As Mother's Day nears, what more touching message could we hear than this one from author Abigail Tucker via an e-newsletter from NYTimes staff editor, Sarah Wildman.
As Mother's Day nears, what more touching message could we hear than this one from author Abigail Tucker via an e-newsletter from NYTimes staff editor, Sarah Wildman.
We've all been there--gotten annoyed at our grown children. Maybe it was for not returning our text promptly, or forgetting their sister's birthday, or taking time off when they should have been buckling down at work. Or just plain not doing things the way we have always done them. Whatever. However much we love them, we can also be angry at them and hurt and disappointed.
What to do about it? One answer is to lower expectations. In a column, Carolyn Hax answers a reader whose son never drives the two hours to visit his mom and dad for major holidays (he goes to his in-laws who live nearby). He refuses to come to his father's yearly family reunion ("too far in advance to commit") or to her mom's 90th birthday party ("not enough notice"). The reader is angry, hurt and depressed about his stand-offishness.
Here's the essence of Hax's silver bullet:
Adjust your plans to reflect reality. Expect delayed replies, holidays without your son, occasional daunting travel.
Learn to recognize that what we get from people, over time, represents pretty accurately what they’re willing to give.
Enjoy what they give you, period. Stare down disappointment with gratitude.
Acceptance — be it of mildly annoying unanswered texts or of heartbreaking distance — can feel like the breaking point of a relationship. Often, though, it’s the beginning of a better one.
Why? Because it is just not human nature to rush to see people who only complain or make sad eyes at us for not responding enough or visiting enough or caring enough or giving enough. Quite the contrary; we tend to pull away harder.
So if you miss your son, then lay off wanting more of him. ...Whether this creates new connections or improves your problematic old ones, it’s a win either way.
Who says we're stuck in the old ways of doing things? Our roles as grandparents have been keeping step with the times. There's a study with lots of data to show how we've shifted the way we help our grown children and the impact that's had on our grandkids.
Teresa Cooney, who analyzed data from a parent survey, compared parental support for their adult children in the 1980s-90s to more recent times. Thirty or 40 years ago parents were more likely to help out married children as opposed to adult children who lived with their partners without being married or were single parents. What that says is that, along with the culture, we've become more accepting of the many configurations that make up our notions of what a family is.
If we're tilting our resources towards our adult children who are single parents it's not surprising. They tend to have fewer resources than married‐couple families. At the same time, we tend to have more resources--not just the financial means but the time to help out; that is, to make our presence a positive factor in our children's and grandchildren's lives.
Here's Cooney's bottom line:
Grandparental support appears responsive to the needs of their adult children. Nontraditional families no longer receive less extended‐family support. Grandparents today appear to play an important support role for their children's families.
Can't put a price on the return on that investment.
painting: William Chase, A Friendly Visit
For years one of my granddaughters and I had a favorite game: I would be the "doctor," her stuffed animals the patients. One by one she would bring them to me, tell me what was wrong with them and assist while I treated them for, say, a broken leg or a tummy ache. I loved the game. Not only was it precious time together, but I hoped to gain insight via stuffed-animal aches and pains into the little things she worried about as she grew from toddler to pre-schooler to a kindergartner. I'm not sure we ever reached the insight stage, but we had our little game and we loved playing it together.
One of the many advantages of being a Nana or PopPop is that we are free to play with our grandkids, often to the exclusion of the things we had to do as parents--overseeing their homework, driving them to soccer practice or imposing discipline. While play is responsibility-free, there's more to it than that, according to this article in Grand, an online magazine. We're enhancing our grandchildren's lives as well as our own plus we're forced to keep ourselves current.
Here's author Judith Van Hoorn's take on that:
Another characteristic of play is the age difference between the players. When we think of preschoolers, school-aged children, or teenagers playing, we often imagine them playing with friends their age. The most common exception is playing within families where we see people of different ages playing together. And, with grandparent and grandchild play, the age difference is usually the greatest.
What might that mean for grandparents in terms of what we play and how we play? To begin with, we have to adapt our play styles to one another. For example, we need to update our repertoire of songs, stories, books, and movie plotlines, and definitely update the names of popular superheroes and princesses.
Here's looking at you WandaVision.
In answer to a reader's complaint that her daughter won't take her phone calls, discourages her from visiting (even though she's now vaccinated) and otherwise is putting a lot of distance between mother and daughter, Carolyn Hax addressed the estrangement issue. The thrust of her advice for mending a rift, be it between mother and daughter or any other meaningful relationship, is to become a good listener.
If I start listing reasons grown children estrange themselves from their parents, I’ll still be typing when the next pandemic hits.
What matters is that you become a better listener, stat: “You’ve been saying no [to phone calls and visits], and I’ve been so caught up in changing your mind that I forgot to listen. I’m sorry. I will take no for an answer and stop pushing. I’m here when you’re ready. And, if I haven’t said so already or enough, thank you for being so good about putting the kids on FaceTime with us.”
This might leave you feeling resentful, as if you’re the one doing all the sacrificing here. That’s a common complaint when I recommend a full retreat — but it’s also a trap. It tempts you into looking for fairness when fairness doesn’t apply; reality is in control. And reality says you can’t make your daughter do anything (in fact, it’s probably tired of repeating itself), whether fairness demands it or not. You can work only on your side of the problem.
So, you offer her respect, space, grace — and give yourself the best chance of mending the breach.
painting: Rebecca Lemov
The headlines have been reassuring: "Grandparents are getting to hug their grandkids for the first time after getting vaccinated."
Well, that's fine for grandparents who live near their grandkids or within driving distance. Those of us who have to fly--well, that's another story. In the best of all possible worlds, we should hold off on airplane travel unless it's absolutely necessary. Does a hug qualify? Our public health gurus tell us, Don't do it unless you must, even if you're fully vaccinated. Maybe by summer when even more people are vaccinated (and a fourth wave either doesn't rise or is under control) it might be safer to go.
