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The Magic and Madness of Multigenerational Families

Family. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

When social workers hear that a patient has a team of family caregivers who take turns and work together, we jump for joy. Until one of those caregivers takes us discreetly aside, after the other has slipped out to pick up her kids, and whispers something like: "My sister is always running here and there. She does too much I worry about her." Then why do you look so angry?

Why else? Because there is unfinished business—family business, likely the same from days, years gone by.

Add a few generations. Add some in-laws. Add a great-grandchild. Add an aging parent who is dying. What about if you have three (or more) generations under one roof in the roles of caregiver and caretaker? Like the risk of triangulation (two gens against one) and reverting back to very old, very outdated patterns of childhood/parenthood.

After years in the field, I am no longer surprised by family patterns, particularly those that show up around a matriarch or a patriarch. Mothers and fathers are such polarizing, magnetizing, mobilizing figures to our emotions, regardless of how old we--or they--are. People can be at once annoyed and protective of their parents. In fact, most people, to some extent, are.

I started thinking about multi-gen families more when I discovered the novel, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough, about three generations of women living under one roof. Author Ruth Pennebaker, a columnist for the Texas Observer, a commentator for KUT, Austin's public radio station, and creator of the Fabulous Geezersisters blog wrote to me, in an email, something that rang startlingly true:

"Maybe the crux of the greatest conflict in the novel -- it's unclear who's taking care of whom and who's in charge. How long do you continue to mother, and can you ever really give it up?"

Ah, the tangles of caregiving—when three or four generations are involved. When the patient is a parent, the caregiver is a parent, and, perhaps, even the grandchild is old enough to parent (or, at least, old enough to think she can tell her parents how to parent). And put them together in a house or, even, at a doctor's appointment for the patient.

We know having support is a gift, but we also know families have dynamics, and the more people who are involved the more feelings, more emotions there are bound to be. Keeping this in mind, I asked Ruth to join me in discussing her book, caring, and multi-gen families.

Meredith: What do you think is the key to making multigenerational relationships work, under one roof?

RUTH: More than anything, empathy can help make multigenerational relationships work, or make any relationship work, for that matter. But I'm inclined to think empathy is more difficult when you're living in tight quarters; it makes life more difficult for you and you can get so wrapped up in your own misery that it's harder to think of others. (Maybe it's harder to have empathy for someone you have to share a bathroom with? Social scientists need to investigate.)

The multigenerational aspect makes it more difficult, too, because these women [these characters in the novel] have preordained relationships with one another. The mother is supposed to mother, right? But here's a household with two mothers. Also, they're all in a time of transition to those relationships. The eldest, Ivy, is getting feebler and she's financially dependent on her daughter, Joanie. Who leads and who follows there? The youngest, Caroline, is rebelling against everything and everybody; mother, grandmother, you name it. Joanie, the middleaged sandwich generation, is learning to support herself and the entire household at the age of 50. Everybody's carrying a burden, and I'm inclined to think that the greater your own burden, the more difficult empathy becomes. You're too overwhelmed with your own problems.

Also, finally, I think it's more difficult to be empathic when you're dealing with someone who's at a completely different time of life than you are. Do you think much about the hardships of adolescence when you have varicose veins and worry Social Security might go broke? Do you really consider the plight of the elderly when you're 15? And when your ex-husband's taken up with someone barely old enough to vote, your aging mother's moved in with you, and your teenage daughter spends her life sulking and texting -- what's left of you? You're exhausted.

Meredith: Have you ever struggled with your own multi-gen issues...triangles, for example, 2 gens against 1?

RUTH: I've definitely struggled with multigenerational issues, but with only two generations under the same roof at one time. My mother died in 1997 and my father, soon after, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Our children were teenagers then and my husband and I were both working hard; my only sibling lived abroad, thousands of miles away. I couldn't stretch myself enough to do everything that needed to be done. How can you simultaneously do justice to your roles as both a mother and the daughter of a sick parent? I tried but failed in so many ways.

Meredith: What complicates these relationships more? Money or politics? Something else? How about in the book - where did your characters encounter the most conflict? What did you learn about yourself in the writing?

RUTH: Money, politics, proximity -- but maybe great expectations, more than anything, are the killer. Aren't mothers and daughters supposed to be close and supportive? Isn't your mother supposed to be your best friend and greatest supporter? If she's not ... what's wrong with her or you?

Too, what does it mean to be a mother? It means one thing when you have a young child and are responsible for everything in her life. The older that child gets, though, your role begins to change and diminish in certain ways, and it can be hard to let go of the old ways when you felt in control of your child's life. I can remember thinking, with our own daughter and son, that some years most of what my husband and I did was to step back and give them more room.

I think the greatest conflicts in the book also come from each of the three characters' being caught up in her own life and oblivious to the other two's lives and needs. We can be so blind to the people closest to us, even when we love them.

I probably learned the most by writing from Ivy's perspective and imagining what it's like to be elderly in our youth-obsessed society. You lose your mate, your home, your place in the world; your friends are dying or they disappear to other cities to be taken care of. Everybody else is so busy and in demand -- but you're not. Where, if anywhere, do you belong? I'll tell you what I learned about myself: that I wasn't nearly sympathetic enough when my own mother struggled with aging.

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