For many of my class reunions, lengthy questionnaires were sent out to get some idea of what everyone was doing and how their lives were turning out. There were questions about politics, marital status and fidelity, income, job satisfaction, health status, and a few others. The one category always missing was one of intense interest to me: how are your children doing and are you happy with them?
One reason for an interest in that question was that my wife, Sidney, wrote a book some years ago about being the parents of adult children, Parents Forever. The first line of the book was, “They never told you it would go on so long.” When that book was written, our focus mainly was on young adults, looking at the problems parents have when their children are living separately, developing careers, and finding mates. These days, sorry to say, many young adult children come back home, failing to find jobs and being forced to live off their parents again, and that has its own problems.
Our children passed that young adult stage long ago, now ranging in age from their late 40s to late 50s. We see them often and watch how their lives are working out. Most are doing well, some married with children and some not. But some are having the troubles that can go with middle age, notably the kinds of creeping minor health problems that increase with age.
But some problems are more serious. One son, Peter, a screenwriter, has worked for years writing and directing independent films. They were a critical success, even winning awards, but that brought him no reliable income, failing to find theater distributors. Then Ann, his companion whom we loved, gave birth to a daughter, Perry – and the next day Ann died a sudden, unexpected, and altogether unpleasant death from a pulmonary embolism, occasioned by her C-section. Peter was devastated and out of money, as well. We brought him and his daughter home from Los Angeles and they have lived with us ever since. The three of us raised our granddaughter, and for us it was early parenthood all over again. Yet changing the diaper of a 1-year old was far easier than dealing with the intense grief of a 35-year-old son and the economic vicissitudes of his life in the movie business. I have admired his screenwriting tenacity, his commitment to be a good parent – and his muscles to do the heavy lifting in our house. And Perry just got her driver’s license.
Another son, in his late 40s, is in the midst of a troubled marriage, separated from his wife and considering divorce, and with a 5-year-old son. We want the marriage to endure, and we do what we can in the way of parental counseling, which both husband and wife seem to appreciate. But should parents want a child’s marriage to continue if it has appeared for years that the marriage has been unhappy, and whose side, if any, should we take? Then there is common situation these days of parents who themselves are well into their old age responsible for the care of someone even much older; and Sidney, age 79, recently in the Over 65 blog described her role as guardian of a 99-year-old stepmother with advanced dementia. None of the childrearing manuals we consulted in the early years of parenthood even mentioned that such problems could arise late in life.
I don’t want to leave the impression that being older parents with middle-aged children is some vale of tears. Not at all. It is a continuing joy filled now and then with some tears but, far more of the former than the latter. As someone who helped found The Hastings Center and has written many books, I have often said that the shelf life of my children will be much longer than those career achievements. That’s the way life works out.
Daniel Callahan, 82, is President Emeritus of The Hastings Center and the author of two new books, a memoir, In Search of the Good: A Life in Bioethics (MIT Press), and a collection of essays and papers, The Roots of Bioethics (Oxford University Press).