We're making plans to see both our grown kids and their kids later this spring and again this summer. We'll fly, as we did last fall. This article spells out what we can expect if we take to the air. Here's what I learned from it and from others:
It will be more crowded and busier than it was in September 2020 when we took our "see the kids" trip. Planes will be fuller. Delta is still blocking middle seats but that's only through April and may change for May and beyond. Other airlines are filling all seats on their flights. So we may be sitting cheek-and-jowl again. Here we go, back to normal but in way that we wish would be back better. word.
Airlines required (but didn't enforce) masks when we flew in the fall. The current Transportation Security Administration has mandated masks at airports and on airplanes through May 11; airlines have become stricter about enforcing their own mask-up rules. A T.S.A. spokesperson said it was too soon to say what will happen after the May date but given airline mask requirements, the rise of a fourth wave and the variants that are around, face coverings are likely to be required for the seeable future. Given concerns about that fourth surge and President Biden's plea to wear masks, we''ll probably double mask while traveling. Just to be sure.
At the height of the pandemic, most airlines stopped food and drink service. They may start again--at least with beverages and snacks. What happens to our masks when and if the airlines roll those drink carts down the aisles? Can't eat or sip a soda with a mask on, so what do we do if we're thirsty or hungry? We may have to mask between bites.
Most food concessions remain closed at many airports--though that may loosen up as vaccination totals climb. When we flew in September, there were one or two concessions available to buy food. We ate our lunch while we waited to board the plane. The airport was eerily empty so we had plenty of space to ourselves. If more passengers show up at airports, concessions may begin to reopen and socially distanced space may be harder to find.
When we get to our destination there's the question of whether, even though we're vaccinated, we can carry and spread the virus to our loved ones. The research so far is unclear, though it leans toward non-spread. Some of us may luck out in that our grown children may be vaccinated by the time we travel--and therefore immune from anything we pick up during our travels. Our New York State kids already have appointments for jabs. If we put off our trip till their second shots take root, we can visit with them in their home with fewer precautions--and more hugs.
painting: Renoir, Oarsmen at Chatou
With the possible exception of newborns, I can't think of an age group that hasn't suffered terribly during the pandemic. Certainly, school-age and college-age children have had their worlds turned upside down; many are struggling with mental health issues from social isolation and screen-learning difficulties. Young adults may have lost a year of finding a career and an independent lifestyle. Older adult children may have had their careers curtailed, their job safety undone, their incomes lost.
Our generation is at the further end of the generational arc. Many of us are retirees or older parents who may still be working but whose careers are no longer on the mega-growth path. Overall, we seem to be doing better than our grown kids and grandkids. We were starting to slow down anyway; the pandemic accelerated that trendline. So long as income hasn't been an issue, we've suffered mainly from isolation and the inability to hug our grandkids or enjoy the pleasure of having an adult child drop by for an in-person visit.
I'm not the only one to think our generation has been luckier than others in this pandemic. Surveys over the last year show that, despite being at higher risk of contracting Covid and suffering severe complications, we've managed to stay relatively happier than younger generations.
Why is that? Here's what researchers at Stanford University's Center on Longevity, who surveyed some 1,000 adults, aged 18 to 76, reported:
Age was associated with relatively greater emotional well-being both when analyses did and did not control for perceived risk and other covariates. The present findings extend previous research about age and emotion by demonstrating that older adults’ relatively better emotional well-being persists even in the face of prolonged stress.
Their investigation of daily life amid the outbreak, found,
Older age was associated with less concern about the threat of Covid-19, better emotional well-being, and more daily positive events.
There's more than curiosity associated with the findings of this research. It has policy implications. As Susan Charles, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, told the New York Times,
“I think the older generation now, as much as it’s been threatened by Covid, they’re beginning to say, ‘My life is not nearly as disrupted as my children’s or grandchildren’s,' and that is where our focus on mental well-being should now turn.”
There comes a time when the kids are grown and the house we raised them in is too big, too much to maintain, a burden to carry or a source of little and big repair bills. The roof might need replacing. The driveway is cratering. The washer and dryer are aging out. Or all of the above.
We were ready to sell the home we lived in for 43 years and move to something easier. Plus, we wanted to try an urban lifestyle.
We were ready to move out and on, but were our children? They have been living far from us with families and homes of their own. So why would we even think they mattered in our decision to sell.
We checked in with them anyway. The house was where they grew up--their story of origin. Even as they became independent and moved to other parts of the country and world, the house was there as a refuge--a safety net. When they married and started families, they brought their children to the house to show them where they grew up, what their life was like when they were young. They took pleasure in showing them a secret passageway between rooms, the hill on the driveway where they practiced kicking a soccer ball. It wasn't just our children who were attached to the house. One of our grandchildren spent enough time visiting us there that she became friendly with the girls across the street and knew every dog that lived nearby.
It would have taken an emotionally persuasive argument for our children to change our minds about selling the family manse. They had no desire to do so. They were behind the move. But a day before we closed on the sale, they both flew home--without spouses or children--to say goodbye to the house and the neighborhood and to reminisce about the riches of the family life we had known there.
This visit happened nearly five years ago, but the memory of it came flooding back as I was reading Claire Tomalin's "brisk and sparkling" biography of Jane Austen. Tomalin wrote about the effect on the Austen children (all of them adults) of their parents' decision to leave Steventon, the home where Jane and her brothers and sisters were born and raised. (Jane and her older sister, Cassandra, still lived with their parents.)
Jane was greatly distressed [by the news.]....[A niece] was told her Aunt Jane fainted. The whole thing was a shock, and a painful one.
All the Austen children were affected by it. The fact that every one of them who was absent and could possibly return to Steventon--[four of Jane's brothers]--made a point of doing so before their parents left--"while Steventon is ours,' as Jane put it--suggests how much they felt it as the closing of a door on their childhood and the end of a way of life."
painting: Edward Hopper
Philip Galanes of Social Qs recently tackled a query by a worried grandma. Her 6-year-old grandchild was struggling at school and having temper tantrums. "His parents and teacher are working hard with him," she wrote but the writer's son was giving his son's teacher monthly cash gifts. Grandma asked Galanes, "Is this right?"
