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Declaration of Independence

At what point should they stand on their own two feet? When is parental help welcome — and when does it stunt growth?

"When I had my fourth baby, I was in a double room in Shaare Zedek,” recalls Adina, a mother from Mattersdorf. “A young woman of about 19 was brought in, having just had her first.”

There had been a minor complication, and she was given a strong drug that left her with a debilitating headache. A doctor came to speak with her, but her mother and mother-in-law were there, demanding an explanation. The doctor responded that he’d explained to the couple what their options were, they’d needed to make an immediate decision, and at the doctor’s recommendation, this is what their daughter and her husband had agreed to.

“She’s just a child!” cried her mother. “How could mere children be expected to make such a decision?!”

“The doctor made an impatient sound,” Adina recounts, “and he retorted, ‘This mere child is married and just had a baby, for heaven’s sake. If she’s too much of a child to make decisions for herself, she’s certainly too much of a child to be having children!’”

And yet, it’s tricky balance. We marry off children at a relatively young age, and many of them are fairly dependent on us. It’s a strange phenomenon: Are they adults? Are they kids?

Esty E., a relationship coach and popular address for parenting advice for mothers of all ages, encourages parents to define the word “child.”

“When you say ‘child,’ you might mean in relation to not yet being an adult, or in relation to being the offspring of a parent. Your children, in relation to you, will always be your children. But they do grow up and become adults.”

But when we continue viewing adult children as “children,” we risk stunting their independence, even as we ostensibly ease them into adulthood.

“Marriage is a huge adjustment,” says Kayla, a mom of several marrieds, “so we want to cushion that transition for them. But helping doesn’t mean babying. Even when they’re engaged, I can look for ads for apartments and furniture sales, and I’ll even sit with you when you make those calls… but no, sweetie, I can’t make the calls for you.”

“Practically speaking,” feels Rachel, who has a married daughter, “we’re supporting my daughter and son-in-law financially, so naturally we end up more involved in the nitty-gritty of their lives. Objectively, I know we need to help them be more independent, but at the end of the day — they’re really just kids.”

Adina bristles when she hears this description. “As long as we consider them little kids, that’s what they’ll be. Marriage is too huge of a life change and responsibility to trust children with.”


Encouraging Independence

Mrs. Esther Gendelman, LPC, coauthor of The Missing Peace, is a therapist with a long-time practice in Detroit, and more recently in Toms River, New Jersey. She stresses that any discussion pertaining to our children’s transition into independence has to be within the context of, first and foremost, healthy emotional maturity. The concept of children transitioning to a new home, Mrs. Gendelman points out, is difficult for the children as well as the parents. If we help our children develop emotional maturity early on, long before they stand under the chuppah, things should ideally progress and evolve in a healthy manner afterward.

To varying degrees, it’s become the norm for young couples to be somewhat dependent on their parents. For starters, there’s the issue of support during kollel years, not unlike the support their non-yeshivish counterparts might receive while finishing their degrees.

In addition, many couples rely on their parents’ help in their daily lives, both physically and emotionally. They might pop in to do laundry, drop off the baby, pick up supper, “shop” in Mommy’s pantry, or just to hang out. For some moms, this is a sign of closeness and a great relationship. Ask the mechuteneste, however, and she might see it differently.

“One of my sons married a girl from a great family,” recalls Rivka, a Brooklyn mother whose seven children are all married. “We were thrilled he joined such a close-knit clan. In the beginning, I marveled over how easygoing my mechuteneste was. Her married kids were always over — picking up supper, leaving their laundry, borrowing her car. She’d take their grocery lists when she shopped. They were there almost every Shabbos, or they’d pick up ‘Shabbos packages.’

“After the couple’s first baby was born, I assumed they’d be forced to become a little more independent, but surprisingly, the opposite happened! They moved in for two months, and after that basically just slept at home. I finally approached my son, asking if all the ‘togetherness’ was okay for him. He shrugged and said, ‘They’re a close family, what should I do?’ ”

When Rivka pointed out to him that their family was also “close,” but his sisters ran their own homes, her son was surprised. Apparently, his wife felt that his siblings and parents were “not family oriented” or particularly close, because they didn’t rely on their mother in the same way.

