August 2011 Features

Boomerang Kids & Granny Nannies

The Family Gets a New Script with Adult Children Moving Back Home and Older Parents Moving Close to Grandchildren

By Elizabeth Mosier ’84

“I thought: you get a job, get a husband, a car, a house, a baby—straight up that path,” says Rachel Goldstein ’93. “It didn’t occur to me that’s not how life works.” Goldstein was 28 when she moved to San Francisco at the height of the tech boom. “We were all having fun, making money, living our youth again.” Ten years went by. She became vice president at the advertising firm Hoffman/Lewis. “Then I found myself on my 39th birthday thinking—what am I doing?” Goldstein decided that having a baby was what she really wanted.

Now she is about to move into a basement apartment in her parents’ home in New York, look for a new job at a family-friendly agency, and try to get pregnant through artificial insemination. “A few years ago, just saying ‘I’m going home to live in my parents’ basement’ would have sounded like the worst-case scenario,” she says. “Now I think I’m lucky to have an opportunity to be pregnant, to be closer to my parents, and to raise my children with my family around.”

Betsy Bell and her 17 grandchildren

Betsy Bell ‘59 (center) schedules time with 17 grandchildren—juggling family and career.

A quiet demographic shift is redefining the American family—bringing back the multigenerational household, but with a new script. According to a 2008 Pew Research Center report, more kids these days are moving back home: 20 percent of U.S. adults aged 25 to 34, compared to 11 percent in 1980. At the other end of the lifespan, 2.6 million grandparents are now primary caregivers (up eight percent since 2000), for reasons that include a desire for closeness, the economic recession, parental military service, and the recent trend of placing kids from troubled homes with family instead of in foster care.

The old map that guided the nuclear family’s transitions (move out, marry, parent, launch children into the world, grow old with spouse, be cared for by grown children) won’t get us where we’re going now. The new map is being redrawn to reflect the inevitability of change and the evolving concept of family as a multigenerational unit. “All relationships are negotiations,” says psychologist and family therapist B. Janet Hibbs, Ph.D. ’84, author of Try to See It My Way: Being Fair in Love and Marriage. “The deal keeps changing, and you have to learn to renegotiate the deal so that it works for you as you are changing roles.”

So-called “retirees” aren’t withdrawing from life these days, but entering a stage of greater engagement made possible by better health and longevity. The newest generation of “emerging adults” isn’t (hoop)-racing for the milestones that traditionally have conferred adulthood. Bryn Mawr’s GOLD classes will likely spend the decade after graduation pursuing higher education, changing jobs to find fulfillment, exploring relationships, and paying off substantial student loans. And some of these women will progress toward life goals by returning home.

Amy Phillips and her grandmother

Amy Phillips ‘06 moved in with her grandmother, Marion Phillips; they like to goof around with rambutan (a Thai fruit) shells.

Though the symbol of the parental basement is often nervously evoked to mean confinement, failure, and delayed adulthood, “boomerang” kids—and the parents to whom they return—are writing a novel chapter in the life cycle, one in which to learn and grow.

For Amy Phillips ’06, going back is moving forward. She had followed girlfriends to Ann Arbor and then to Chicago, working in both cities as an “eco-friendly” nanny. After the second breakup, she says, “I felt angry with myself for letting relationships dictate my career path. I hadn’t built up my resume doing ‘real jobs’ as my peers had, and it felt like time to get experience in my (sociology) field.” She came back home to Allentown, and now lives with the grandparents who raised her.

What she’s learned from her grandparents—then and now—helps her in her job as a direct care worker for adults with traumatic brain injuries. “I love my job,” Phillips says. “And I’ve discovered that I’m extremely patient. That’s from my grandmother. As a child, I watched her with the kids she taught to read, and I learned what a positive difference it makes for people to be patient, respectful and kind.”

Claudine Johnson and her mother

Claudine Johnson ‘05 lived with her mother, Claudette Reid, for five years before moving on to become an assistant dean at Hofstra University.

Claudine Johnson ’05 had a double homecoming. She returned to her mother’s house in Boston and she returned to work as a senior college counselor at the organization (Bottom Line) that helped her as a first-generation college applicant.

Her mother set limits and an example, teaching Johnson to budget by requiring rent and utilities. In turn, Johnson modeled sound financial decision making for her students as she weighed the long-term impact of various master’s program choices before accepting a scholarship at Boston University. Now an assistant dean at Hofstra University, Johnson reflects on her five years at home as a time when she could review where she’d been and where she was going. “This isn’t something you can learn in college,” she says. “You have to experience it.”

Yinnette Sano ’05 also lived at home in Boston—“My mother would not have it any other way!” she says—while she worked as a senior trainer for The Posse Foundation, a college access youth leadership and development program. Making a good salary, unburdened by loans, Sano could strengthen her financial position by living rent-free. Her three-year home stay was like an internship, during which she learned how to shoulder adult responsibilities like establishing credit and buying a car. “Mom knows about this stuff,” she says. “She insisted I take a first-time home buyer’s class.” Sano was able to save for the condo she recently purchased with her sister, and to reciprocate her mother’s generosity by filling her cabinets with groceries. She also brought her mother the gift of her education. “I’d bring her books in Spanish, works by Gabriel García Márquez, and we’d discuss them,” she says. “And now that I’m in graduate school, I’m giving my mom a crash course in higher education every time we meet for dinner.”

