Sunday, June 3, 2012

Parenting into Adulthood: How Long Will You Have Control?

Over at Good Enough Mother, there's an occasional advice column called "Ask the Good Enough Guy." People write in and get advice from a male perspective, and often it's women writing in to ask advice about their male partners or husbands.

I normally half-heartedly nod at the responses or don't feel much connection to the questions, but this week's got me kind of riled up.

A woman writes in because her 19-year-old daughter, who she describes as "one of the most responsible teens" she knows, has chosen to get on birth control pills because she's sexually active and in a committed relationship. Her mother says that she "helped her start birth control" (not really explaining what that means--I guess taking her to the doctor's appointment? maybe just having a conversation with her about it?) and then her husband found her daughter's pills and threw a fit. When the mother, trying to help her daughter, says that she helped her get on the pills, the father became enraged at both of them and now isn't speaking to either of them.

The Pill

The Good Enough Guy's advice is a little unhinged to me. He starts by saying that he completely understands why the husband is upset and even that he is mad himself just reading it. His reasoning is that the mother somehow made this big decision about their parenting without his input.


This woman is nineteen years old! It's not as if the mother took their twelve-year-old to get on the Pill without letting her father in on that decision. This woman made the decision to get on birth control herself and just so happened to tell her mother about it. It's her decision to get on the Pill, and it's her decision to tell or not tell whoever she wants about that act.

Truly, the Good Enough Guy's advice shocks me.

He says that "Making this kind of decision without your husband's input was wrong." But the mother didn't make a decision; she simply helped her daughter carry out her own decision.

The part that really gets me, though, is the final step of his advice: the resolution.
I suggest you, your husband, your daughter and maybe even the boyfriend, sit down together, put everything on the table including the pills, and have that long, uncomfortable, conversation that your husband should have been a part of. If your husband is opposed to her being on birth control, then it may benefit her to hear why he thinks so. If she’s old enough to do the, “no-pants dance”, then she’s old enough to have an adult discussion on the subject. As I said: dads were boys once, and hearing some of those stories from him might open her eyes to a few things.

Did I really, really miss a parenting memo? Is it my job to follow my daughter into adulthood and force her to "put everything on the table" about every life decision she makes? Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought my job as a parent was to give her the guidance and skills she needs growing up that she is capable of making intelligent, responsible decisions as an adult. Furthermore, it sounds like that's exactly what this young woman did: she's in a committed adult relationship and she's having sex, so she wants to (responsibly) be on birth control. This is a testament that the parenting she received as a child enabled her to be a clear-thinking adult, not a sign that someone needs to put in some overtime on the parenting front.

Look, I'm not saying that I expect to cut my daughter off from parental wisdom on her eighteenth birthday. I very much hope that her father and I will both be people she respects and consciously calls upon for advice, help, and support. But I also know that we can't be those people if we don't know when to stop trying to control her life. If I expect respect from her, then I have to give it in return, and respecting an adult means not treating her like a child.

What do you think? Parents of adults, what does your parenting look like into adulthood? Parents of minors, how do you envision the stages of your parenting? Everyone, how would you have responded to this kind of parental control exerted over your adult decisions? When did you/do you stop expecting your parents to intervene?

Image: starbooze


  1. I'm not a parent yet so I can only comment from the perspective of an adult child. Part of me is quite cynical about the father's response, wondering if he really is upset about not being "in" on this decision (which as you explained, is not his or the mother's decision) or if he is upset that his daughter is having sex. For instance, would he have had the same reaction if the mother had helped their (hypothetical) son buy condoms? Obviously this is speculation, but I find the father's response childish, controlling, and out of line.

    1. Yeah, there's a lot of information that I would consider crucial to the response missing from the question, but I do suspect that there's a touch of "not my little girl" double standard in this situation.

  2. I once asked my dad why he didn't stop me from making a mistake I later realized he had to have seen coming. He said he thought I should make my own decisions, and if I needed help, he was there for me. When he said that, I thought back, and that was how he operated. My mother was/is the one on the front line with advice, wanted or not, as was her mother. As a mother of two young adult daughters, I wonder which parent I am. I hope I am more like my father, but I don't have the perspective to know for sure. Maybe a mix is better. At any rate, by the time I was thirteen, I didn't feel like I needed to ask anyone's permission, and resented that my mother was so controlling. I can't image even writing a letter for advice about what to do with a father who is reacting that way. I also can't imagine needing my mommy to take me to get birth control when I was 19 y/o. I wonder if both her parents are a little too involved?

