History repeats itself
Families moving in together is far from a new phenomenon. In 1850, if you were a senior and had adult children, it was nearly guaranteed that you were living with them and not independently, says Steven Ruggles, director of the Minnesota Population Center, who wrote a report chronicling the decline of multigenerational living from 1850 to 2000. That trend started to decline slowly through the latter half of the 19th century, Ruggles says, and nosedived starting in the 1940s.
“What brought about that change was a shift away from farming, as well as the rise of well-paid wage-labor jobs,” says Ruggles. “In the 19th century they were waiting around to inherit the farm. But when wage labor came in, the younger generation had a way to get out of these rigid, patriarchal families.”
Many historians point to Social Security as another reason for the rise of the nuclear family. The advent of Social Security during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society gave older Americans the economic means to remain independent long after they were no longer able to earn a living. Housing communities for retirees sprouted up in Florida, and “the myth of Sun City” and the idyllic retirement was born, says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an organization that promotes intergenerational activities and policies.
“People are coming back around full circle and realizing they are stronger when they are near family and friends,”says Butts. “We also know that people who move to seniors-only communities often get there and realize, ‘This is not that great.’ All they do is talk about pain, pills and passing. They want or need more purpose or vitality.”
And what can bring more vitality than a child? “We sometimes wonder what we would do if we didn’t have them to care for, because they really fill up your life,” says Benning. “We live by a calendar—but it’s not ours.”
Keeping the kids’ schedules straight—who has soccer practice, who has a play date after school, who has to be picked up—is a challenge, says Benning, who is in her 70s and lives in Ambler, Pa. And because she is in charge of breakfast and getting the kids out the door, she does miss sleeping in. But communication is the granny (or grampy) nanny’s biggest hurdle, she says.
“My daughter-in-law has her ideas as to how a child should be cared for, and I have mine,” says Benning. “As one grandmother who is in the same boat as I am said to me, ‘I listen to my daughter, but once the door is closed, I do it my way.’ It’s a solution, but as they get older they begin to tell tales and it doesn’t work. This is one of the things you run into.”
Benning has found the best solution for her family is to bow to her daughter-in-law over the minor differences. Anything major they discuss and try to arrive at a consensus. “If we can’t achieve that, I give in to her,” she says. “After all, I remind myself, they are her children, not mine.”
Privacy is Turner’s biggest challenge. Hers is a job with no quitting time. “It doesn’t matter if my son-in-law and daughter are here or not,” she says. “As long as I am in the house, the kids think I am the one that they have to come to when they want something. Even if I come to my room and close my door, they will stand at the door and go, ‘Meemaw, are you in there?’ The 1-year-old will knock on my door and go ‘Meemaw, Meemaw.’ You can’t resist that.”
Turner doesn’t always leave the house to get some time alone. “Sometimes I sit out in my car and paint my nails and listen to George Strait CDs,” she says.