Estranged Parents and Adult Children 2/3

The message “mend fences with your parents before they die” is time specific. It does not suggest bridging the gap when you want to and your therapist agrees you’re ready. It’s not based on a milestone in the adult child’s life like college graduation or the birth of their first child. It’s not even urgent for adults with younger, healthier parents. It is focused on end of life, illness and old age. 
Women are socially trained from birth to apologize, to be generous, to forgive, and to be deferential. Men are not. They are taught to blame their woes on outside forces or agents – luck, a crooked ref, or some woman.  A guilt laden appeal to emotion like “make it right before they die is far more likely to stir the heightened conscience of a woman than the dampened one of a man. 

Men do not generally engage in relationship maintenance work, like sending holiday cards, remembering birthdays and food allergies, bringing casseroles around to friends with new babies and new bereavements, and listening to the struggles of their loved ones. Men partnered with women usually delegate that work, and single men end up very lonely in old age whether divorced or widowers. 

Between teaching men that nothing is their fault and allowing them to shirk interpersonal responsibilities, this culture does not prepare men to repair broken relationships. Because of lifelong social messaging and assigned gender roles, women and femmes will be far more likely to respond to these messages as intended: to stop rocking the boat, kiss and makeup, and devote countless thankless unpaid hours to caring for that parent. 

In the United States the majority of unpaid caretaking of relatives of any age falls to women. It’s somehow expected that a woman will care for her aging parents, and also her husband’s. In combination with social norms which punish women for not appearing nurturing and generous, and the expectation women will provide quality intimate home health care, this appeal for reconciliation between estranged children and parents resembles a recruitment ad for unpaid caretaking. 

From this perspective, cultural messages urging adult children to make nice seem very one-sided, and sexist in outcome. Whether confession, forgiveness, or nursing care, I can easily understand what an aging parent might gain from reconciliation. What is not so clear is any benefit to the child, beyond avoiding foretold regret for not repairing a broken relationship. And “repair” often simply means accepting that parent how they are. 

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