Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I am 24 years old and have lived at home with my grandparents and mother since I was in college. It was a nice arrangement for many of those years, and the deal has been simple: I get to live at home for basically nothing, and in return I clean, run errands, occasionally cook, and take care of whatever they need. In addition to this, for the past eight months I have been working part-time, and I’m actively seeking full-time work.

However, about seven months ago the arrangement changed rather dramatically. My grandfather had been suffering mildly from Parkinson’s disease and had not had many issues, but one day he fell and ended up in the hospital. This was followed by a short stay at a recovery home, and finally he came back home.

His return was very difficult at first, with my mother and me having to attend to him in 24-hour shifts that included diaper changing and medicine giving. It was frustrating, and my friends and other family didn’t really understand the situation I was in or how I felt about it.

My grandfather has gotten better since then, but much of the same routine continues, with me being at my grandparents’ and mother’s beck and call for everything from the essential to the mundane. Every day I become more and more annoyed by their endless requests and nitpicking. I feel like home is just another job, and it’s hard to open up or connect to someone my own age about it, because no one I know is in the same situation.

Is there any way to change my perspective about these issues or some way I can reach out to others? I’ve basically given up trying to change the situation with my grandparents. I just want to feel better about it at this point.

Evan
Delaware


Dear Evan,

I hear your frustration, and I’m glad you’re taking your own well-being seriously. You say you’re “annoyed,” but I imagine that you might also be feeling overwhelmed, resentful, trapped, and even depressed. You’re right that changing your perspective and reaching out to others can help you feel better, but so can taking the initiative to change your situation, so let’s explore how you can do that.

First, I want to help you think about your circumstances—and how isolating they feel to you—differently. It’s true that not many 24-year-olds are changing their grandparents’ diapers. At the same time, though, you have more in common with your peers than you may realize. Layered on top of the caretaking stress is a challenge that all families with young-adult children contend with in some form: negotiating shifting parent-child roles. And I think this aspect of your struggle has gotten lost in the more emergent crisis of your grandfather’s care.

So let’s look at your current situation and everyone’s role in it. You’ve been living with your mother and grandparents essentially rent-free in exchange for helping with household duties, and until recently the arrangement had been working well. When you were a student, balancing your coursework with your responsibilities at home felt manageable and cut down on expenses, and also offered your mom some support around the house and with her parents. The deal seemed clear.

But then you graduated, and I wonder what everyone thought would happen next. How much had you and your mom and grandparents discussed your post-graduation plans while you were still in school? Was their expectation that you’d start to earn money and begin to support yourself? Was it that you’d live at home and help support them—either financially or practically? What was your expectation? Had you thought about what you wanted to do with your college degree and your interests? Did your grandfather’s fall change any of this? If you haven’t reflected on these questions, a good first step now would be to consider them.

The developmental task of the 20s is to gain a footing as an adult. On the one hand, you’ve already taken on several adult responsibilities—cleaning, doing some cooking, and running household errands, along with caretaking duties that many adults don’t contend with until their own parents need care. In that way, you’re ahead of your peers. But in other ways, your peers may be further along on the transition to adulthood. They may be paying their own bills, living in their own apartments, cooking (and paying for) their own meals (versus occasionally cooking and having one’s meals provided by family). And in order to get to that place, they’ve had to do some problem solving: How do I want to live? What’s important to me? What are my goals? And then: What steps do I need to take to achieve them?

These are the kinds of questions that adults get to ask themselves. They don’t just have to live in the moment—Hey, this is nice, living at home or This sucks, being at my mom’s and grandparents’ beck and call—but they can also look toward and shape their future. I don’t know how long you were planning to live at home and whether you anticipated that at some point, doing so might put a damper on your social or romantic life, place demands on you that would be incompatible with holding down a full-time job, or make you feel out of sync with your peers, who are experiencing both the delicious freedom and the typical growing pains of living on their own. But what strikes me about your letter is that you say you’ve given up trying to change a situation that makes you miserable. So the plan is … suffer indefinitely in an untenable situation?

Here’s where being an adult gets really exciting: You have options. Right now you “feel like home is just another job” because, well, it is another job. It’s a job that pays your rent and puts food on your plate in return for the labor you do for your family. If you don’t like your job, you have choices that don’t entail bitterly enduring the status quo.

One option is to talk to your employer—in this case, your mom—and see if there’s a way to keep your job and its paycheck (the roof over your head) while also allowing for more flexibility and compatibility with the job of being 24—looking for full-time work, having time for more typical 20-something activities outside work that can help you develop important relationships, and so on. In this conversation, you might learn that your employer is “nitpicking” because she—or her parents—feels that her college-educated employee should bring in more revenue or has a bad attitude about a job she feels he’s lucky to have. If, however, you and your employer can’t work out a more mutually agreeable job description, you can also quit your job (move out) as soon as you find full-time employment that can sustain you (or you with some roommates) and provide the independence that many of your peers have.

These negotiations aren’t always easy, even for families in which a single parent isn’t caring for her own parents. All families with adult children face similar dilemmas about where parental and adult-child responsibilities begin and end. But whatever arrangement you and your family work out, identifying your needs, speaking up respectfully, clarifying your goals, assessing your options, and finding a way to improve your situation are all skills that will serve you well at every stage of your adulthood.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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