“Can we ever get our parents to see us as adults?”

Not long ago, an acquaintance was rude to me. Staggeringly rude. Shockingly rude. Rude of epic proportions. It wasn’t pleasant, and the only silver lining I could find was that it made a great story. “Get out of here,” my neighbor said, “she said what?

My mother was less impressed. “Yvette,” she told me, in the same tone she used when I was five and wouldn’t clean my room. “Next time you see that woman, you just march right up to her and smile and say hello, and be pleasant to her—I’m sure she’ll be nice to you then.” My mother paused, expectantly, a bright smile on her face.

As long as I can remember, I’ve felt like a child around my motherMy mom was acting like she had solved all my problems, but I was fuming inside. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt like a child around my mother. When I drive her someplace, she tells me not to go too fast. If she’s over while I’m doing laundry, she’ll tut-tut that I don’t sort it right. When she visits while I’m cooking, she surreptitiously turns down the flame “so it doesn’t burn.” She’s even been known to offer me pocket money. It’s been twenty years since I was a teenager, but sometimes I feel that’s how I’m stuck with my parents: as someone who can try to do tasks on her own, but still needs her parents to help her navigate.

It’s not just me. When my husband first started practicing medicine, my mother-in-law seemed almost surprised to realize her son could perform surgery. (We all had a laugh about that one: “Quick, the patient needs surgery! Go get the grown-up doctor!”) And I once worked for an older, incredibly successful woman, who told me that whenever she went to the grocery store with her elderly mother, she would meekly fall in line behind her mom, letting her mother pay and take charge, just as she had when her daughter was tiny. My boss might have been a go-getter at work, but when she was with her mom, she reverted to little girl.

What is it with us? Most of my friends complain about feeling like a little kid around their parents at times. Why can’t we ever seem to do anything right in our parents’ eyes? And what can we do about it?

I began to get an answer to these vexing questions when I had children of my own. I’d heard from many people that time seems to speed up when you have kids, and it’s true: little children change so much each year, being caught up in their world does seem to make the days rocket past.

What I’ve found in the years since I’ve been a mother myself is that the image of my kids at various stages of their development never entirely fades away. My son might be a serious bookworm today, but sometimes I look at him and remember so clearly when he was a mischievous toddler, pulling books off the bookshelf and getting us thrown out of my favorite bookstore. My daughter might be a good artist today, but I can still picture her clearly, sitting in her high chair, holding a crayon in her chubby fist and scribbling on scratch paper.

It’s as if, whenever I look at my kids, I see not only them as they are now, but also them at every age before. And it can be so hard to keep the images straight. When he was a baby, my oldest son used to love the color purple. He was obsessed with it, so we gradually acquired purple plates, purple plastic cups, etc. Sometimes today I’ll still pull a purple dish out of the cabinet and ask him, “Do you want the purple one?” For a minute I’ll picture his delighted toddler face when confronted with anything purple, and it will take a moment for me to focus on his face today, his eyes rolling up to the ceiling, as he shakes his head and tells me, no, he doesn’t like purple any more. And then I realize I’ve done it: I’ve turned into the mother babying her child, offering childish delights years after the moment has passed.

Not so long ago, I explained it to a good friend this way. I love her young daughter, and I hope that one day, when her daughter is grown, she’ll tell me the details about her life. I picture her confiding in me one day her thoughts about graduate school, or careers, maybe asking my advice, or perhaps (G‑d willing) even knocking on our door one day to introduce her fiancé. But, I said to my friend, I will always remember so clearly, too, how her outfit of choice when she was young used to be a pink ballet tutu; how her mom would bring her to our house to eat cheese, because that was the only place she’d try it; how she used to walk in the door of our home and immediately announce, “I’m hungry,” whether it was morning, noon or night. When she does, please G‑d, tell me one day about all the exciting and wonderful things she’s doing with her life, I’ll be nodding and listening, but a part of me will also always be thinking of her in her little pink tights, munching on slices of American cheese.

Being a parent has made me realize that our own parents aren’t malicious or ill-intentionedBeing a parent, and being friends with other parents, has made me realize that our own parents aren’t malicious or ill-intentioned. They simply, like me, can never quite forget those earlier images of their children.

The only thing we can change, I think, is ourselves, and how we respond to our parents’ attitudes to us. At the very least, I have learned to laugh off some of the criticism I used to find so hurtful. At other times, remembering that my parents’ attitudes towards me are informed by love rather than disrespect has even allowed me to let go, and to embrace my parents’ advice and perspective (even if I take it through gritted teeth).

Maybe all those extra years of life experience do count for something. When my mom tells me to slow down in the car, I grimace and do it—after all, I tell my own kids to slow down sometimes, and I think I’m right; maybe my mother is too. And I guess I can still learn a few tips from my mom about cooking, seeing as she is a wonderful cook.

Finally—I’m half glad and half mortified to report—even my mother’s advice concerning that rude acquaintance turned out to be surprisingly effective. I did say hello to her with a smile (I couldn’t think of what else to do), and she was pretty pleasant in return.

Just as I’ve learned a few things over the years I’d like to teach to my children, I realize the same can be said for my own mother, too. The Torah teaches us to “honor your father and your mother.” One way to do this is to actually listen to what they have to say. In my own experience, that message is usually a lot more relevant and helpful than I expect. And, as I’ve learned over the years, it’s usually delivered with a large dash of love.