October 21, 2020

When Parents Get Parented

Credit…Gabriel Hollington

A few weeks ago my mother observed me pouring my third cup of coffee before 9 a.m. “It’s really not good for you,” she said. “It’s not heroin, mother,” I shot back, without realizing my 7-year-old was listening. “What’s heroin?” she asked, which was not exactly the conversation I wanted to be having before I was extremely caffeinated.

But this is what life is like now, since we moved in with my parents in early May so that we could have child care. Let me first say that I am beyond grateful and privileged to have two parents in good health who are willing to take us in and help our children with distance learning. Many families miss their grandparents deeply right now, but cannot, because of pre-existing health conditions and concerns about air, bus and train travel, be with them.

For the most part, it’s working out pretty well for everybody. My parents are enjoying the additional closeness with their granddaughters, and my kids are happy to have caregivers who can give them more attention during the workday. My husband and I feel like we’ve been thrown a life preserver, because we were drowning trying to do it all ourselves.

Are there hiccups? Yes. Do we get on each other’s nerves? Every single day! Though there isn’t much data on how many people with young children have moved in with grandparents during the pandemic, anecdotally we have heard many stories about multigenerational living becoming more common in the United States, because of school closures and financial strain from mass unemployment.

It’s worth noting that in many cultures and countries, adults living with their parents is the norm, and almost 30 million Americans were living in households with three generations before the pandemic began. No matter how common it is, or why you’re doing it, living with your parents as an adult is “emotionally complex — everywhere and always,” said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Clark University and author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties.”

So I asked Dr. Arnett and Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., a psychologist in the Bay Area and the author of the forthcoming book, “Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict,” for advice on how to make multigenerational living a more comfortable experience for everyone.

Set ground rules. Ideally you should have a conversation before moving in with grandparents about cooking, cleaning and child care, so that you can determine who is doing what and when, Dr. Coleman said.

Many of those moves into parents’ homes were done hastily because of the pandemic, so you may not have been able to have the conversation in advance. That’s OK, Dr. Coleman said, as long as you have a discussion as soon as you can.

Expect conflicts, and deal with them quickly. “Ambivalence is the reality of family life,” Dr. Arnett said. “You shouldn’t feel guilty about having conflict, because it’s normal, and it can coexist with a lot of love and support, and usually does.”

If a conflict arises, try to discuss it as soon as possible, before it festers. You should approach the discussion “in an affectionate, respectful and low-key way,” Dr. Coleman said. A frequent example of a conflict between grandparents and their adult children is about how the grandchildren are being raised, he said.

For example, the grandparents may want to spoil their grandkids with unlimited screens or lots of treats. You can start the conversation by saying something like, “Look we’re super grateful, and we know you adore your grandchildren and they love you,” Dr. Coleman said, “but we have stricter ideas about screen time, is that OK?” and then explaining the changes you hope to see.

If it’s your in-laws, do not get involved. Let your spouse manage any conflicts that arise, Dr. Coleman said, because the parent-child relationship is much more resilient. The daughter-in-law or son-in-law should be “taken out of the line of fire,” he said.

Have empathy for each other. “What I found over and over again is it works best between parents and grown kids if they can see each other as adults,” Dr. Arnett said. Your parents may still think of you as the toddler who ate paste, and you may think of them as the annoying olds who didn’t understand you as a teenager. But if you can see each other, lovingly, as peers, that can go a long way.

An adult can decide how much coffee she needs in the morning, mom. And an adult also doesn’t need a snarky rejoinder when her mom is just concerned about the effect of so much caffeine on her daughter’s stomach lining. We’re all working on it. I love you.

Thank you to everyone who submitted their favorite books about race, protest and with black protagonists. We have your recommendations here.

P.S. Click here to read all NYT Parenting coverage on coronavirus. Follow us on Instagram @NYTParenting. Join us on Facebook. Find us on Twitter for the latest updates. Read last week’s newsletter, about anti-racist books for children.

P.P.S. Today’s One Thing comes from Heather and Mark Cassidy of Seattle who have kept their 4-year-old grandson entertained by letting him build obstacle courses in their yard with lawn chairs, random household objects and plastic storage bins. “The goal is to make it as complicated as possible,” they said.

Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.

My mom used to come watch my 2 1/2-year-old every week. We haven’t been able to see her in awhile, but she sent a “Grandma box” — basically a shoebox filled with trinkets and craft supplies she finds around the house, and when we miss her or need a pick-me-up, it becomes our treasure chest. — Jen Ruwisch, Fairfield, Conn.

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