The Umbilical Dilemma



Everyone of a certain age remembers “In Living Color” – the great 1990s weekly comedy TV show that helped launch the careers of the Wayans family – Kim, Shawn, Marlon, and Dwayne as well as Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, and David Alan Grier.


In one skit Jim Carrey plays a teenager who literally has not been disconnected from his mom. Yes, the umbilical cord still projected from his Hawaiian shirt at the belly button, and a 10 foot long, thick umbilical cord went from there up his Boomer Mamma’s skirt in permanent maternal control and sustenance.


Mom not only controlled her son’s movements, but regularly made him lose consciousness in response to his desire for independence by kinking the blood/oxygen flow with a simple bent squeeze of the cord. Clearly a guffaw-producing absurdity, but now, 20 years later, I see the deeper, darker metaphor this skit’s central sight gag embodies.


So many Boomers, mostly raised in the mostly benign neglect of our Greatest Generation Parents, felt compelled to Frankenstein our kinders’ resumes, pysches, interests, and schedules to create the Perfect Child. The results are kids who cannot cope unless the umbilical remains unkinked and flowing.


But once the spawn flee to the semi-independent realm of college, the new unending array of techno-tethers – texting, Facebook, Skype, phone calls, and the now super lame emails allow for missives 24/7. This link is as abiding as that umbilical cord prop – its manipulation as affecting and its presence as inhibiting of the natural order of things as Carrey’s Mom.


I am glad to have these links, but, increasingly I am beginning to sense that that level of unlimited info flow can retard the natural progression from post-fetus to post-graduate.


The problem is that the umbilical flows two ways – we parents are nourished by it as well, and feel as panicked and deflated as Jim Carrey felt when Mom crimped the cord when the connection is shut off by the inevitable truth: humans grow up to be independent entities.


The real issue is in our mutual expectations. The Boomer parent-child dynamic has both overburdened our maturing post-adolescent children with patterns of codependence that are unsustainable and has warped the inherently asymmetric relationship into a simulation of friendship between equals. Forget about parent-child: How often does anybody feel deep abiding friendship for anyone who is 25 or 35 years older or younger?


I am completely devoted to my children, they have been my wife’s and my prime directive for almost 25 years, but they are not just my friends, nor should they ever believe that we are just a hip older couple who groove on their “flow.” Not happenin’. Parents have to reserve the right to pull rank, be judgmental, and rain on any number of parades to prevent greater pains than the buzzkill of an asymmetric power-play.


The awkward hands-off mindset of my own parents’ incoherent approach meant I called them every few weeks while in college and less when out on my own. That lack of intimacy ultimately meant that I could be fairly together and “responsible” when they passed away.


As my generation weaves itself further into our children’s day-to-day and lag-bolts that umbilical connection into a permanent status, we create an impossible conundrum for our kids. When we die (oh, and by the way, that can’t be avoided) our children will not only lose the living history of intimate love that is a natural bond between parent and child; our children may also be confronted with the loss of their life concierge, career consultant, dietitian, rabbi, and sex adviser. Not good.


So as I pick up my phone and receive another text or email or call, I feel the familiar love, fear, and desire to viciously protect that is natural for any parent. But when those natural impulses are projected upon 20-somethings, it perpetuates a connection that Jim Carrey so rightfully and outrageously mocked – the freeze-framing of a relationship that by all natural order should be term-limited.


Growing up is a two way street – for kids, it’s a simple natural progression – for parents, it has to include ending our desire to freeze our relationship with our children at a time when they were, well, children. We cannot defy gravity, and we cannot pretend that our central role as humans – perpetuation of the species – does not have an end point before we reach our endpoint. Not easy, but natural.



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Duo Dickinson, architect, has designed and built over 500 projects in over a dozen states in the last 30 years. Dickinson sits on seven not-for-profit boards, including the New Haven Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, and Madison Cultural Arts.  Twenty to 30 percent of the ongoing work in his office is dedicated to pro bono or at-cost work for not-for-profits, totaling over 50 projects for over 30 organizations over the last 25 years. He is the architecture and urban design contributor to the New Haven Register and the contributing writer in design for New Haven Magazine, and has been contributing editor in home design for Money Magazine and co-host of 14-part CNN/Money website series “Home Work.” He is the author of seven books on home design, including his most recent book, Staying Put, which was published in 2011 by Taunton Press. Mr. Dickinson has taught at Yale College, Roger Williams University and the Harvard Graduate School of Design Summer Program, and has lectured at dozens of universities, AIA associations, and national conventions and gatherings.

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