Back in the Nest


by Dr. Ferne Cherne

There's Lorna, living on half the income she expected after her husband of 30 years divorced her. Her grown son, pregnant wife, and toddler have moved in with her. Her income is barely sufficient, but now she eats her meals out to avoid the chaos at home. Neither of the young people was working when she opened her home to them. Now they are, but they still pay her nothing. Lorna expected at least to be comfortable after the divorce, but now she is not-either financially, emotionally, or socially.
Ray, retired, is sharing his home with his Generation X son who suddenly needs his father and a roof over his head.
There's the James family who fully enjoyed their empty nest until Michael, who has a full-time professional job, decided to move home so he could save his money for the BMW and other status trinkets on his list. He contributes nothing to household expenses either. Got to save that money.
These scenarios are not uncommon. Mature adults, looking forward to when they can focus on themselves, now find that their adult children have invaded the inner sanctum and turned their well-earned peace and quiet into an emotionally laden hell.
No one proposes that a parent turn away a child in need. Your daughter is recently divorced, has three little ones, and wants to be near you, so she moves in for six weeks until she gets a job. Your son just graduated from college but needs a resting place until he gets one. The scenarios that disturb us do not involve short-term interim situations, they involve adults who have stretched the childish "Gimme" past the limits.
What do you do when your children view you as a charitable organization? Take the easy way to cut their expenses while imposing you? Avoid adult responsibilities at your expense? Adult children are taking advantage of parents. These are children in adult bodies, adults acting like children. Turn back the clock ten years. When these adults were children, their parents probably provided for their every need while the children did little in return. The youngster got the car at 16, not because he earned it working at the market but because father gave it to him as a rite of passage. Children were rewarded merely for being, rather than for doing. Today's invaded parents had a hard time saying "no" yesterday, or last year, or any time in the last ten years. How do you learn to do it?

CHANGE THE RELATIONSHIP. The adult child has moved in, taken over, used and abused, based on a past relationship. He expects a parent willing to be manipulated, one who wavered and gave in. Today, the same parent must set limits clearly and firmly. The players must not be allowed to fall back into the old scripts. The key is to remember you are no longer dealing with a child but an adult, and you must communicate adult to adult.

COMMUNICATE YOUR EXPECTATIONS CLEARLY. You cannot send your grown-up daughter to her room, establish curfews, or ground her but you can make clear your expectations and limits.
Preferably you would do this before she returns home or as soon as she does. It will take more energy to do it later, but even then it can be done. Develop your own plan in detail before your sit-down communication session. What is your time limit? Six weeks, three months, six months? If your daughter gets a job, how should she contribute to household expenses? How will telephone calls, including long distance, and other utilities be handled? How much help do you want and what exactly will you expect her to do around the house? Agree on the use of your possessions, such as the second car.
Consider your emotional as well as financial needs. How much is your privacy worth? Insist on reasonable discipline of children. If the noisy play bothers you, sit in the park or go down to the local coffee shop. Be frank and work out an arrangement that both adults feel is fair.
Be as clear as possible. "I'll give you time to get settled and look for a job, but I'll want $200 towards room and board starting on June 1." Or "I expect you to reimburse me for all long-distance calls. I'll keep a tally until you receive your first check." Or "Fifty dollars a month should cover the increase in utilities."
Decide what happens if your son or daughter doesn't get a job. "You can stay here for six weeks, then you must contribute towards the expenses. If you don't have a job by then, you'll have to start rooming with your friends." Make it clear what the consequences are for not seeking employment. Don't expect your children to read your mind or understand what you want without your telling them. Your child may still think of himself as one who expects to be taken care of.
You may go so far as to put it in writing. You are making a pact, a contract with your adult child. The terms are up to you-it may be lenient because of hardship, but it should not be indulgent.

GUILT. The bond between parent and child is strong and emotional. When a child is young, sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing, to let him take the consequences for his behavior and become responsible for his actions. You must always do what you think is fair and just but must have the strength to stand by the limits you have agreed on. As you told yourself when your child was young, "It's for her own good," so you must remind yourself again. Encouraging long-term dependency does no one any good.
Offspring who have been successful at manipulation in the past will try the guilt trip. Remind yourself they are your descendants, not your dependents. If they are able-bodied, they must learn how to deal with challenges, to be flexible, to hustle, to live simply, and to plan for the rough spots. To bail them out continuously will only further develop a dependency that is not in their best self-interest. The easy way out will become the hard way when the stay at your place becomes longer and longer and longer. Stick to your plan.

KEEPING YOUR SANITY. When you are in this power struggle with your kids, you will need to develop a support system and resources for relief. Talk to your friends. They may have been through a similar situation and have helpful suggestions.
Keep or develop an exercise routine. Long walks will do much to calm your feelings. Develop new resources for solitude and sustenance. House too noisy? Go read a magazine in the library. Take the TV to your room. Set up some rules for quiet time. Get up an hour earlier before the noise begins.
Don't sit and seethe. Get on with your life. Develop activities that take your attention away from the situation.

USE CREATIVITY. For Lorna, the first example, a friend suggested that she put her house on the market. It was much too big anyway. She would realize enough to buy a smaller one, have some equity funds to enhance daily resources, and no longer have room for a family of nesters. Another couple bought a houseboat. No room for anyone else. Others totally scale back their living space and use the savings for travel.

THE FINAL WORD. You love your children, but they have no right to control your life. You are in command. You worked hard. You earned it. Be clear, concise, and firm, and you will help them through a crisis without becoming a victim. If communication does not bring the desired results, be creative. A corollary always seems to hold true-"If it doesn't work, try something else." If you want your life back, take it. Move 'em out!

About the author: Dr. Ferne Cherne works as a psychologist in Minnesota. Specializing in stress reduction, relationships, parenting, and other psychological topics, she has authored articles for numerous publications such as Chicago Tribune, Fifty Plus, Parents' Monthly, and New York Family.