Stuck in the Middle

03/26/2017 10:03 pm ET

Making Space between Aging Parents and Millenial Children

The US Census has confirmed the growing trend of multi-generational living in our country. Increasing numbers of households include two or more adult generations due to financial necessity (our aging parents are living longer, and our millennial children are laden with debt) as well as our cultural melting pot filled with immigrants who have traditionally lived this way. And then there are those of us in a grey area, where the reasons aren’t as easily defined. It’s somewhat financial and somewhat cultural, and it’s not all the time. But it’s enough to provide a point of view from the tricky middle.

My husband and I were fortunate enough to build a summer home, and when we did, we made sure to include a first floor guest suite for my husband’s elderly parents. It’s spacious (it will be ours someday when stairs become impossible.) However, things didn’t work out as we’d envisioned. Not long after completion, my mother-in-law passed away and staying with us for extended periods is an abdication of independence that my bereaved 89-year-old father-in-law is not ready to make. He comes and goes, enjoying our company, but needing to return to his own home, and the quiet memories of his wife. The result is I never really know when he might arrive nor how long he’ll stay (although I always send him on his way with a few prepared meals.)

In that way, he isn’t much different than our three millennial children, two of whom are still in college. My refrigerator is either over-stocked waiting for visitors or painfully unprepared when we happily welcome them home on the spur of the moment. At its best, our house is home to an 80 + year old, two 50 + year olds, and a crew of 20+ year olds all mixed together in a joyful, spirited mélange. We are three adult generations preparing the meals, doing the dishes, and congregating around the table to discuss and debate the world we find ourselves in. The range of opinions and perspective makes the conversation loud and lively. The challenge, however, is to keep that scene appealing, and not a dysfunctional Thanksgiving on repeat.

Each generation is too old to be bossed around, and yet my husband and I, the ones in the middle assume authority. Doesn’t that go along, after all, with being the hosts of the party? Although we might enjoy the full house and our magnanimity, we’ve learned the importance of getting out of the way. We’ve learned to take breaks, either physically or in attitude, to get out of the middle.

My father-in-law likes to ask his grandchildren for help. And in return, it’s the perfect opportunity for their empathetic selves to grow. When my husband and I step aside, beautiful moments happen. Grandchildren and grandparents have fleeting time together as full-fledged adults and our occasional absence gives them the space to enjoy it. Their politics are sometimes more aligned; and their tolerance for hearing new ideas from each other is higher. They are more forgiving with each other. Don’t ask how I know, but I’m sure the amount of eye rolling goes way down.

Jeanne’s novel, EDEN, features a family matriarch who introduces the daughter she gave up for adoption fifty years earlier to her children and grandchildren. The story echoes past generations and foretells future ones who all live together in a summer home named “Eden.”

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