Loving but Distressed Daughter

Dear Debbie,

My husband and our two adult children live 2,500 miles away from my elderly parents who are now retired.  They travel well and are very fit.  They visit us once every year, and we always look forward to their visit.

However, when they come they stay with us in our home for the entirety of their trip – approximately 3-4 weeks. They feel very much at home, which is a good thing, but perhaps too much of good thing. They answer the phone, the door, and involve themselves with every discussion/argument within listening distance. Each visit creates tension between me and my husband.

How do I ease the tension created  by this situation?


Loving but Distressed Daughter


Dear Loving but Distressed Daughter,

I can very much relate to your dilemma as I myself lived very far from my parents and they would come to visit twice a year. All around me were other families like that, as we all lived abroad with family visits resembling a roller coaster ride through the calendar year.  The nature of the visits are very intense, the pre-visit a high, the post-visit a downer and everyone sensitive for lengthy periods before and after settling into a regular schedule, till the next cycle begins again.

Your question, though, leads me to understand that you value your parent’s visits, you care deeply for them and you do not want to hurt their feelings.

These are the factors involved in this situation:

  1. Tension the visit creates between you and your spouse.
  2. Diminished boundaries at home between you and your parents.
  3. Yours and your husband’s lack of privacy to discuss the situation by explaining deep and intense feelings.
  4. As a daughter, your protectiveness of your parents and your desire to do the right thing and not hurt their feelings.

Let’s deal with each one separately:

I would like to begin with number 4 because the evolution from daughter to independent woman to married woman with a refined set of priorities is a very difficult one and some women, and men for that matter, never fully realize that peak of independence where they are truly loyal to themselves, their spouses, children and parents (in that order).  They are constantly torn by their devotion to parents and allegiances to family and this can take a huge toll and cause much stress.  Thus, the term, “sandwich generation”, those who emotionally and even financially support aging parents and children and grandchildren, has become so popular to describe those aged 40 to 60.  I espouse being faithful to your own needs and those of your spouse first.  Children and grandchildren require attention and as a family unit should be put as a priority but parents, even when they are part-time, like in your case, can sometimes come first, but not as a general rule.   And there are always exceptions.

I would like to stress that when everyone is under the same roof there are additional demands and you should prepare for it before, during and after.  This may be the time for you to go for that day of pampering at the spa.  Get the facial or makeover before they come to visit and the trip to the spa post visit.  This may be the perfect time to splurge on those expensive boots you have been coveting all month (It has been shown that material rewards are not as satisfying as a vacation or an experience). Recognize how much you give to everyone and reward yourself for it.

Feel good about your parents being in the house with you and know that statistics show that families that have different generations living in a home together foster closer bonds between generations.  Additionally, Pew Research reports that of the caregivers who look after both their kids and their aging parents, “31% report being very happy with their lives, and an additional 52% say they are pretty happy”.  Happiness rates are nearly the same among adults who are not part of the sandwich generation as “28% are very happy, and 51% are pretty happy”.  You’re in good company.

Moving backwards, leaving number 2 for the last, let us discuss number 3 and number 1 since they are both related.  You and your husband must put your relationship first and safeguard the intimacy you share.

  • Sometimes it can relieve tension by verbalizing your feelings about the situation even if there is no immediate resolution in real time. This means that you and your spouse must set aside time to discuss how you BOTH feel about your parents in the house and specifically you must validate his feelings about how the things they do invade his space. You cannot be reticent about speaking up when your parents are flawed.  Even though it seems that this will not accomplish much change, feelings are everything and if the both of you feel that you are in this together, you understand each other and you can comfort and validate each other, it will be integral to survive.
  • Set aside “dates” to take a walk or share a cup of coffee, specifically for the purpose of communicating about all this. These “dates” should be sacred, for ONLY the two of you.  You’re sanctifying them and your refusal to allow your parents to join will convince your spouse that you are committed.

Number 2, about establishing boundaries is probably the most complicated.   Given all I said above, and while boundaries are very important, I ask, how important are they at this late stage? You state that your parents are elderly.    If the boundaries have not been established by now, it is late in the game to start for the benefit of a finite period of years of POSSIBLY having them honored.  Your parents may be hurt or even embittered.  This is not a good way to begin a period in their lives where they may need you more than ever and possibly be too embarrassed to ask.   I am sure both you and your husband want to be there for all of your parents and that it why it is essential that you are the outlet for each other and are comfortable revealing your innermost thoughts and fears.

Since, you addressed the question to me, I always try to be a peacemaker and to please everyone.  I would try to get my husband on my side even though I know how incredibly uncomfortable it is for him.  However, in the real world, many people would likely tell their parents that three weeks is too long, make it 1-2 weeks and if they want to come for longer they will help them find a hotel so it is a vacation as well as a family visit.

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