    1. Yeah. I wonder what exactly "helping" her adult daughter get on birth control looks like? Does that just mean her daughter talked the choice over with her before she went? Does that mean that she didn't know where to go or how to get a prescription on her own?

  3. It's only understandable if you're a patriarchal control freak.

    And if you are, that's YOUR problem, not your daughter's.

  4. I completely agree with your analysis, and furthermore am quite curious how the father found the pills in the first place. I assume the daughter didn't just leave them on the bathroom counter. I lived with my parents after turning 18, and for a while again after graduating from college, and it was INFURIATING to be treated like I was still a child.

    The daughter made an adult decision, and part of that decision was to share it with her mother. The mother should be obliged to respect her daughter's desire for confidentiality ... Though I know there are many couples who feel as if they are a "unit" and must share all information, even if it means disrespecting a friend's or relative's privacy. I wonder if the father is like that in general, with all information that his wife is privy to.

    1. That thing about being a "unit" who doesn't have secrets is an interesting one. For the most part, I have that kind of relationship with my husband. I don't hide things from him, and we have a very open communication style. That said, my bond and responsibility to him is not the only one I have. There have been times when friends have specifically asked me not to tell information to ANYONE else, and--in those cases--that meant I didn't say anything to my husband. I can see how this being his daughter complicates those allegiances, but it's perfectly possible for an adult child (or a non-adult child, for that matter) to feel comfortable sharing some information with one parent and not the other. What's better in that case, for the child to decide not to share with either parent because s/he knows that ultimately means sharing with both or for one parent to keep an alliance with the child's confidence?

  5. I think that the appropriate extent of parental involvement into adulthood may vary from family to family and even from child to child. I can probably remember (down to the very month and week) when my parents truly "let go"--it wasn't until I was 21, two weeks out of college, and about to start my first job. For the first time in my life, I was financially independent, and as soon as they stopped paying my bills, they also started biting their tongues. Literally, it was like a switch had been flipped.

    Maybe I resented it a bit at the time, but I can certainly see how they were well within their rights to continue exerting control over my "adult" decisions prior to that point. I was completely financially dependent on them through college. I was attending an expensive private liberal arts school, and even though I know it was a strain on them, they made sure that I never had to take out a single loan. They covered my car, my cell phone, my checking account, my insurance, and a credit card for "emergencies." I'm NOT saying that this is an ideal situation, and I fervently hope that I can help my own daughter to be more financially independent and fiscally responsible. BUT I am saying that my financial dependence on my parents meant that I owed them a certain amount of deference and respect and that they were right to impose their opinions on the way I lived (and in hindsight, most everything they advised was spot on...that guy WAS a jerk). I wouldn't have sought birth control with their money or insurance because I know they would have disapproved. When I called my dad from Prague one weekend because I'd run out of money and couldn't use my credit card for some reason, he was right to say "I hope you're not waking me up in the middle of the night for beer money." I was...but I certainly thought better of it after the guilt trip that ensued.

    So, to me, whether this dad was at all justified in his reaction is pretty dependent on whether or not his daughter is using her own money or insurance to purchase the birth control. If it's her money and she's living independently of her parents, then he's a controlling blowhard. If it's partly his money or his house, then even if I disagree with his reasoning, I think she's somewhat obligated to hear his objections.

    1. That's a really great point, and I appreciate that perspective. I agree that if he's paying for it, that changes the balance of power and responsibility considerably. I don't know that's necessarily the case for me if she's living there; after all, she could just be there for a summer between college semesters. And even if she's living there year-round, I still think she deserves privacy and respect as an adult.

      The thing that struck me most about your comment was how much my own upbringing is coloring my reaction to this situation. I have been more-or-less financially independent from about 16 on. Though I still lived in my mom's house at that time, I did help pay household bills as well as my own personal expenses. Like you said, this isn't to say that I think this is the ideal situation, and that's certainly not how I plan for things to go for my own daughter, but it was just the reality of our situation. Since financial independence is probably one of the final obstacles into full-fledged adulthood (and one of the last places where parents can see that control in a very real way), I can see how different experiences with that milestone would greatly impact the way that parental involvement factors in.

    2. Financial independence is definitely a tricky subject. On one hand, being able to enter adulthood without any loans or financial burdens was a great gift, but I also don't think that it taught me anything about work and reward. It also meant that my first year on my own was a pretty painful learning experience. My husband, however, had part-time jobs all through high school and college--he did everything from clean bathrooms at a declining cinema to paint faces at the zoo. Maybe those jobs didn't directly prepare him for what he currently does, but he continues to be harder working and more fiscally responsible than I am. It also meant that he was much more independent of his parents as a college student than I was.