ByÂ Esther Mann, LCSW
Like many parents, we have always been extremely generous to our children. Sometimes I think about what the rest of the world would think if they knew how so many of us either totally support or help to support our grown-up children and even grandchildren. But I know that my husband and I have to start taking a closer look at this matter, since something’s got to give.
When our four children got married, it was just expected that we and their in-laws would help get them set up–and then some. We bought furniture, helped pay bills, and supported each of them, according to their specific situations. But their hands were always out, just expecting that we and their in-laws would be there for them, paving the way. Two of them have generous in-laws who help, and two have in-laws who have never been particularly generous or maybe couldn’t be. After a few years of marriage, we gave each of them nice checks to use toward down payments for houses. The giving hasn’t stopped, even though our children range in age from their late twenties to their early forties.
The past few years, my husband has seen a serious downturn in his business. At first we figured it was just a slump that would quickly turn itself around. But we both finally see the writing is on the wall. My husband will probably be closing up shop pretty soon. Though we were never totally irresponsible, our savings have been dwindling, as our income kept diminishing and we continued to give to our children as if nothing had changed.
Right now I think I’m the only sane one in my family! I’ve been telling my husband, Dov, for some time now that we have to stop supporting our children. He turns white when I bring it up–as if I’m suggesting that he jump off a cliff or do something completely absurd. And maybe just as disturbing is that our children know that business isn’t what it once was. They don’t know the details, but they know that we’ve had to start cutting back and that we are concerned about the future. And yet not one of them has offered to stop taking money from us. As if that possibility is inconceivable.
Normally we take the family to a hotel for Pesach. It costs a small fortune. This year, for the first time in ages, we’re staying home. I’m not happy about it, but I am practical in nature and though we had a good run, during which time I could indulge in many luxuries, I know that those days are over–at least for now. I’m the one who is busy getting the house ready for Pesach, and though I can’t honestly say I enjoy it, I’m maintaining a good attitude and doing what I have to do. Dov feels so guilty that we have to stay home and can’t take our children away this year. It’s ridiculous! I tell him he has nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve taken them away for years and years. It’s not so terrible if our children come for the first days and figure out how to clean their homes and make their own Pesach. I see that it’s gut-wrenching for Dov to even go there.
Last week, Dov told me that our finances were even worse than I suspected. He said he was even wondering if we could keep our home, and, for now, he was going to take out a large mortgage to keep us going for a while. After my initial shock and horror, I turned to him and told him that the first thing we have to do is tell our children that the money faucet has to be shut off. We’ve been beyond generous for many years, and it’s got to stop. Dov couldn’t hear of such a thing. He said he’d rather go into hock than suddenly leave his children high and dry.
Maybe we are guilty of enabling them all these years, but we are no longer youngsters. We’re in our sixties and we have to finally start putting ourselves first. I wish our children were sensitive enough to refuse to take another penny from us, but no such luck. So how do I get Dov to step up to the plate and talk to our kids? He says he doesn’t have it within him to do it. Does that mean I have to be the bad guy? And if I’m ready to be the bad guy, any advice how to go about having this brutal conversation with them?
You tell a story that so many people can relate to. Something took a terrible turn during the past generation or so, creating a situation that is simply not sustainable for most people. Whether or not young married couples are opting to live a lifestyle that includes the husband learning for an extended period, there is a need to “keep up,” and the burden on parents like you is enormous.
Yes, the world outside of our community would laugh if they truly knew the extent to which many of us go to keep our children comfortable in an expected lifestyle. And even if there is enough income so that the parents are none the worse for wear, often a sense of entitlement is produced, leaving children insensitive to reality and unable or unwilling to become independent. Such parents aren’t doing their children much of a favor in the long term. They are hampering their growth and depriving them of the joy one experiences from being accountable for oneself.
These problems are real. But even more serious is the problem you discuss–when parents help to the point that they leave themselves financially vulnerable in their later years. Life is unpredictable, and good can turn to bad in the blink of an eye. It sounds like you and your husband were riding high for many years and were able to do it all: live a beautiful lifestyle and still support your children in grand ways. I’m sure you are generous people and enjoyed doing for them. But in the interim, you enabled them to expect the money train to continue rolling along forever, thereby dampening their gratitude and encouraging expectations.
It’s sad to hear that Dov feels guilty telling your children that he can no longer help them out financially. Maybe wrapped up in that is a feeling of shame, as if he is doing something wrong and is now letting them down. Our culture certainly lends to such faulty thinking, and he most likely has become victim to this insensitive system. Try to have compassion for him, though he does need a stiff dose of reality. You might also want to talk to Dov about what he fears most about cutting off the money flow. See if you can help him get in touch with his feelings. He may be worried about how your children will manage. It’s also possible that he fears they might stop loving or respecting him, which would be a shame and something he could use help dealing with.
Whatever the background, I agree with you that things have to change and someone has to be the bearer of bad news that your children may not take kindly to. Though I don’t think that Dov should be let totally off the hook and be allowed to skip this important conversation, you may have to take the reins and be the spokesperson. But Dov should be there at your side, at least supporting you in person, if not verbally.
I suggest you call a meeting with all of your children and have an honest conversation with them in one fell swoop. You don’t have to go into any specifics regarding taking out a mortgage or any of the other details, which is none of their business. But you have to tell them, plain and simple, that you’re unable to assist them financially any longer. You’re sorry that they may experience hardship as a result, but have faith that they are all smart enough and capable enough to figure out how to make ends meet, as you will also be figuring things out. You will always be there to support them emotionally, but no longer financially.
Four children, four different personalities–probably four different reactions. (How appropriate for this time of year!) Be prepared for anger, guilt, kindness, sensitivity, etc. Prepare yourself for responses ranging from “How could youÂ .Â .Â .” to “How awful. How can we help you?” Hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised by some if not all of them. But if not, you and Dov will get through this as well. The days of wine and roses are taking a leave of absence. But down the road, this may be a blessing in disguise and the best thing for your children in the long run.
For now, try to be an inspiration for Dov. Show him how to be strong and confident in the face of adversity, and together the two of you will get through this challenge, hopefully with greater wisdom, honesty, and love.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.