“My husband explained to my son that a healthy home needs independence. Spouses need to rely on each other for support — not on outsiders. And yes, anyone other than the husband and wife are called outsiders! His wife needed to learn how to turn to him before she turned to her mother or sisters. It wasn’t his business to change the dynamics in his in-laws’ home, but he could try to establish his own home.”

Chava, who’s been married for six years, shares that this idea was a huge learning curve for her. Her married siblings are heavily dependent on their parents, asking for input on everything, in addition to being financially supported by their father. Along with the financial support, Chava admits, comes an unspoken expectation of dependence in all areas.

“When we needed a couch, my mother took me shopping for one. I was upset when my husband commented that he didn’t like stiff leather once it was delivered — my mother was buying it and she liked it. He responded that everything in our home and everything I wore were my mother’s taste, and he wished I’d have my own opinion.

“I was very hurt. I’m embarrassed to say that we had a big argument that day. I thought he was being kafui tov, and he thought I was too dependent. He accused me of running to show my sisters or mother something I bought before I showed it to him, and I thought he was the biggest baby! I finally called my kallah teacher, who helped me see that my dependence on my family wasn’t allowing me to build a healthy, independent marriage.”

Tova describes a somewhat opposite situation. “I’m one of 14, and when I got married, my parents still had most of their kids at home. My father is a rav, and it never dawned on us to expect support. We moved out of town after sheva brachos, my husband was able to join a well-paying kollel, and I worked. Every so often, my father would call suddenly and say he deposited a few hundred dollars into my bank account, and those times felt like the greatest gifts — which they were!”

Finances, however, were not the only area where independence was fostered. “Growing up,” says Tova, “I was very accustomed to the ‘convenience’ of having an in-house rav. After I got married, I’d call my father and he’d say, ‘Call your local Orthodox rabbi!’ I’d ask his opinion on something, and he’d say, ‘What does your husband say?’ If I said my husband didn’t know, he’d tell me to call my husband’s rebbi.

“The only time he’d give us his opinion or answer a question was if my husband himself asked, or I made it clear that my husband knew I was asking or asked me to ask. Otherwise, he was sending me the message that it was time for me to rely on my husband or his rebbi.”

Adina describes many of her kids’ friends as “not knowing what hit them” when they needed to become more independent after marriage. Many of them, she says, were supported for a few years financially, but eventually had to figure out how to make it on their own.

“For girls who spent their teenage years getting money from their parents, their seminary year swiping credit cards, and the first few years of marriage being fully supported, the transition was traumatic and, truthfully, unfair. How could parents neglect preparing their kids for life? The time to teach them to manage money is when they’re teens. Have them get a summer job. Teach them to save. Help them learn!”

Fully supporting a couple until a certain point and then stopping cold turkey with no transition, agrees Rivka, is not an option. Even if they get money from parents, they should be encouraged to be making their own money too and doing all the “grown-up” things adults do: pay bills, manage rent, utilities, etc., regardless of where the money is coming from.

“Abba taking care of details to ‘make life easier for the kids’ is handicapping them,” Rivka stresses.

Kayla shares how her household operated from the time her children were preteens. When her daughters said, “Ma, so-and-so wants to know if I can babysit today — what should I tell her?” Kayla would respond, “What do you want to tell her?” When her daughters were old enough to work, she encouraged them to call themselves to apply for jobs.

Tova recalls her feeling of overwhelm back when she was packing for seminary. “I had two huge suitcases open with the contents of my closet, dresser, and all my shopping sprees out, and I was completely lost. My mother was sitting on the bed helping me figure out what to pack, when I exploded. I basically informed my mother that she was being remiss in her parenting. My best friend’s mother had neatly and lovingly packed her suitcases and taped a paper on the inside of each suitcase listing its contents, while my mother was just sitting there for moral support!