Galanes made short shrift of the gift-giving. Since most school districts have rules about gifts to teachers, "Let's assume...that your grandson's teacher and parents know the rules in their district."
His more telling piece of advice applies to all of us who are tempted to intervene in the way our adult children parent their children:
"Rules are important. But no one asked for your advice here."
Keep up your own interests. That's one of my Notes to Self (see list to the right). My point when I added it to My Notes was--and still is--that the more we continue to pursue our interests (apart from our children's lives) the livelier our conversations with our grown children and our grandchildren will be. We won't be hounding them with deadly questions like "What's new?" We'll have something to bring to the table and talk about. The energy we get from actively pursuing a job, project or Zoom lecture will freshen up both us and our interactions.
I was reminded of this by Kathy Gottberg. In a blog post she took note of a book, A Brief Eternity—The Philosophy of Longevity by Pascal Bruckner, an author who has written a ton of books critiquing society and culture. Deep stuff. Gottberg admits the book is a tough slog that wades its way through deeply philosophical waters. To save us the work of wading, she sums up what she gleaned from the book. As I read her post, I was reminded of my Note to Self and how what Bruckner via Gottberg has to tell us about this stage in our lives is ever-relevant.
Here's an excerpt from Gottberg's post:
If I had to boil down this complex study into a short paragraph I would ask: Now that we typically live longer and have been given an extension to our lives, what do we want to do with it? Calling this extra time an “Indian Summer,” Bruckner claims that all the great questions of the human condition appear in the years after we turn 50 including:
- Is it more important to us to live a long time or more intensely?
- Do we carry on as we have always done or try new things and follow new paths?
- Do we find new love? Leave old ones? Start new careers?
- How do we move beyond great joys and great pains—and keep going?
- How can we avoid the weariness of living, the melancholy of the twilight years?
- What is the strength that keeps us going despite bitterness and excess?
Buckner offers insights found in the form of literature, philosophy, the arts as well as his own observations. Peppered throughout the text are lines that illustrate his ideas and offer insights that kept me reading. For example he asks: “What reasons can we give for living fifty, sixty or seventy years? Exactly the same ones we give for living to twenty, thirty or forty. Existence remains delicious to those who cherish it, odious to those who curse.”
In another place he says, “What remains to be done when we think we’ve seen everything, experienced everything? Constantly beginning over…Life goes on: that frightfully simple sentence is perhaps the secret of a happy longevity.” And another statement dear to my heart, “We are always living on a trial basis; existence is above all an experiment.”
painting: Two Women, Degas
In Lisa Carpenters book, she has an important reminder for us all: Each of us is unique and we bring different gifts to our grandchild and to our grandmothering role. Here's how Lisa puts it:
Grandmothers cannot be pigeonholed. Every grandmother is a unique blend of intentions, interests, beliefs, behaviors, skills and stories. The only commonality: They love their grandchildren.
Realizing that no grandmother fits the stereotype assured me that I did, indeed, have what it takes to be a grandma. I just needed to be true to myself and define the role on own terms, in my own way.
No matter how difficult it may be for us to host our grown children in our once-empty nests--and the pandemic has increased the number of us in that position--let's have a little compassion for them. Their childhood home may be physically comfortable, they may be well-fed and free of financial burdens, but psychically it's a downer.
“There’s a sense that ‘going back’ should not be happening.” They were on a trajectory toward living their lives in “a broader context.” This means constructing identities that are “independent from their families, schools and neighborhoods of their childhood.”
With the pandemic, those trajectories suddenly shifted to reverse for many young people. If they’re also feeling a sense of failure related to job loss, these emerging adults might experience a “feeling of betweenness.” That is, “They’re connected to their parents, yet they’re trying to be independent.” This can be very difficult to accomplish when you’re all under the same roof.
As one young woman told a Washington Post reporter, “The situation is full of stress, even when you’re the most fortunate person in the world. ” The biggest challenge “is just the fact that they are my parents. They are always going to be parenting, no matter how old I am.”
This is a reflection of the social and familial challenges the pandemic has unleashed, with 52 percent of young adults now living with their parents. This is the highest percentage since the end of the Great Depression.
Until we're all vaccinated and the economy has picked back up, our adult kids may be under our roof a while longer. Can we make it easier on and for them? A little. In addition to establishing house rules and personal routines with the boundaries that brings, it helps to give each other alone time--physical space where we and they can breathe without interruption or oversight. It's back to hands-off parenting, of being barely seen and practically unheard.
painting: Renoir, Madame et ses enfants
I got a shot today. My state tells me I am of an age where I qualify for the Covid vaccine. My husband I--both recovered Covid patients--had hoped to go together for shots. We signed onto various pre-register websites, but it became increasingly challenging (that us, impossible) for us to find and make reservations for shots at the same time and place--no less for even one of us to get a shot. Yesterday, I received an "invitation" from one of the lists to make a vaccine reservation for the next day. My husband, on the same list, did not get an invite. Go figure. Since the vaccine site was only 2 miles from our home, I decided to accept the invite and continue working on an invite for him, somewhere, somehow.
Some friends of ours have managed the "together" feat (see this post ) even though it's meant driving an hour or two each way. The appointments came courtesy of a technological lift from their grown children. What I saw happening with a handful of friends turns out to be a nationwide phenomenon. Adult children, who are more nimble than their parents with their phones, laptops and iPads, are finding places and times for mom and dad to get immunized.
How universal is this phenomenon? One New York resident reported to the Washington Post, "My group texts have really shifted from swapping horror stories about managing kids in virtual learning to getting vaccination appointments for our parents."
