By Evelyn Eng
I didn’t notice when it happened, but I had become my Asian parents. I struggled deeply with learning how to let go. Asian parents want their children to always remain children. I needed to teach my parents how to let me go and to learn how to serve them in their old age. At the same time, I had to try to let my children go.
I remember my dad leaving a message on my answering machine one evening. “Where are you? Why are you out so late? Call me back.” I recognized his voice and smiled when I played the message.
I wasn’t in high school, but newly married and living halfway across the country. Still I was the first and only one of the siblings to leave my hometown when I got married.
Needed by Children and Parents
Like many Asian mothers, my children were the center of my attention for many years. My mom stayed home our entire childhood and focused on her children. She inspired me to take time off to spend with my children.
After many years at home, the hardest thing had been preparing them to leave me and enter the real world without their overprotective mother. Looking back I can’t believe how I ignored my parents when my children were young. After I finished tucking them in, I had time to talk, but my parents were asleep. Living two time zones away made it difficult. So my calls were sporadic.
I remembered how my mother struggled when I reached young adulthood. And now my children had become young adults. I didn’t want to let them go. I wanted them to need me forever. About this time, my parents began to need me too. I didn’t realize I also needed to learn to let them go.
One day my dad called to ask my husband’s permission for me to come help him through his second round of chemotherapy. All my siblings were on business trips or unavailable.
“Of course, Dad, Evelyn would love to come help you.”
I can’t imagine how difficult it was for my father to ask us for help. As a war veteran, he was always so self-assured. He never needed anything from his children. In the hospital, I saw a frail, fearful man fighting the most significant battle of his lifetime.
Trying to Control
Just before leaving town, I prearranged my children’s rides—they were in high school, but they couldn’t drive yet. I called my children each day, trying not to micromanage all their activities.
Despite knowing they were growing up, I didn’t want to let them go. My parenting role models were my Asian parents. I realized as my kids grew older, this is how my parents felt. They wanted me to grow up the way they wanted, make choices they would make. Asians want their children to respect their heritage and believe that parents always know what’s best for their children, no matter how old. I wanted the same things from my children.
God reminded me how much I had struggled with parents not letting me grow up. I wrestled in similar ways but now as the parent. My kids wanted to discover who they were independent of my directives. I just wanted to keep them kids for a little longer—longer than they wanted anyway.
Leaving my children for Dad’s treatment helped me to see that I could not control my children. While I was gone, my daughter quit her basketball team. She hinted on the phone that she planned to drop out. I said, “Don’t make any decisions until I come back in two weeks.” But my husband let her leave the team, saying her heart just wasn’t in it. I wanted to keep her on the team for many good reasons, including to develop confidence and enjoy the camaraderie of a team. Yet hardest to admit, like many Asian moms, I wanted to control her. She was growing up and didn’t see things the same way I saw them. She needed to learn how to make decisions on her own and deal with the consequences. I needed to give her that freedom.
A few years later, I experienced the same tensions with my son as he went away to college. I missed him so much yet realized he did not appreciate my need to talk. I recalled how my father never found me home when I was newly married. Now I always called my son at a bad time—catching him in a study group, running to class, or going out to dinner with friends. I had to allow him his timing and initiative to call me.
My parents began needing me more often than my children. I could not deny them anything since they had always sacrificed for my siblings and me growing up. Would they allow us to serve them? My mother never learned to drive so couldn’t even get to the hospital by herself.
After Dad died, we needed to give Mom a lot of support. Culturally and generationally, she was part of the traditional full-time housewife and mother generation. Dad took care of the house and yard, driving, and the finances. Mom managed the home, cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. After Dad died, she lost her sense of purpose. She no longer had anyone to care for in her home but herself. We needed to give Mom a reason to live. Her children were adults, and her grandchildren were growing up.
It doesn’t matter what generation we’re a part of—letting go is for parents, grandparents, and children alike.
Learning to Let Go
With my parents, I switched from being the child to being the adult. At the same time, my children became young adults. I had to learn to let go on both ends of the family tree.
A few years later we watched Mom gradually slip away, leaving the stove burners on, leaving faucets running, and wandering off; the diagnosis was Alzheimer’s. We needed to be there for her to help her make decisions she could no longer make.
Although I wanted to care for Mom myself, living in another state would have forced a move to pull her away from all her other children and grandchildren. And it would be exhausting for me to not have any caregiving help, since the others lived so far away. I relinquished my desires to the majority rule of my siblings, knowing this was also my last opportunity to train my children before they launched out.
Mom would do better in a group home where they specialized in dementia care. God gave us one especially suited for her, run by Asians serving her native cuisine and speaking her mother tongue. They gave her the structured environment we couldn’t have given consistently among our busy schedules.
Releasing my parents was a process. They were getting older and more frail as they aged. I needed to ensure that my parents were cared for, but also acknowledge they were not immortal here on earth. This wasn’t their true home. God would promote them to Heaven for eternity.
It was time to let go of everyone—my aging parents and maturing children—entrusting them to God who loves them more than I ever could.
Evelyn Eng is a freelance writer in Florida.