“My mother stared at me for a shocked second, and then said, ‘Tova, her mother will also choose her chasunah gown for her and name her first three children. Is that really what you want?’ It was a learning experience for me. I see that my parents’ way was let them be, let them think, let them decide. Support them and hold their hands through it, but let them lead the way. And I really appreciate their mehalech.”

Esty agrees. “We parents got as smart as we did through living our lives. When we jump in and try rescuing our kids from themselves, we deprive them of their roads to knowledge. Some might say we’re saving them from themselves, but you know, sometimes we’re also trying to save ourselves from the pain of watching our children hurt. That’s natural for a parent to feel, but then we’re robbing them of tools for life.”

 

Boundaries

For young couple to establish healthy independence, boundaries must be established. Yet what one person considers boundaries another might consider cold, and what your neighbor perceives as supportive you may view as enmeshed. Who decides what’s “normal”?

Normal, says Mrs. Gendelman, is what works best for all parties involved. What we want is not always what’s best for us (think chocolate ice cream versus zucchini) — best is what’s healthiest.

“This has to be al pi darko. It’s judged on a case-by-case basis, and it has to work for every single person affected by the set up. Parents, couple, other children, etc.” It doesn’t matter, she reminds us, what works for the neighbor, or what your sister did. The members of this particular dynamic are the ones who all have to be comfortable. If someone — anyone — in the dynamic feels overburdened, that’s obviously a red flag, and it’s time to reevaluate.

“But of course,” adds Mrs. Gendelman, “There will be times that for the sake of another person we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, and that’s also beneficial in a relationship — as long as it’s coming from a place of wanting to help and not from a place of fear of judgment.”

Kayla describes how this plays itself out. “My kids are dependent on me to the extent that I allow it, I guess you can say. I love to babysit the grandkids, but the only way I can do so happily is if I say no when I need to. Sometimes I can rearrange my schedule to accommodate them, but sometimes I can’t, and my kids have to be okay with that. Not all my friends can do that — they say no, and their kids are upset. If you can’t say no without paying emotionally, something is not right.”

“The truth?” says Esty, “I think a lot of parents are afraid to set those boundaries. They’re afraid to say no to their married kids because they’re afraid of the kids pulling back. Some adult kids don’t see relationships with their parents as reciprocal or necessary — parents are here to give, and if they don’t, they have no use. It’s unfortunate, but I see it often. If you’re not always providing for your kids, the thinking goes, what good are you?”

Several mothers agreed with this sentiment. “Parents are twisting themselves into pretzels for their kids, doing everything they ask,” admitted a mother of a few marrieds. “Mothers are so scared of not having a relationship that they’ll say yes to anything, have the kids over, do whatever the kids need, no matter the cost to their own well-being.”

On the flip side, some young couples describe feeling obligated not to but by their parents. They say there’s an attitude — expressed or not — of the younger generation being beholden. Parents expect them for specific Shabbosim, certain parts of Yom Tov, or to be part of plans regardless of whether or not it works for the couple. Many feel uncomfortable disappointing their parents, but feel resentful that they’re told, not asked.

Mrs. Raize Guttman teaches in Ohr Miriam, a program for young women in Yerushalayim, and runs her own popular marriage seminar for married American girls. She feels that we’re selling today’s young couples short when we bemoan their so-called entitlement. She sees these women working admirably to establish beautiful homes. She encourages parents to assist by allowing their children independence.

“Sometimes it’s the parents who can’t let go. Parents need their kids to be close — they’re dependent on their kids, not the other way around. When kids get married, we have to know our place. Love them, support them, be there for them — but stand back.

“When kids see parents giving them the ability and chance to stand on their own two feet, it empowers them. When they hear you say how much you believe in them, it gives them strength. The years they lived in your home gave them roots — now’s the time to give them wings and allow them to fly.”

