Sunday, July 09, 2017

July's Column: Those Six (Nice) Adult Children

From messy parenthood, neat kids

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
JULY 9, 2017

This is not like it used to be,” I thought as my three energetic daughters­ strode ahead of me down the wide trail at Shore Acres, fast and graceful,­ with their long skirts swinging, fairy-like, in the dappled sunlight.
Puffing along behind them and too out of breath to talk, I had time to think rambling and sentimental­ musings about being a mom, time passing, kids growing up, how did this happen and how blindingly fortunate I am.
And how walking with my kids is no longer what it once was.
My husband began teaching at a Native American reservation in Canada when Emily was a baby, Amy was 2 years old, and Matthew was 4. In a village of gravel roads and few amenities, we walked everywhere. It was always slow going, with the local grandmas stopping us to pinch the kids’ cheeks and exclaim to each other in Oji-Cree, Matt asking a million questions, and Amy hunting for pretty rocks.
With her brown eyes wide with awe, Amy would pick up every unusual stone, turn it over in her hand, admire it as though it were turquoise or amethyst instead of a piece of gravel, show it to me for additional affirmation, and carefully stow it in her pocket.
Going to the post office or the store was a painfully long ordeal, and we always came home with a precious collection of rocks in the pockets of Amy’s lavender jacket.
When Paul was home, I would leave the children and go on walks alone, marching as fast as I liked.
Amy is all grown up now and has taught English in Thailand for more than three years. She rides her motorbike all over the city and chats with her favorite food vendors in fluent Thai. She is efficient and energetic, a world traveler and a great cook.
For the past year, in preparation for our annual girls’ vacation when Amy came home to visit, I sold extra eggs from our chickens, posted garage sale finds on eBay, and collected the spare change in the laundry. It all went into a can labeled “Girls’ Fun Money.”
Intrigued with the southern Oregon Coast, we used my careful savings to reserve a small house near Port Orford. Amy offered to be in charge of the food. I packed lots of books and crafts and paperwork. Emily brought hiking poles. Jenny, the youngest, kept us entertained.
The house was old and small, with a quirky charm in its slanting floors. Jenny was dubious about the sliding barn door on the tacked-on bathroom and its resulting lack of privacy, and solved this problem by playing music loudly on her phone, as needed.
The girls soon discovered that the beach was close by, just across a small meadow and the nearest dune. For four days we relaxed on the sand, shopped at thrift stores and ate Amy’s extravagant rice concoctions or burrito bowls, heavy or light on the cilantro as our tastes dictated. We talked and laughed and discussed: college, romance, books, memories, future decisions. We cured Jenny’s hiccups, sat around a driftwood fire and read books on the beach, leaning against a large log. We pored over maps, read historical markers and took a tour of a lighthouse. Very little crafting got done, and no paperwork.
Often, we walked: up the hill and down the road to Paradise Point, out to the Heads and Battle Rock near Port Orford, north to Coos Bay and the clifftop trail to Shore Acres, and, one sunset, down the long grassy path to the beach at Cape Blanco. The girls would wait for me when the path intersected with another, then turn and continue their rapid pace as soon as I appeared. “Let’s go where it’s dangerous,” Jenny would say, staying on the trails but choosing the narrowest path above the highest cliffs, then posing for pictures, hand on hip, outlined against the sky.
I was the one who stopped and admired the scenery, stroked shiny leaves and delayed the others while I gave a lesson in identifying sword ferns. Mostly, I absorbed the wonder that my children not only survived to adulthood under my care, but remained people that I like to be around.
The day that seemed impossibly far off, back when we walked those dusty northern roads, has arrived. All of our six children are adults, ranging from 18 to 31 years old. I don’t know how it happened.
Oddly, every one of them was, or will be, in college in 2017. One just graduated from Oregon State, two are going for advanced degrees, one will be a freshman, and two are sophomores.
So far, none are married.
Surely I was the least-confident young mom ever, and our children had the widest possible range of personalities and needs. Of course, we had many good times, but we also had lots of tears and tension and noise, of poverty and worry and having absolutely no clue what was the right thing to do in this moment with this situation, problem, behavior or conflict.
Yet, to my astonishment, they turned into wonderful grown-ups who make good choices, care about others, laugh easily and fearlessly take on the world. They all pay for their own education, and are debt-free. Blessedly, they like to spend time with their dad and me.
More and more, struggling young parents ask me for advice. I am always surprised. I think, “Twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have asked me, because obviously we didn’t know what we were doing.”
I can easily list the things we did wrong, but how do you isolate and quantify what went right? Even more difficult: How do you figure out what someone else ought to do?
So I lean toward empathy and support rather than specific answers or how-tos, and I generalize. Parenting is always a balance between freedom and boundaries, protection and letting go, I say. While we raised our kids inside conservative Mennonite expectations regarding media, dress, church attendance and basic behavior, we set them free in other ways. Our son Matt says, “You let us explore, climb trees, get chased by the cows, shoot bb guns, and do all the things that would give a helicopter parent an aneurysm.”
Ours are all adventurous yet purposeful, so this system worked for us, but I’m sure it’s not for everyone.
I’ve found that parenting is also a balance between discovering who your child is and shaping them into who you want them to be. We always felt they should be others-oriented rather than thinking only of themselves, but we also knew they would be most effective if they followed their God-given interests and gifts.
That was why I made our children be polite to the curious grandmas in that little northern village, and why I slowed our walks to unbearably dragging paces while Matt and Amy asked questions and picked up dusty little stones.
 “Don’t get stuck in a system,” I tell the young parents. “If it isn’t working, back off and try something else.”
“Make sure they know you love them.”
“Work on being a better person, because at the end of the day, they’re going to be an awful lot like you.”
Even as I try to answer their questions, encourage them and be helpful, the truth is obvious: What do any of us really know about this beautiful and terrifying work of raising a human being to adulthood?
There are no guarantees or easy answers, only love, hard work and the grace of God. If you learn and sacrifice and give your best, sometimes a surprising day comes when you walk down a sunny coastal trail with your charming daughters who want you along, the world is swinging with amazement, and your eyes fill up with an overwhelming gratitude.
The hikers--Emily, Jenny, Amy

Cape Blanco, one of my favorites

The house we stayed at. The ocean is just over that dune beyond the lane.


  1. I feel the same way about our five children, only I can say it a gracefully as you have here. Thank you for sharing your tender thoughts and feelings. And oh how I envy you and your daughters get togethers. We were blessed with only one daughter and I never feel we get enough "girliness". She lives far way and we get together once or twice a year. I end up spending more time with three of our sons who live close by; I've learned more about cars, guns, film making, and working out than I thought I'd ever need to know. But I believe in learning about my children's interests so I can converse intelligently with them. I love having five adult children "best friends!"

  2. Thanks so much!! I would easily rival your least-confident-mom status......I am skeptical of rigid protocols and rigorous programs with raising children. Thank you for offering guidance but not taking on more authority than is any one persons! I am encouraged today!

  3. How wonderful to have time away with only the girls! I am glad to know that I am not the only one wheezing along behind. :)

  4. I love seeing your relationship with your daughters. I so look forward to growing that relationship with my own (they're just 14 months, so I have a while!), especially since my own mom died when I was 20 and I am missing out on the adult daughter-mother relationship. Thanks for sharing your wisdom again. I'm in the no-idea-what-I'm-doing stage, but God gives wisdom as I go and I know my girls feel loved.