As the 2012 presidential race has unfolded, it's been intriguing to see the prominent role taken by the young adult children of the candidates. Mitt Romney's sons have stumped for their father, and Rick Santorum's 20-year-old daughter campaigned from Iowa to Hawaii. Earlier in the primary season, Jon Huntsman's daughters literally sang their father's praises on YouTube.
My interest stems in part from the fact that my daughter, Rachel, is now 24 and in charge of her own life. I can't speak to the candidates' experiences with their children, but I've found that this stage of parenthood presents real challenges. When do you start letting go? When, and how, do you stop parenting?
These aren't easy questions, and they figure strongly in my new movie, The Perfect Family.
My character, Eileen Cleary, is a devout Catholic who has become deeply involved with her church since her son and daughter left home. When she learns that she's been nominated Catholic Woman of the Year, it means a great deal to her. However, part of the official evaluation concerns the health of her family as Catholics, and Eileen discovers that there are aspects of her children's lives that do not conform to church strictures. Eileen must grapple with the fact that her kids are making their own choices now; she cannot dictate.
It's funny how certain situations come back around in the journey from childhood to parenthood. I studied acting in college, while one older sibling was working on a degree in city planning and the other in psychology. My mother told me she didn't understand my choice.
"Well, if your brother and your sister succeed in their work, what they do will be helping other people," she said. "It seems to me that what you do is only about yourself." I remember telling her that if I did what I wanted and expected with my career, I, too, would touch and change lives. A few years later, she wrote me a long letter of apology that told me she valued my choice.
Cut to my daughter and me, many years later. Rachel became very committed to singing as a teenager, but she didn't want vocal lessons. I argued that she needed to learn how to train and protect her voice, but she was adamant, and that made me very impatient. In the end she was right. When she got older and had created a style for herself, she decided to go to a teacher and learn how to support her voice. But not until she was very secure in how she wanted to sing. I now think that was awfully smart of her.
We learn with difficulty how to parent. You take on all the responsibilities: to shelter, to nurture, to protect and to make our children do their homework. Day after day, hour by hour, we are involved in their lives. Then suddenly, we're supposed to stop. The kid is now an adult and doesn't live in your home anymore. It's rather challenging to bite your tongue and not say, "When was the last time that you really ate?" It's not your place anymore.
I find it very amusing, but it's been a struggle to give up all the oversight that comes with parenting. It's something you have to learn. Fortunately, our kids will be happy to help teach us.
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