“You know,” muses Mrs. Guttman, “If all goes well, the first big decision a couple can make together is what to name a child — their first real chance to decide something together as a unit. But you know how many parents take that away from their children? I can’t tell you the turmoil of these couples because their parents don’t have clear enough boundaries.

“ ‘If we name for that grandmother,’ they tell me, ‘my mother will be upset, but if we name for the other one, then his mother will be upset…’ Parents have to be smart enough to say to their children, ‘Go ask your spouse.’ ”

Mrs. Gendelman maintains that this, too, goes back to how we run our homes before our children marry. Parents who work to establish emotional maturity and healthy boundaries with their children earlier on will invariably find it easier later.

Empowering our Children

Two years ago, Chava and her husband, with the encouragement of his rebbi, made the decision to slowly cut back on parental financial support and begin making their way toward financial independence. Along with this came decisions regarding career options, whether to stay in their current apartment or downsize, and whether Chava would increase her work hours. The most difficult part of all, she says, was having to sit down with her parents and break the news that her husband was going to work, and they were ready to cut back on the support received from her parents.

“We had my kallah teacher and my husband’s rebbi on speed dial during that time,” Chava recalls. “It wasn’t pretty. My mother was hurt, my father was disappointed, and I felt guilty. Baruch Hashem we managed, and we’re pretty much on the other side. My sisters will still make comments, but I learned to ignore a lot.”

That doesn’t mean, stresses Chava, that they don’t ask for parental input. “We do,” she says, “plenty. But now it comes as a joint decision.”

It was interesting, Chava says, that once they established stronger independence, she and her husband were much more willing to hear their parents’ opinions without resentment, and they appreciate parental guidance much more now.

Mrs. Guttman is passionate about empowering our adult children. “Our kids have to be told how great they are, how special they are. They’re living in a crazy world, with so much distraction that can literally destroy marriages. But instead of wringing our hands with messages of doom, we should realize that if Hashem put them into this world, He also gave them unbelievable kochos we didn’t have. And this is our message to them.

“Don’t just berate them for being part of the I-Generation — tell them they have the ability to succeed. There is so much good I see in these young women, and their mothers have to be telling them that. Their generation is not the Me Generation — it’s the ‘mi k’amcha Yisrael’ generation!”

Chaya is a Brooklyn teacher who says that along with giving our girls the feeling they can accomplish great things comes the need for a lot of hand-holding in the beginning. For every child it will mean something else. The same mother might be able to give one couple more space while another couple will need more support. We have to be there for them — but from a place of “You can do this!” not “Oy, how are you going to do this?”

“Many girls tell me they can’t marry learning boys because their parents can’t support. Who said kollel is only for those who can support? But our kids are terrified of having to be responsible for their own lives. We need to show them they can, and we’ll be there cheering them on and helping them in whatever way we can.”

Mrs. Gendelman points to the Rambam’s rule of finding the shvil hazahav, the golden middle path. “We don’t want our couples to feel like we’re pulling out and telling them, ‘Okay, bye kids, go figure it out on your own!’ We want to give them the message of ‘We trust you to do this, you’re going to do great, you’re going to build your own home and not copy our home.’ That’s a healthy parent’s perspective.”

 

Never Too Late To Start

In theory this sounds great: give our children the strength when they’re younger so they’ll manage better when they’re older.

And yet, real life doesn’t always follow the script. Parents say their independent, confident daughters are making enough money to live on, but still expect support and are hurt or resentful when their parents broach the subject of trying to make it on their own.

There are parents who find their children too dependent and feel the need — for the couple’s sake — to encourage more independence.

Is there a magic formula?

Chaya doesn’t see an easy answer. “Our kids really need us. Our girls don’t instinctively know how to be wives and mothers and run homes. They know how to be incredible students and outstanding members of the workforce, but they need to be eased into married life. They need their parents much more than we did at that stage.”

