By Esther Mann

Dear Esther,

My husband and I have been empty-nesters for the past four years. Unlike some couples who find their new lifestyle kind of lonely with their children out of the house, we are loving it! We enjoy one another’s company tremendously and love the opportunities we now have to truly focus on one another, have an uninterrupted conversation, share some interests, and relish the quiet and calm. We are actually liking and loving one another more than ever.

Recently, our married son asked us if he could move into our home with his family — his wife and two children — for an uncertain amount of time. They are anxious to buy their own home and want to save some money by living with us. They hope to “start looking” for a house in a couple of months, but who knows what that would look like. Thank G-d, we had the presence of mind to tell him we had to think about it before giving him a knee-jerk, immediate “yes,” which I’m sure he was expecting, because it is our usual way to do whatever we can to help our children. (By the way, our daughter-in-law’s parents live out of town, so living with them is not a consideration.)

The problem is that besides hating the idea of giving up our lovely lifestyle, we are hearing way too many horror stories from friends who found themselves allowing in their married children to move in with them, only to regret ever having said yes. We hear stories of ungrateful children, children who had the audacity to argue with their parents, totally not comprehending what an enormous favor their parents were doing for them, but rather picking fights with them. We’ve heard stories of children who were supposed to move in for six weeks, and wound up staying for six months. We’ve heard stories of grown children allowing their own children to mess up everything, without any regard to how it was affecting the grandparents. We’ve heard stories of grown children and parents no longer speaking to one another after they move out.

So obviously, we are very wary. We get along with all of our children, but no one is perfect. And we’re not perfect either. This particular daughter-in-law is lazy. When we invite them for a holiday meal or for some other reason, she will literally sit at the table the entire time and not get up once to help serve, or, G-d forbid, wash a dish or put things away. For instance, if one of her children spills a glass of soda, she’ll wait for me to run and clean it up, rather than take the initiative. I can tolerate it for one meal or even a whole Shabbos, but the thought of feeling like her waitress for an extended period of time is downright frightening!

On the other hand, it’s not in my nature or my husband’s nature to say no to them. We’ve always tried to be the best of parents, helping them out whenever possible. Also, honestly, they are living in cramped quarters and we would love to see them living in their own home. We know real estate only gets higher and higher, and I can’t see how they can manage to save money while paying rent, or even if they save a few dollars, how can they ever keep up with the rising values of homes.

So my husband and I are really conflicted. We have to get back to them with an answer soon. If we invite them in, we know there will be hardship, a serious shift in our privacy, and surely tremendous tension. But if we don’t invite them in and they never wind up purchasing a home, we will forever feel guilty, and I have no doubt that they will make sure to make us feel even guiltier than we would already be feeling. Is there any good solution here?

Conflicted

Dear Conflicted,

I’ve heard this narrative many times before, and you’re right. Having grown or married children with families move back home often leads to hardship on all sides. There’s something not particularly natural about living together under one roof. Somehow, as parents, we don’t want or need to see everything — every disagreement between the married couple, every parenting strategy that we don’t agree with, every coffee mug left abandoned on the floor next to the den couch.

But sometimes, and lately more than ever, this arrangement has become less of an exception and more of the rule. Perhaps it’s because it takes so much to buy a house in the first place or because people are doing more and more construction these days and don’t want to live in the midst of all the work. Whatever the reason, it’s become perfectly normal for grown, married children with children of their own to assume they can move back in with Mom and Dad for an indefinite amount of time.

I can certainly understand how you and your husband have found your own nirvana at this stage of life and are reluctant to rock the boat. And yet, good old Jewish guilt is making you doubt your instincts to refuse, in order to be the “great parents.”

My first suggestion is based on finances. Obviously, I have no idea what your finances look like nor do I have any sense of how you like to spend your money. But my first thought is whether you are in the position to offer your son and daughter-in-law money to help them along in purchasing a home of their own, and, if so, whether it would be worth it to you to gift them this amount in order to maintain the integrity of your present lifestyle. It’s just a thought that may be worth considering.

And now for a more practical suggestion. My guess is that despite what your instincts tell you, it will be impossible for you to say no to your son. Therefore, this has to be approached as a business proposition, contract and all. If you want to have a chance at a respectful, successful living arrangement with them, you and your husband have to create a list of rules that you expect your son and his wife to follow while they live with you. I know this sounds a bit formal and maybe even ugly, but it’s better to preempt misunderstandings, simmering anger, resentments, and fights that may never resolve by creating a contract than to just go into this arrangement without establishing any house rules.

Take your time and think carefully about what would make this arrangement doable. For instance, do you and your husband generally enjoy private time in the den each evening from 8–10 p.m., binge-watching the latest Netflix series? If so, put in the contract that for those two hours, the den is off-limits to all of them. Is it important for you to have one Shabbos alone each month to entertain your friends? You can stipulate that they make plans to “visit” someone for one Shabbos a month. I’m just throwing out some ideas that may or may not be appropriate for you, but I think you get my message. Compose your own non-negotiable list of things that you’re not ready to relinquish.

If you agree to let them move in and you want this transition to go smoothly, think hard and long about what issues might crop up and have the potential of getting ugly. Speak to your friends who have had less-than-successful experiences with this and ask them what they wish they had ironed out well before having their children move in.

Ask your children whether they want to add anything to the contract. Perhaps they are concerned about you feeding their children chocolate for breakfast and want you and your husband to respect their wishes in this regard. The more the four of you can share your needs and concerns honestly, the better chance you all have of getting through this period of time successfully and, ideally, feeling closer than ever.

By the way, you might also want to put into the contract something about a potential “move out” date. They may get so comfortable that they never feel any urgency to start looking for a home, and what you thought would be a matter of months turns into a matter of years! Also, make sure you all sign the contract, and state in the contract that if the terms are not respected, sadly, they will have to move out — no debate and no questions asked.

You’re entitled to protect the beautiful lifestyle that you and your husband are presently enjoying and have probably earned. No one, not even your children, should be allowed to take it away from you. But with enough foresight, discussion, planning, and respect, I believe you can make this work.

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295. 

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