I consider myself moderately adept on the Internet--I use my desk and laptop computers for writing, editing, researching and communicating. I use my smartphone and iPad to zoom into courses and meetings; I can even set up a short meeting. But when I read about the manipulation of multiple devices that the younger generation executes in their search for parental vaccine shots, I realize I am way below novice grade.
Here's what one daughter did to secure shots for her parents: She learned a supermarket in her parents' county was going to schedule 1,500 vaccinations and would open its website for appointments at 6 in the morning. At 5:55 she had the website open on her laptop and "fired up a second page, this one in incognito mode. Then she pulled up two more browsers on her phone. 'I'm using my thumb on my phone and flipping between pages, and clicking through on the computer.' "
She lost me at "incognito mode."
Another recent report took note of how a lack of access to computers and smartphones is shutting out many seniors who are eligible for shots. The main way to book an appointment is by the Internet. There is a phone number to call but good luck getting through. That makes older parent totally dependent on their adult children to help them out.
There has long been a technological gap between generations-- oil lamps to electric lights; radio to television. (For a fun look at adjustments to new technologies, see Doonesbury on bringing Joanie, Zonk and others into a zoom room.) It's just that in the pandemic world, the stakes are too high not acknowledge our Internet illiteracy. If we have to tap into our kids or grandkids to bridge that gap, we are lucky we have them and they are there for us.
My sample may be small but here's what I see happening: Many of my friends who have managed to get their arms in the way of a covid vaccination have had the aid and assistance of their grown children. Their kids became their vaccination hunters. Makes sense: Our kids have more Internet savvy, online search skills and knowledge of different platforms. They're finding hot spots where a vaccine shot can be had--and booking reservations for their vaccine-eligible parents as soon as they spot an opening. No waiting around to talk it over. Everything takes place on Internet time, folks. One set of friends had to drive an hour from their home to get their first shot and a reservation for a second one; another went to a state where their son lived. They admit they couldn't have managed the sophisticated search it took to find a slot, figure out the eligibility rules and make a reservation on their own.
Here's something else, and it's something I've experienced personally: When, despite the masking and social distancing and handwashing, we nonetheless fall ill from Covid, our kids are there to manage information, health providers and other services--from afar but with their superior smartphone skills. After my husband and I both became ill (and tested positive) our kids boned up on everything Covid--calling their medical friends, reading CDC guidelines and gathering information from a variety of sites. With their dad in the hospital and me fogged-out and sick at home, they called the hospital for updates, talked to our doctors, asked questions about our care and overnighted oxygen measuring devices. They threatened to drive down here and were coordinating that effort when I got wind of it and rallied enough to yell "No." After all, there is nothing they could do for either their dad or me that they couldn't do by phone from the safety of their homes. Or as the hospitalist doctor treating their dad told them: "The only thing you can do if you come down here is get Covid."
It was an odd feeling to have my kids calling our doctors instead of the other way around (as it was when they were young.) This wasn't them being parents who were telling us what we could or should do in the pandemic (as discussed in this post); it was them stepping up to take care of their parents who were ill and needed someone to take over for a few days.
My husband turned out to have a mild case of Covid-19 and was home in three days; I too had a mild case. But I can tell you, mild though it was, Covid is nasty. A month later we're much better but still not tip-top--not yet as fit as we were before we got sick.
We do have something positive from our experience: The comfort of knowing our children were willing and more than able to step up and take care of us--and from afar.
photo credit: Maia Lemov
Many of us have been proactive when it comes to our handles as grandparents. We feel free to tell our kids--the parents of our grandbabies--what we would like to be called. Whether it's PopPop or Nana or something we make up--I've chosen PenPen--it doesn't feel intrusive or controlling to choose our name.
But the naming ends there. Where we need to tread more cautiously is when it comes to choosing the baby's name. We can make suggestions; perhaps, pass on to our children reminders of family traditions. But we are at our peril if we persist in trying to sway our children in their choice.
“Names are all about identity. The name the parents choose is central to who the child is and will be, and grandparents feel very invested in that,” said Pamela Redmond, chief executive of Nameberry and co-author of books on baby names. Although we may hope to see a family name carried on, or would like one that reaches into our family's culture, our children may have other ideas. When they act on those ideas, we may feel that “the link to their ancestry is broken,” Redmond said, in an article by Paula Span in the NYTimes.
Some of the points covered in Span's article:
Discomfort with the "new" names:
We have our own notions of appropriateness and a probably misguided sense that our grandchildren’s names reflect on us. So when our children creatively come up with Nevaeh (it’s “heaven,” backward) or use the city where the baby was conceived (like Nashua), we bridle.
“If you’re the conservative who named your kids Tom and Emily, and they’re naming their daughter Miles and their son Freedom, it’s like showing up at the country club with blue hair and tattoos,” Ms. Redmond said.
The new normal:
Young parents face a vastly wider assortment of choices than older generations ever considered. New parents may gravitate toward gender-neutral names, for instance. Older generations’ notions about playground taunts have become outdated when kids have such diverse names that a plain vanilla Linda or a mundane Mike may yearn for something more distinctive.
“This is the first stage in grandparents’ realizing that this is not their kid and they don’t have control. They have to step back, and some are good at that and some are terrible.”--Sally Tannen, who has directed parenting and grandparenting workshops at the 92nd Street Y in NYC.
Clashes over names can backfire, Ms. Tannen pointed out, if they make new parents angry enough to withdraw. Parents serve as the gatekeepers to their children and, as I learned from my conversations, they remember feeling pummeled, even decades later.
Get over it:
“As soon as you’re pregnant, everyone has an opinion” about names, Ms. Tannen has observed. “Once there’s a baby, it would be pretty silly to hold onto that.”
Span writes of one grandfather who was so angry about his children's choice of name for his first grandson that he swore he would never utter the name. "It’s taken a while but, he told me," Span writes, " 'I’m happy to call him whatever he wants to be called.' ”
painting: Mary Cassatt
Scratch someone who doesn't have children and they'll probably tell you: Too much. That would be in answer to the question: Do parents do more than they should for their adult children. I had a single co-worker who dubbed my husband "Daddy Indulgence" for such "crimes" as paying for our children's college tuition. (We had saved up for it for years.)
