It was great news. Their 27-year-old daughter was resigning from her high-pressure West Coast job and moving back to the Midwest. Or, at least, it was great news until she added, "I don't really have a job there yet, but I've got plenty of money saved and I figured I'd just move in with you for a few months until I find something."
Whoops. They thought they'd done just about everything they could to directly and indirectly tell their kids that Mom and Dad's "budget bed and breakfast" was permanently closed.
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The old four-bedroom house had been sold to a young family with lots of little ones. The garage sales had been held (it took two) to get rid of 20 years of accumulated stuff. Their new two-bedroom townhouse had enough space for them and, with various and sundry sofa beds and futons, an occasional visitor or three.
They had rented storage space nearby for all the extra furniture and miscellaneous items that somebody in the family was bound to need (especially if they got rid of any of it). They had even let all their now-adult children know that in a few more years even this extra space would go, so if there was anything of their own childhood treasures they still wanted, the items would have to be claimed by then.
It had all seemed to go so well. All three of the kids had approved of their downsizing and their plans to retire early and travel the country. Even the first Christmas had gone well -- their oldest son and his wife had hosted the get-together in their new home and there had been plenty of room for everybody.
Well, something obviously hadn't gone as well as they thought. So what was it they hadn't said or done to help their daughter understand that things had changed? And what were they supposed to do with all the guilt they'd feel if they told her that she needed to make other plans?
They really did love their kids, though considering their children were now 25, 27 and 31, they weren't really kids anymore.
And they adored their three grandchildren. And they'd certainly help out any of them if they needed it. But all three of their children were reasonably healthy, happy and financially secure (heck, their oldest made more than they did). So wasn't it time for them to take care of themselves? It sure seemed like it.
You know, families grow and develop just like people do. There are stages in our families' lives just like there are stages in our own lives. And one of the stages in family life involves the eventual acceptance that parents are no longer responsible for providing food and shelter for their now-adult children.
We're all used to hearing about the "empty nest" stage in family life, which begins when the kids have all left home. I guess here we're talking about the "no nest" stage, when the family home is often sold, or at least where everyone understands that you visit -- not go home to -- Mom and Dad.
Sometimes this is a difficult transition for families. Parents can feel guilty for not taking care of their children like they used to. Or they may simply not know what to do with all their newfound freedom and cling to their caretaker role rather than developing new interests or pursuits.
Children, on the other hand, may feel a bit discombobulated by their evolution into full-fledged adults. Being taken care of by Mom and Dad on occasion can be a lot more comfortable. Or, for that matter, adult children may not be all that confident in their ability to really take care of themselves.
For whatever reasons, many families wind up with dilemmas like the one above. They're not much fun.
There are some things we can do to help prevent such situations. First, we can talk about the changes in our families and use the idea of family growth and development as a way of framing what we're going through. We can talk about where our families have been and where we're going, and about what it feels like to go there.
Second, we can institute new family customs and traditions that don't involve going home to Mom and Dad's. Other family members can host holidays. Reunions can be held at a nearby hotel or resort. We can sleep at the motel down the street rather than in our parents' living room.
Finally, we have to confront any resistance to the changes in our families. For example, the couple we've been talking about needs to gently and lovingly, but also immediately and firmly, tell their daughter that moving in with them is not an option. It may be a difficult conversation, but it is better than allowing something that will eventually get everybody in the family upset.
Sooner or later, for all families, home simply can't be home any more.