts, the harder it will be to get back on your feet and become independent again.

Unplanned pregnancies have also meant that, instead of kicking back and enjoying their middle age, finally free to do what they want, this age group has been roped into becoming permanent babysitters. In some cases, you will find the weary granny at home rocking the cradle while the young parents are selfishly determined to continue partying hard as if they did not have a care in the world. Excuse me: if you thought you were old enough to have sex and make a baby, well, you can now kiss PV goodbye and just stay home and take care of the child yourself.

The ability to make good decisions and not end up in a quagmire of bad choices does not happen by chance, although sometimes it is down to the kind of character which you are born with, which determines whether you can bite the bullet and extricate yourself from the unfortunate circumstances which life throws at you. However, at other times, the downward spiral can be explained by an upbringing which has been too cushioned and too pampered. Mummy and Daddy will solve it, don’t worry.  There would have been no preparation of how to handle the obstacles and difficulties which are inevitable as one grows up. And that’s the question, isn’t it? Do many of our young people really want to grow up, or are they happy to perpetuate the Peter Pan syndrome, enabled and encouraged (perhaps) by parents who are content to allow their children to be “theirs” for just a little while longer?

I know it is all very well-meaning and done out of love, but really, the best parenting one can give to a child is to equip them with the tools to cope; to see them spread their wings and be self-reliant. And one day, when age takes its toll and you have to be dependent on someone, you will know that you have done the right thing when your child, rather than constantly demanding your help, turns around and asks how they can now be of help to you, instead.





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