My co-worker's teasing was good-natured. (She hoped our kids appreciated the gift.) But still, the "daddy indulgence" trope persists as a reflex reaction. There's a reason for its apparent growth recently: Although our children's march toward financial independence moves forward, it's doing so at a slower pace than our generation's.
According to a Pew 2019 survey, financial independence is
"one of the many markers used to designate the crossover from childhood into young adulthood, and it’s a milestone most Americans (64%) think young adults should reach by the time they are 22 years old....But that’s not the reality for most young adults who’ve reached this age.
The reality is: In 1980, roughly one-third of young adults were financially independent by the time they hit age 22; in 2018, that was down to one-fourth. When Pew looked more broadly at young adults ages 18 to 29, though, the survey found financial independence has been largely stable in recent decades, with women closing a gender gap.
There are other markers that suggest our adult children are less independent than we were. Here's Pew again. (This was based on a 2019 survey in those halcyon pre-pandemic days; Covid-19 has likely skewed a lot of the numbers and not in a positive direction):
Today’s young adults are staying in school longer and are marrying and establishing their own households later than previous generations. A growing share are living in their parents’ homes well into their 20s and even early 30s. (See this Parenting Grown Children post.) Some of these changes are linked to economic challenges, while others may represent a realignment of goals and priorities.
As to the indulgence side of the equation, the Pew survey found we were helping out our kids with the basics-- groceries and housing--plus tuition.
Aside from the question of whether these 'indulgences" augur good or ill for our adult children, where does the finger of blame point? Pew is quite unequivocal: The majority of the public says, as my co-worker teased, parents do too much for their young-adult children and most parents of adult children disagree.
How do our kids feel about the aid and assistance? Pew asked that question as well. Turns out we're in sync with our kids on this one:
Young adults themselves are largely satisfied with what their parents are doing for them. A majority (65%) say their parents do about the right amount for them – similar to the share of parents of young adults who say they do about the right amount for their kids.
Ever since the pandemic descended on us in March, there's been a noticeable uptick in an ongoing trend: Our adult kids are moving in with us. For some the reason is financial: the economy crashed and with it, their jobs. For others, it's emotional: the loneliness of living alone in a small apartment under quarantine conditions. For some it's technical: they still have their jobs but they need more robust Internet connections. And for others it's familial: Their kids are going to school by zoom and there's a need for loving caretakers.
There are a thousand permutations of reasons. One couple hosted their daughter, her husband and their toddler grandchild for a year while the young family sold their city apartment and bought a house in the suburbs.
By September, Pew Research was reporting that the share of 18- to 29-year-olds living with their parents had become a majority, surpassing the previous peak during the Great Depression era.
Here are Pew's numbers:
In July, 52% of young adults resided with one or both of their parents, up from 47% in February. The number living with parents grew to 26.6 million, an increase of 2.6 million from February. The number and share of young adults living with their parents grew across the board for all major racial and ethnic groups, men and women, and metropolitan and rural residents, as well as in all four main census regions. Growth was sharpest for the youngest adults (ages 18 to 24) and for White young adults.
The move back to the comforts of the parental nest was a factor during the Great Recession of a decade ago. At that time, family became an economic refuge for many. Pew says it ran its recent survey because it wanted to see whether young adults again resorted to that “private safety net” amid the pandemic's widespread shutdowns and rough economic conditions.
Here's what they found:
Young adults have been particularly hard hit by this year’s pandemic and economic downturn, and have been more likely to move than other age groups....About one-in-ten young adults (9%) say they relocated temporarily or permanently due to the coronavirus outbreak, and about the same share (10%) had somebody move into their household. Among all adults who moved due to the pandemic, 23% said the most important reason was because their college campus had closed, and 18% said it was due to job loss or other financial reasons.
The vast majority of young adults who live with their parents – 88% – live in their parents’ home, and this group accounts for the growth in the population of adult children living with their parents. Nearly all of the remainder live in their own homes along with their parents, or in homes headed by other family members. These shares have been relatively stable for the past decade.
Not all of us are happy to have our "guest room" reoccupied by adult children who have needs, opinions and lifestyles that may not fit with ours. Then there's the wider world concerns. The effect on the economy could be devastating. Even before the outbreak, the growth in new households trailed population growth and slower household growth could mean less demand for housing and household goods. There also may be a decline in the number of renters and homeowners, and in overall housing activity. Between February and July 2020, the number of households headed by an 18- to 29-year-old declined by 1.9 million, or 12%.
If you'd like to see the trend data in chart form, here's how Pew lays it out:
Many of us will not be able to hug our children or grandchildren this holiday week. We may see them on a screen or hear them on a phone but the family traditions we usually observed--hosting a large family feast; traveling to gather together with grown children and grandchildren--are not safely possible this year. While we say goodbye to the miseries of 2020, hope the new vaccines bring an end to the pandemic in 2021 and wait till this summer (fingers crossed) to be together again with friends and family, I take comfort in this ages-old wisdom:
Our grown children are in their households. We're in ours. We may be in the same city or not. We did whatever we did over Thanksgiving but now the Christmas-New Year holidays are ahead of us. So are worsening pandemic numbers. We all yearn for a "normal" holiday time together. And yet, there is danger in our gathering together.
So here we are again, grappling with the question of how much risk we to take to be with our grown children during the holidays--to say nothing of our siblings, aunts, uncles and close friends.
I've been reading some studies on how our brains work in assessing risk and bringing us to whatever decisions we make in life. Covid-19, it turns out, complicates everything.
How we make decisions:
Under normal circumstances the different regions of our brain assess emotions and information, tapping into our personality and tendencies for risk as well as our understanding of risk as it relates to our age and health. That's all factored into making a decision.
