According to recent academic research, depending on your parents for life’s necessities past the time when you were expected to provide them for yourselves isn’t as soul-destroying as it might have felt to them when they were your age. In fact, it’s brought you closer — a lot closer.
I’m not quarreling with the data. I’m more interested in how your folks really feel about this new life stage — Permanent Parenthood — getting sandwiched in there between middle and old age. Whether or not it’s actually a sandwich, when they’re caught between caring for their elderly parents and helping you out they may not be enjoying it quite as much as they tell researchers they are. Like many post-parents, when it comes to their grown kids, they either lie or brag, and sometimes they do both.
Some are pleased by the extension of their parental roles. They like their kids as much as they love them. They enjoy being included in their lives, are pleased with the almost-but-not-quite mutuality that, for the most part, has replaced the old power imbalance. They know it’s tough out there for a 20-something, and they offer whatever help they can. In the best of all possible worlds, their kids like, respect, love (and maybe eventually pay) them back, don’t get pissed off when Dad forgets they’re adults and don’t have to account for their whereabouts or Mom channels her own mother at her harpy-est. And most of the time, they’re actually pleasant to have around the house.
Other post-parents are not as sanguine. They love their kids too, and they may even like them, but they aren’t ready to extend middle age till it runs right up to the door of assisted living, and frankly, they’re tired of thinking about the kids first and themselves second.
Even if their kids aren’t living with them, they still need help; 62 percent of parents contribute an average of $7,500 annually to their grown kids, according to a recent University of Michigan study, and 22 percent subsidize them in other ways, from paying their rent to their credit card bills. And while even those who protest Obamacare the loudest approve the provision requiring insurance companies to keep young adults on their parents’ health insurance, the parents who are approaching Medicare age wonder if they’ll have to keep their expensive policies to cover the kids even after they turn 65.
“It’s not just the financial drain I resent,” says the mother of a 28-year-old whose salary barely meets her expenses. “It’s being so involved in her life — she tells me everything, which isn’t the blessing it sounds like; the way she lives, her relationships, her moods, it’s all so chaotic. I can’t tell anyone except my shrink — it sounds so unnatural. But you know, my husband and I raised three kids. They’re all in their 20’s, and we’re tired. We just want to move to Mexico and talk to them on the phone once a week, the way we did with our parents.”
The upside of delayed launching, suggests Katherine Newman, author of “The Accordion Family,” is that we retain the pleasures of being an active parent, but lose the downside. The relationship with our grown kids becomes more egalitarian and less vertical. And it helps the inevitable friction between us that sociologically, if not chronologically, we are younger than past generations.
But in truth, how we feel about our extended parental obligations — emotional, financial, and logistical — depends on how well we feel we parented them, and whether or not we think they’re essentially okay, even if they’re not where we or they thought they’d be by now.