As multigenerational families grow, more people are dealing with the difficult task of incorporating a new member into an existing household. There are important generic differences between needy parents joining families of their children, and young adults returning home. Also, each case will have a unique family history. Still, it seems possible to build a framework that will help families chart successful futures.
Here are three elements of such a framework:
- Outside help
Perhaps one of the best examples of compassion in western culture is the biblical story of The Lost Son in Luke 15. A younger son asks for his inheritance early, effectively rebuking his family, leaves home and wastes the money, encounters famine and poverty, then repents and goes home. His father sees him approach and is “filled with compassion.” The father orders a celebration, and the older son becomes resentful. The father’s compassion extends to the older son as well, saying that everything the father has is his, but that they must celebrate because his younger brother was dead and is now alive.
The younger son repented, both to himself and to his father, for things he did that contributed to his downfall. His father forgave him upon seeing him, even before any explanations. Implicit in repentance, compassion, and forgiveness are reform and a new beginning, which are just what a new, multigenerational family must commit to.
The younger son repented honestly—he knew and admitted his unwise behavior. His father’s welcome was fully honest—there is no hint of reserve or resentment. The older brother’s resentment was unnecessary—the father reminded him that the estate was his. There was no retraction of the commitments made when the younger son broke away.
The Lost Son, like today’s multigenerational stories, deals with external causes. In the parable it was unforeseen famine, and today it is the economy. Still, the younger son took responsibility for his behavior and did not blame the famine. Both internal and external factors need to be acknowledged. It is wise neither to focus blame on the new household members nor to see them exclusively as victims.
After the homecoming, after compassion, forgiveness, and honest assessments, there is still the hard task of managing the new family. The Lost Son offers indirect help only, which comes from reflecting on the enduring need for compassion and honesty. They must constitute a practice, like exercise or contemplation, that is done frequently.
Outside help will be important to the new family. Families living in or near cities will have a wide array of professionals available: financial planners, religious counselors, career coaches, psychologists, and others. Some are expensive, but some are not.
Research offers outside help. The Internet provides a nearly unimaginable array of resources, and it offers a reasonable amount of privacy. There are informal groups, institutes and centers, local, state, and federal agencies, scientific and popular publications, online courses, and hundreds of businesses to assist with nearly every problem a family is likely to encounter. Less used but still significant are public libraries. Most libraries have trained staff to help with research. Libraries also have Internet connections, their own collections of books and journals, and access to other libraries through interlibrary loans.
Other family members and friends may be in an excellent position to offer understanding, ideas, and support. This is perhaps the most common source of help, yet still underused. People tend to want family matters kept private. At the same time, most recognize the benefits of talking over a problem with friends. Perhaps the key is confidentiality—can the friend offer it?
Independence and Dignity
Older adults often resist behavioral change. Their habits are cemented by a lifetime of experience, and the other family members may need to bear most of the change. It will be especially hard for in-laws having come from different family cultures. Managing resentments will be key. If the new member is a young adult, the path forward will likely aim toward renewed independence.
In all cases, it can help to recognize that a new household member brings strengths and virtues that can grow into contributions. Adult children can often help manage and improve a family’s technology, or can help with chores and home maintenance. Maybe a returning adult can cook, babysit, sew, repair plumbing, and so on. It is important to make room for these contributions because they strengthen the family and help build self respect and dignity.
Compassion, honesty, and outside help can become a pattern of work, at once simple and difficult, to help a new family grow. Maybe they will aid an old family too.