Covid-19 is not normal. The pandemic presents the brain with novel scenarios and information. Most of us have never experienced a severe pandemic and the many unknowns that come with it. That may lead us to look at how others are responding. We also draw on our personal experience of the pandemic itself, especially if we've witnessed someone becoming ill or dying. Our identity also affects our decision-making. Neuroscientist Gaurav Suri points to mask-wearing, behavior that early in the pandemic was influenced by how we identify politically.
The brain clings to signals that things are normal — supermarkets are open, the cat climbs on your lap, you take walks. We desire normalcy. Neuroscientists suggest that may be why people come to different conclusions about their risks and make decisions based on the interaction and strength of many different networks.
Challenges to our ability to assess risk: Not only are we dealing with pandemic fatigue and the yearning for a return to more balanced life, we're also experiencing the stirrings of memory, joy and meaning that are part of getting together during the holidays.
Make a risk budget: “As people make decisions about doing different things, it’s important they understand that any risk you take is additive. So, if you engage in one area that’s risky, you should try to reduce risk in other areas when you can,” says Dr. Leana Wen.
Kayt Sukel suggests making a risk budget, which she describes this way: “If you want to get a haircut, great — but then maybe you don’t go out for a meal. If you are thinking about in-person school because it’s best for your family, then skip birthday parties and other social events."
The bottom line: "A budget can be empowering. It’s a way to live your values and still protect you and yours from harm," Sukel says. "It’s also a way to push some of those factors like stress and social factors to the side so they don’t have an outsized influence on your decisions."
These are the worst of times for Covid-19 fatigue. Vaccines are here. Enough of us may be immunized by summer. By then it will likely be safe to see friends and family in-person again--go on vacation, eat at our favorite restaurants and even take in a show at a theater. The end is in sight. But it's not here yet. Scientists fear we may let down our guard and not make the best decisions for our family's health during the December holidays.
No shaming here. We all have different tolerances for risk and different risk budgets. We need to respect that, especially in these times of stress.
Economists who study happiness--yes there are such folks out there--have found that happiness (or, as they define it, satisfaction with life) is high when we're 16 years old then drops off into a U-shaped curve that doesn't peak again until we're nearly 50 years old. For many of us who are parents, 50 coincides with the dreaded unhappiness of the suddenly empty nest. So what gives?
That's a point a Freakonomics program called No Stupid Questions, posed in its discussion of happiness and when we feel the best about our lives. You can read (or listen to the podcast of) that discussion for yourself and delight in its quirky good humor. Or you can scroll through some of the highlights I've picked out. The dialogue is between Stephen Dubner, who wrote Freakonomics, and Angela Duckworth, a psychologist. Here are some highlights:
The Empty Nest effect:
DUCKWORTH: ...., one of the findings from marriage research is that so many married couples with children fear the empty-nest syndrome. But actually, on average, people tend to be happier once they’ve sort of gotten over the initial crying of your last kid being dropped off to college. I think there are other explanations, though.
Why our young adult and 20- and 30-something kids are not as happy as we think they should be:
DUBNER: Are you suggesting — and I think there is research that suggests this — that young people are unrealistically optimistic? And even if the answer to that is yes, can you really say that it is unwise, because maybe one of the things that you need a surplus of when you’re starting out is optimism, because in fact, it can be hard.
DUCKWORTH: There is a psychologist who I love named Don Moore. He’s a judgment and decision-making scientist. And he believes that not only the young, but people of all ages, can be recklessly optimistic. And he thinks that this overconfidence is actually a problem. ...
I think that these high aspirations that young people have — rose-tinted movies in their head about what their wedding is going to be like, and how their children are going to be beautiful and perfect, and all these projections into the future — which are probably a little naive. I think you could ask the question whether they’re really unwise or not. I do think that if you reach higher, you’ll get farther, but you might be less happy doing it. .......
And there is this gap between what we are achieving and our aspirations, not because we’re achieving less. We’re probably achieving more. I’m mean, we’re learning more. We’re having, in some cases, higher-quality experiences. But our aspirations are growing faster than our objective achievements.
The angst young adults feel as they become independent
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I think what teenagers experience is actually, high highs and low lows. And there’s a lot of scientific evidence for that, too. I’m a university professor, so I see lots of 18- to 22-year-olds who have their fair share of angst. And they are experiencing the decrease in happiness. They have memories of being carefree children. And I think that downward slope, my guess is, is feeling the difference between what it was and what it is today.
We’re very sensitive to changes. And to feel that everything was so simple then, and that you could eat an ice cream cone without guilt. They’re all of a sudden burdened with the weighty responsibilities of adulthood – their first career choices, their first disappointments professionally, or maybe major ones romantically. And when you’re sad it’s really hard to be convinced that you’ll ever not be sad. I like to tell young people who are in emotional turmoil, or experiencing the decrease in their emotional well-being, that life is long and that they won’t feel exactly this way forever.
Is schadenfreude the reason we're happier as we hit the higher age numbers?
DUBNER: [Some researchers]...suggest that one potential reason for the upswing in happiness around midlife is that you’ve seen people that you grew up with having really bad fortune, dying and whatnot. As you said, your gratitude may start to kick in a little bit more.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, the cynical interpretation of that is it’s all downward social comparison. You look at people who, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe that happened.” And that somehow makes you feel better. I mean, just having some perspective, right? .... The wide-angle lens on life that allows you to appreciate a good cup of coffee and, wow, nothing went wrong today.
DUBNER: Wow. You really have lowered your expectations, haven’t you?
DUCKWORTH: I guess that’s why I’m so happy.
DUBNER: .... How would you suggest people try to get rid of the things that make them unhappy and increase the ones that work?
DUCKWORTH: ...one of the most reliable interventions to increase happiness is called the “three blessings exercise.” And you simply think of three good things that happened, usually in the last 24 hours. And you rattle them off. I’ve gotten so good at it. I can do it usually in 10 or 15 seconds: Lucy, Amanda, the avocado was ripe.