Chaya recommends that where possible, couples should not be relying on monthly checks. Some parents might be able to give lump sums for a full year at a time, others three or six months. This way the couple learns to pace themselves and budget. In Eretz Yisrael, where the norm has become to help set the couple up in an apartment, any money coming in should be the couple’s responsibility to manage.

“You’d be surprised,” says Chaim, the father of a few married couples scattered around the Tristate area, “how many young couples are making decent money these days. Many girls in Lakewood have great office jobs and are making more money than their parents made after ten years of marriage. Their parents’ monthly $1,000 is not being used for necessities — it’s being used for extras or put away in savings.

“Parents have to assess a situation and figure out the best time to have that conversation that no one wants to have and explain to the kids that it’s time to wean them off their parents’ support. Ask your kids if this is something they really need to live. Why are we afraid to make our children accountable?”

Esty is no-nonsense about parents owning up to their responsibility to be the mature ones. “People don’t want to have the conversation. Be grown-ups!” she says. Eventually the parents will need to pull back, and it’s unfair to the young couple to be dropped suddenly when that time comes.

Rabbi T. is a long-time mechanech from Lakewood whose married children have put their money where their mouth is: They’re each working hard to attain the lifestyle they want, which in their case is kollel, even though their father pledged to help each one in the beginning of their marriage.

“When the couple hits a certain threshold of money earned, it’s time to wean them off parental support,” he feels. “But they have to know this in advance.” The only caveat, he says, is right at the beginning of a marriage. “I want my kids to feel like I’m helping them out in the very beginning, no matter how much money they’re making. That’s become normal in our society, and I don’t find that it makes my kids feel more spoiled or entitled. If anything, I find they’ve only been appreciative.”

Finances aside, there’s also emotional and physical assistance. Tova notes that too much help can hamper. “Parents have to be smart. Encourage your married kids to do what has to be done — you’re not doing us a favor by ‘feeling bad’ and trying to make it easier. Encourage your kids to make Shabbos and suppers and not always run to you.”

“As much as we want to be there to support our kids and ease the way for them,” says Rivka, “and we all want our kids to relax in Mommy’s house, no one wants to turn around five years later and see spoiled couples who come along for a free ride. There is something distasteful about a thirty-year-old coming for Yom Tov and not contributing to that Yom Tov!

“Maybe she’s not great with cleaning up after her kids — so let her be in charge of the fresh salads over Yom Tov. Maybe she can’t cook or bake — okay, she can pick up beautiful paper goods and be in charge of setting tables. She can be the one who makes sure the playroom stays in order or she can bring Shabbos party and entertain the cousins for an hour. And the husbands as well — yes, we want them to sleep, to go learn, but nothing will happen if we allow them to sweep the kitchen after the seudah or take the garbage out.”

If these skills have been established from early on, the transition to independence should happen organically.

“In the same way that we don’t give lessons on each stage of our kids’ developments — we just oversee the growth and milestone-reaching when the prerequisites of healthy development are there — we’ll ideally be seeing development and growth as our kids grow into adulthood, but this time with a spouse and family involved,” says Mrs. Gendelman.

Eventually, too, the couple will become more forthcoming in what they contribute. Mom will be able to ask her daughters to pitch in for the family get together. Or they’ll offer before they’re asked. There will be a feeling of you do for us, we do for you. Parents will always remain the parents; you can rely on us a lot, but we will also rely on you somewhat. And that’s what will enable you, in turn, to keep relying on us!

Rivka laughs when she recalls the first time her sisters and sisters-in-law, all in their fifties and sixties, decided that extended family Chanukah parties were getting too difficult to arrange, and each family would branch off and make their own. When Rivka informed her daughters and daughters-in-law, her oldest daughter, who already in her thirties, exclaimed, “What? But the aunts are supposed to make the Chanukah party!”

“Honey,” laughed Rivka, “Now you guys are the aunts!”

Rivka smiles at the memory. “They did a great job. My husband and I were so proud of them. And you know what? They were even prouder of themselves.”

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 663)

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