When the Parents Come to Stay ... and Stay

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My parents-in-law are great people, and I'm not just saying that on the off-chance that they might read this. They really are. It's fun being around them. But there's one unique thing about my and my wife's relationship with them: because they live in Florida, and they're both teachers who get the entire summer off, and they kind of secretly hate living in Florida, and really miss their daughter, they spend a sizeable chunk of every summer with us here in Los Angeles. Not with us with us, but nearby, and sometimes that kind of proximity, even with your grown (or semi-grown) children can put a strain on your relationship. But as my friend Brooke Hauser, who writes for the New York Times, discovered, there are lots of other "kids" in our boat, especially in cities where a week's hotel stay can easily exceed a month's salary. Here are some of the stories she uncovered.

For young people just beginning to live independently, parents are not always the easiest houseguests, especially when their stays are frequent or extended. These visits, which are common around the holidays, can recall the sometimes stressful parents' weekends of the college years, but they tend to be even longer, more frequent, and in much closer quarters. Take, for example, the single Washingtonian who couldn't bring a new boyfriend home because she was sharing her bed with her mother, who was visiting from Argentina for a month. Or the New Yorker who said that, over many long weekends, she cringed to see her 6-foot-2 Southern gentleman of a father squeezing into her tiny Greenwich Village apartment, "like an oaf in a dollhouse."

In my own experience, the conflict that can arise during such visits, especially extended ones, is a kind of sublimated power struggle: who's in control? Whose house is it? Especially if the parents have ever helped out with the rent, or donated furniture to the kids' once-barren pied-a-terre, there's can sometimes be a confusion about ownership. It's tough letting your kids grow up, I suppose. The flip side of that coin, though, is that it can be tough watching your parents get old, as Brooke points out:

"Extended or repeated parental visits can sometimes feel to hosts like unnerving dress rehearsals for the day when the people they've always depended upon become themselves dependent — or reminders that their parents are not invulnerable. Nine years ago, Kevin and Kathleen Loftus came to New York to see their son, Tom, then 30, on one of the visits from California that they now make frequently. One morning, braving the subway without him, they were confronted by a raving man who seemed to be drunk. "The first person who moves on this train, I'm going to shoot them," Mrs. Loftus, now 67, recalled the man saying. "We looked around, and we were the only two in the car." When the younger Mr. Loftus learned what had happened, he told his parents they could only take taxis in the future. ("It's their luck that they would find a G train to get on, because they're so rare," he said ruefully.)

There are cultural differences, too. Americans might feel one way about their parents coming to stay -- but then, ours is very much a culture of independence and individuality, which despite our camaraderie values the me over the we. Not so in other cultures:

For some young city dwellers, there's never a question about whether an open-door policy with their parents makes sense; it's simply a cultural mandate. "In Latin America, there is no such thing as sending your parents to a hotel, unless you want to be disowned or guilt-tripped for the rest of your life," said Victoria Wigodzky, a 29-year-old native of Argentina who moved to the United States with her parents 15 years ago. She now lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, where she works at a grant-making foundation. Ms. Wigodzky's parents, who are both in their 60's and have retired to Argentina, stayed with her for a month in the summer of 2006, during which she gamely accommodated her father's desire for a cable subscription and her mother's keenness to share the bed in her room. More than once Ms. Wigodzky invited them to hang out with her friends (which the friends, at least those from the United States, found "funny," she said).


What about you? Ever had friction with long-visiting parents?

(Photo by Sylwia Kapuscinski.)

June 19, 2008 - 5:44am
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