DUBNER: Wait. Just naming your children fulfills the three? That’s what you’re saying?
DUCKWORTH: I know you’re going to say that’s a cheat, or how is that possible? But when I bring my kids to mind, I’m like, “Lucy’s healthy, Amanda finished her midterms.” I mentioned the avocado, I don’t want to put that on the same level as my children. But it was a miracle of God that the avocado was actually not too ripe and not underripe.
photos: Maia Lemov
My friend Jo planned her virtual Thanksgiving with her three children, who live in three different time zones, around cocktails. She offered each child a time slot--5:00 their time zone on one of the days of the Thanksgiving weekend. She did not aim to bring everyone together--not with one child in Copenhagen, one near her on the east coast and another in San Francisco. Her aim was to ease the alone time of the holiday and add a few hours of family joy with a mock/cocktail hour with each of her children (and any spouses and grandchildren in residence).
How did that go? Her report:
I pulled off being the "host" on a zoom mock/cocktail party by going to "zoom school" a week before my "test." I set up my son's family in San Francisco (all of whom are technically savvy, so I wanted to "shine") for 5 pm their time, 8 pm my time. I sent them a box of snacks; they furnished their own drinks. There's a 40 minute limit on zoom meetings if you're doing it for free. My grandchildren could tolerate that amount of time.
My daughter and granddaughter live in Denmark and usually host a Thanksgiving meal for their friends and assorted Americans they know, but not this year. Demark isn't playing around with the Pandemic. So no partying for them. We talk once a week on Facetime, and - as Thanksgiving isn't a holiday in Denmark - it wasn't anything special.
For my son who lives near me, we Facetimed at an agreed on time for dessert on Thanksgiving day, including my son's family's two college-age daughters who were home for Thanksgiving, me in my apartment and my son's father (my ex) and his wife in Cambridge. Oh, and their dogs! It went well.
My family zoomed its way through an elaborate day. Here's how it went for three households living in three different cities but--lucky us--all in the same time zone.
I had spent the week obsessing about having a memorable holiday and that obsession meant pre-planning. It was worth the time and effort, especially since others picked up on the cues and added their own magic. We started with a noon-time 3-kitchen zoom where each kitchen (cooks and advisers) baked together, muting our mics when running the mixer, asking for advice on unexpected problems (I cut my apples too soon; granddaughter advised cinammon to keep them from turning brown) and showing each other our pre-baked efforts. Easy to pull off if everyone is on board and has recipe and ingredients on hand. It was more fun than you might think.
The best part of our zoomsgiving, though, was the late afternoon, pre-dinner get together for a family quiz based on photos of family members when they were younger than they are today. I had photo-texted a dozen to my son, my daughter sent a few and my son found some. He put together a slide show of the photos and posed "challenging" questions designed to encourage everyone to come up with over-the-top answers--the more outrageous the better. We laughed a lot and, key to it all, everyone participated. The chat function got a workout. I'm still giggling over some of the answers.
We turned off the zoom, took a break and ate our dinners without screentime or being together.
Later in the evening we zoomed again to eat the desserts we had baked together. We were all pretty tired by then. One of us (he shall be unnamed) dozed off on his living room floor. I rate the dessert-zoom as modified bliss. Maybe one event too many. But overall the three-way Thanksgiving "visit" was upbeat, comforting and memorable.
With the Christmas-New Years holidays ahead--and no clear sign that the pandemic will allow for safe travel and visits before the end of the year--I wanted to share what worked at Thanksgiving so we can build on that if we're still stuck in the same pandemic rut.
Love to hear from you about your Thanksgiving accommodations to the current realities.
photo: Maia Lemov
Zoom is the answer. That's what we--me, my friends, our families--tell each other when we talk about how we'll be together when we won't be together this Thanksgiving.
But what will we do with Zoom--sit in front of a camera and tell each other Hello and Happy Thanksgiving? Eat our separate dinners together in front of the Zoom lens?
I have made an executive decision for my family--a daughter and her family in Massachusetts; a son and his family in New York; Paterfamilias and me in Maryland--that we'll use Zoom to have a memorable holiday. It won't be like our usual Thanksgivings where we gather at my son's house, pitch in to cook the many dishes that spell turkey, tofurkey and trimmings, and go for a walk before over-indulging on dessert. But we can still do things that we can look back on next year or years from now and say, "Remember the fun we had the year of the pandemic."
I can dream, can't I?
Putting dream into action, I have started on that road by asking my kids and grandkids to contribute ideas. Here's what we've got so far.
Meal Prep: On the morning of Thanksgiving we'll set up our Zoom cams in our respective kitchens and cook together. Right now we're thinking dessert: I'll do my German apple cake; my Massachusetts granddaughter wants to try pecan pie; my son's family will indulge his love of pumpkin pie. Different desserts but we'll be baking together and chatting as we preheat our ovens, grease our pie pans and get our hands full of flour and sugar and shortening. We won't be able to share results or even the heady aromas of each other's kitchens but we'll still be together in the kitchen. It's my favorite part of Thanksgiving and I don't want to give it up.
Drop-Ins: We'll send zoom invites to friends we used to see at Thanksgiving and ask them to drop by to say hello. It will be fun to exchange greetings and see how their families have grown and they can see ours. The drop-in doesn't have to last long, but I feel lighter knowing we'll have visits from people we care about and who care about us.
Drama: As keeper of snapshots from our child-rearing years, I have been asked by my son to pick out a few old photos of him and his sister and scan them to him. He promises to create a slide show with commentary that his children and niece will find amusing--even if he and his sister are the butt of the jokes.
Fun and Games: We will, of course, do our usual routine of asking each one of us to talk about what we are grateful for this year. We might add a second round of something silly we're grateful for. But beyond that, we will play some campfire-style games like Two Truths and a Lie or 20 Questions. Here's a link to more suggestions for online party games.