The Sano Family

Yinnette Sano ‘05 (left) with her family; her three years at home were like an internship.

An adult child might have an urgent reason for returning home—the loss of a job or a life-threatening illness—that makes the move easier to understand. In the absence of a crisis, cultural context determines whether “boomeranging” is normative or aberrant, says psychologist Hibbs—whether it’s viewed as positive or negative. The most recent U.S. census data show that multigenerational households are more common in immigrant families and more highly concentrated in less affordable areas like southern California or New York.

In addition, female culture is more interconnected, according to the developmental theory of Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan, to which Hibbs subscribes. Bryn Mawr’s population may be skewed to favor the arrangement as one that balances achievement (learning and saving) with the opportunity to reconnect.

Still, multigenerational living challenges nuclear family norms, requiring members to renegotiate relationships and reset boundaries for togetherness and personal space, intimacy and independence.

The parent who had moved out of her parents’ home immediately after graduation is more likely to be frustrated by her child’s return. “It’s hard on a marriage, and hard on a couple’s finances,” says Hibbs. “Part of what I try to do for these parents is to normalize the experience, to get them to see how kids these days are exploring as they’ve been encouraged to do. A parent could ask, ‘What else does this child need to help her to manage her money and time, to create a structure that isn’t partying all night and sleeping all day?’”

Parents of boomerang children need to consider what’s fair and reasonable for an adult child in terms of curfew, shared chores and expenses—and consequences for breaking the deal. “The parent-child relationship is asymmetrical and always will be,” she says. “But over time, the balance shifts. It’s important to build a relationship based on trust, not power, because eventually kids become more powerful and parents more vulnerable.”

Betsy Bell ’59 is ahead of the curve in setting ground rules for multigenerational living. That helps her to embrace her current role as grandmother to 17 children without feeling resentful, and to prepare for a time when she may be dependent on her daughters for care. “I’ve run a business for a long time,” she says, “and I have to be clear about how family fits with my career. I’m available for emergency transportation, but not as a regular babysitter. I attend one game per child per season. I make Easter eggs with one set of grandkids, and carve pumpkins with another. And when each grandchild turns 12, we plan and take a trip together.”

To navigate their way through changes in family relationships, she and her four daughters meet every six weeks to check in with each other, deal with any tensions or conflicts, and celebrate their very different lives. “I’m healthy now, but I don’t want my daughters warring with each other in my dying days,” she says. “It’s very important to me that they are a functioning, communicating team who could be called on to help me if and when I need it.”

Longevity gives us time to live our lives in new, distinct stages—and an urgent reason to renegotiate our changing roles with family. “Finding purpose and cementing relationships after 50 usually involve some process of change,” writes Abigail Trafford ’62 in My Time: Making the Most of the Bonus Decades After Fifty. She calls this stage of the life cycle a “personal renaissance,” one often characterized by the urge to give back and become stewards of the family to safeguard the future for the youngest generation.

Ruth Levy Guyer and her grandson

Ruth Levy Guyer ‘67 stepped in to care for her grandson, Milo. “What a privilege this is,”she says.

“I’ve always loved babies,” says Ruth Levy Guyer ’67, a bioethicist and author of Baby at Risk: The Uncertain Legacies of Medical Miracles for Babies, Families, and Society. “I first saw Milo (her grandson) when he was 10 minutes old and I fell for him instantly.” Visiting often during Milo’s first five months of life, Guyer saw how brutal her daughter’s work schedule was. (Dana is a third-year resident in pediatrics and internal medicine at Vanderbilt University and her husband, Carlos, is finishing his Ph.D. there in child psychology). “Eventually, I told Dana and Carlos how proud I am of the work they’re doing, and volunteered to help for three months, six months, or whatever they wanted.”

They accepted her offer. Guyer told teaching colleagues she was “working with a private student” in the spring semester, and she moved to Nashville, where she sublet a condo near where Dana and Carlos work—but not near where they live, in order to maintain healthy boundaries. Milo spends eight hours a day with her there. “During the first month I was caring for him, I soaked in the tub every night—“I’m 65, not 35!” she says. “I was nervous about whether I could do this gig physically, but it’s been fine. At night, he goes home. When you’re a parent, you don’t get that nighttime break. Every morning, I can’t wait to see him.”

Guyer is clearly in love. Her emails include photos of Milo with the gilded Athena Parthenos at Nashville’s Parthenon and describe his “Milo-stones” of stacking cups and taking steps. “When my daughters were young, I thought I should write a book called The Juggler­, about how mothers juggle work, children, household, and life,” she says. “I didn’t have time then to dwell on child development the way I do now. What a privilege this is to have time to spend with Milo, to watch him solve problems and so joyfully engage with the world.”

From milestones to Milo-stones: at the core of all these stories is a very Bryn Mawr idea of marking life by what we learn. The changing family brings on new tensions, along with the temporary chaos of adjustment. But these new arrangements also create opportunities for discovery—for living our lives like page-turning stories that are both inevitable and surprising.