Ann Sentilles has an interesting post on her blog, The Third Third, about the phenomenon of adult children moving back in with their parents, due to the tough economy. She's writing off a New York Times story, saying it that piece "should, probably make us all stop and think about what we're willing to do under the aegis of 'family' and what's healthy and what's not." See Caught in the Safety Net for the NYT story. Go to the blog section of The Third Third to see what Ann and her readers have to say on the subject.
Come to think of it, I was one of those bratty returnees who lived with (or off) my parents for a period of about six months, long ago. Yes, they provided a safety net, and I would never deny how grateful I was for their support. But, in my case, those few months reflected the most compassionate parenting they ever provided to either me or my brother since our birth, and luckily for me, they did it when I really, really needed it.
The week of my 30th birthday, I arrived at my parents’ home dangerously thin, battered and bruised, carrying my 20-month-old son. It wasn’t my choice to move back in with them, but I had run from a dangerous situation, had no money and no other choices. Believe me, I had already surveyed friends with spare rooms, and no one was willing to take us in. That’s what parents are for, they said.
It wasn’t easy for me to ask for help, since I had fled their home when I was 17 and married – against all their good advice – at 19. Now, here I was knocking on their door.
At first, living with my folks was like being on a very low-budget vacation. The two of them scurried around trying to make the baby and me comfortable. They let me sleep. They bought a stroller. They showed us around the town they had just moved to, and introduced me to some of their friends. My dad built a sandbox in the back yard. My mother talked about quitting her job, so she could “help with the baby.”
Mostly, I remember feeling somewhat horrified, like I had moved into an assistant living center and my parents were recreation directors. Thinking back, I realize they both were in their late 50s, and still very much in the workforce. At 30, you don't know much.
For the first few months, my mom and dad provided a room, food and disposable diapers with the understanding that, as soon as I had income, I would pay for my own stuff and chip into the general fund. Until then, I offered to cook and clean, do laundry, run errands, take them to and pick them up from work, and do anything else they needed. I expected them to be happy with that. They weren’t. They let me do the errands and driving, but they didn’t like my cleaning technique or the (organic) food I cooked. So, I just kept out of their hair.
Soon after my boy and I got there, I went into high gear, knowing our days at their home were numbered. Got a haircut, driver’s license, library card, babysitter, promise of a job, all in the first 6-8 weeks. After that, we left for three months so I could finish graduate school with some money I borrowed from my dad (and paid back as soon as I began teaching the next fall). The baby and I shared a dorm room and ate in the dining hall, while I studied and worked on my master’s thesis. Then, it was back to the folks’ and the start of a full-time teaching job.
A little over three months into that job, my mother announced it was time for us to leave. She told me this around Christmas, setting February 1 as our drop-dead moving date. I was shocked, but understood their need to regain control over their living space. Not that we were really hard on it. I had borrowed an old car from a friend, took the baby to a babysitter every day (even though my mother had quit her job to help), and made monthly contributions of almost half my paycheck to the food/shelter fund. I thought we were leaving a pretty light footprint, but I guess not. They needed their space. It was understandable.
Until she died last year, my mother told the story over and over again about how she “almost raised” my son. After all, he lived in their house when he was a baby!
That’s not how I remember it, but, hey, whatever floats your boat. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
When I was little, I remember wondering why our family wasn't anything like the Nelsons, or other folks on television sit-coms. (My brother recently told me he asked the same question, so I guess I wasn't imagining things.)
My mother never wore an apron or greeted us with a smile when walked into the kitchen for breakfast. Au contraire!
We didn't go on picnics or play ball with Dad on Saturday afternoon. What was wrong with us?
Well, plenty, but nothing I was going to understand at age 10, 20 or even 30.
I just read Ann Patchett's novel Run, and in it, she cleared up much of my confusion. You know a novel is great when it helps you weave together disparate themes running through your life, then tie them into something that makes sense. Run gave me just that type of epiphany, or Ah-Ha! moment.
The novel covers roughly two days in the life of a contemporary Boston family that has never quite recovered from losing the wife/mother to cancer, 20 years earlier. The three sons -- two adopted -- are all bright, but involved in lives their father doesn't understand and can't quite condone. He's a former mayor of Boston, who fully expected at least one of his children to follow his path into public service. To his dismay, not one of them is even slightly interested in politics.
A traffic accident changes everything, and the individual parts of this family are parsed, turned upside down, and reconnected.
All in all, the family comes out stronger than it ever was. I won't go into the details because that would ruin the fine, uplifting story for those who want to read the book, which I'd highly recommend.
What I took away from Run is this: Sometimes bad luck brings a good outcome, but you have to be alert to notice, and you must be open to change.
It says, if you're very, very lucky, you might get that big, warm family you always wanted and never thought you'd find. Maybe not forever, but at some point in your life. Warning: your ideal family might not look exactly like you expected.
Since my boy was raised as an only child in a single parent home, he longed for a brother. An older brother. It tore my heart out when he begged and pleaded, as only an 8-year-old can, for someone to play ball with, someone to look up to and learn from. With the straightest face I could muster, I told him it would be hard, but I'd try to find one for him.
Twenty-two years later, I came through with the goods. He and John, my new husband's oldest son, bonded almost instantly and, to this day, call each other brother. Who knew?
That should have been the first sign that luck was about to come my way, but I wasn't paying attention. It took years for me to notice that new lines of connection develop with each change in a family.
Each death ended one relationship and changed many others. Each divorce reconfigured family alliances. Some estrangements, although painful, ended up being benefits, in the long run.
Today, I'm very fortunate to have a larger, warmer, stronger family than I ever dared to dream of.
Since I grew up in a conventional, two-parent, two-kid household, at a time when traditional lines were all that counted, I never expected divorce to come my way, especially twice. Nor did I expect to remarry, especially not the last time, at 58.
Today, not only have I gained three wonderful new children -- thank you Dave and two of his former wives! -- but also their spouses and children, not to mention two additional siblings, one with a spouse and four grown children.
On my side of the family, my son's in-laws are important to us, although they live in Germany. We've visited, they've visited; we write, they write. It's great.
My son also has a delightful half brother who's important to all of us. As far as we're concerned, there's no "half" in the relationship.
In 2003,within a six month period, I remarried, my former husband died and our son got married in Germany. Which brings me to my first husband's third wife. Although she and I had not met before my son's wedding, the two of us took that happy day to form a unique and important bond, one that helped both of us move ahead in our lives.
When I think of my family, as I did during the dreaded birthday week, these are the people I think of. These are the folks who count. And, none of these relationships would have been possible -- for me, at least -- without the reconfiguration of alliances that came with those accidents of life that take people away, or change the way they participate in the lives of others.
Once, survivors felt obligated to strictly maintain the family boundaries, long after the death of one of its members. That’s no longer the case.
And, In high school health class, we learned that divorce always "broke" families, right? Many of us found that to be untrue, through experience.
Once we got out on our own and built our own lives, we learned the hard way that blood is not the only family cement. In fact, sometimes the weakest links are those that follow bloodlines.
Contrary to the old adage, you CAN pick and choose your relatives, and that's a good thing.
Our generation has tossed the concept of family on its head. We experienced divorce and remarriage on a scale unimaginable to earlier generations. We embraced the value of same-sex relationships, and single-parent adoptions. The choices we made over the last 30 years changed the very face of the family, maybe forever.
As a result, many of us have spread our wings to take advantage of what life has brought us in the form of children-not-our-own, new grandchildren, new siblings, new "relatives" with no particular familial designation.
Those who make our lives richer for being there are the most important people in our family, and that's one of the messages of Run.