More Thoughts: I suggested a family sing-along--surely there's an app with music and lyrics we could follow. My children shot that down immediately. We are not a family of singers; some of us are carry-a-tune challenged. But I put it out there for more vocal-oriented families. There are also apps that let you play card games together or watch a movie and chat about it. Both Disney+ and Amazon Prime come with built in watch-partying features.
There's also the great outdoors. A friend whose grown daughters and their families live nearby is avoiding indoor family gatherings of any size. Instead, she is planning to mask up and go on a hike with the willing. If the weather is foul on Thanksgiving day it's bound to be more hospitable at least one day of the weekend. Hike on, Joyce!
Still the Same: In years past the days running up to the holiday were filled with much inter-family texting, emailing and phone calling about details--spatchcock the turkey or not, how many versions of stuffing/dressing to make, which desserts to buy and which bake. This year there is still a lot of messaging back and forth, only this time it's to plan the zoom side of our celebration. Doesn't matter what the details are, the important piece is that we're in touch now and we're looking forward to being together in whatever shape togetherness takes.
painting: Carl Larsson
He's a health and science reporter for the New York Times and was recently awarded the 2020 John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism by the Columbia Journalism school.
All that background noise is by way of saying that in an interview with a fellow New York Time's reporter, Donald McNeil put the current sorrows over curtailed Thanksgiving dinners in perspective:
The holiday season is just around the corner. What advice do you have for families eager to celebrate with their loved ones?
Do it by Zoom. Don’t let Junior come home and kill Grandma. Think of this like World War II — our soldiers didn’t get to fly home to eat turkey. My father was at Normandy. My mother was with the Red Cross in occupied Austria. They missed the holidays. Life went on. There were happier years later.
painting: Rebecca Lemov
The coronavirus has been novel in more than it's medical/scientific ways. There's also been a behavioral effect: Our grown kids are parenting us--or trying to. They are not only worrying more intensely about our health and well-being but setting down guidelines for how we should take care of ourselves--what we should and should not do on a day to day basis.
One friend, who babysits for her toddler and infant grandkids three days a week, has been told by her daughter that she cannot sit outdoors at coffee shops or restaurants or otherwise socialize in person with friends. Her daughter has also forbidden her to see her dentist or go to supermarkets--the daughter shops for her and drops the groceries and other supplies at her door. My friend, who has no underlying health issues (except for being 71) doesn't want to give up her babysitting gig so she has taken her daughter's orders seriously and kept away from all of us.
The situation is understandable in that the daughter, who works in a downtown office three days a week, is doubling down to make sure the virus is not brought into her house. But sometimes our children overstep the mark and we need to assert our independence.
A Carolyn Hax column carries a case in point of how some of grown kids try to control their parents' lives--or parts of it. It's not related to Covid rules but the situation applies.
A woman wrote to Hax to say that after her children and grandchildren moved far away she went through a difficult period. but now has a very busy life that is filled with responsibilities to others. One of her children insists her mother get away for the winter and has rented a place for her in a sunny clime--all expenses paid. The mom doesn't want to be away from her new life for such a long period of time. She wants to know how to say no to a "beautiful offer"without antagonizing a daughter who is " not one to take "no" for an answer."
Some highlights from Carolyn's answer:
The only way to go about refusing her offer is to just refuse the offer. That’s it. Prepare yourself beforehand to ride out the drama-storm that ensues.
Now, all this having been said: You do note that “I really don’t want to leave . . . for so long.” Is there a period you would be eager to spend in this sunny clime? If so, then you can also say, “I’m sorry, I cannot accept two months. A week, however, would be lovely. Let me know if that’s possible.”
Say this only if you trust yourself to hold that line. Otherwise don’t even suggest it — just stick to the “no.”
And if/when she flips out on you, remain calm: “This is not up for negotiation. Let’s either change the subject now or talk another day.” Be ready to hang up as needed. “I’m interrupting you, hang on — I’ve got to go, bye.” Click.
I know this probably looks/sounds terrible, but it’s not unkind. It’s letting an emotional trespasser know she needs to get back on her side of the fence.
photo: Palo Coleman
Thanksgiving is only one of the family get-togethers upended by the coronavirus. Summer vacations, family reunions, birthday celebrations, Father's Day, Mother's Day, even funerals--lots of us have been unable to celebrate or observe any of these in person with our children (and their families) since the coronavirus barged into our lives.
How are we coping with these losses? Some of us are more philosophical than others. Many of us are taking it one holiday at a time or thinking up innovative ways to use technology to shrink the distance.
Here's how one couple is dealing with the loss of an annual Father's Day reunion with their four grown children. The full interview ran in the New York Times. Here are pertinent highlights.
Every Father’s Day weekend, the four adult children travel from New York and Chicago to Las Vegas to visit their father, Mort, 82, and stepmother, Marla, 65, bringing with them grandchildren ranging in age from 7 to 20 years old. The annual ritual was postponed this year until August. And then, as the virus continued to rage, it was canceled.
How the parents are coping:
Mort I happen to like my family. But I’m not insane enough to risk death. The coronavirus is unfortunately dictating our schedule. You recognize what is possible and what is not possible.
Marla We tell them, ‘Well, maybe you’ll drive out here.’ But the truth is, as much as we’d love to see them, they have too much contact with too many people.
Mort I’m not going to rend my garments and cover up the mirrors because I can’t see my children. I’m lucky to be in sufficiently good health. ...
Marla I worry that the young ones are too young to have formed memories of him. And the ones in college — who knows how much longer they’ll want to come along on these visits?
Mort My grandchildren are in very good hands.
Marla We’re lucky, we have each other. But it feels like we’ve given up a tremendous amount during this time.
Marla He might come off as ‘it is what it is,’ but would he love to see them? Nothing would make him happier. [One of his children] said, ‘When am I going to see you?’ I said, ‘When there’s a vaccine.’
Marla And when will that be? I don’t know. I don’t know, and there are days I handle it much better than others.
painting: Van Gogh