It’s been a weird summer for my boyfriend and I, largely because we’ve found ourselves increasingly parenting our parents.
For me, the situation is simple: my parents are turning to me and my siblings for advice. They ask about little things – like technology and politics – but their questions are creeping into more personal territory.
A recent divorce in the family has put them closer to an uncoupling than they’ve ever been.
“Do we help them get a lawyer?” they asked me. “Do we need to fly out for court dates?” they asked me. “How do we help them?” they asked me.
These are questions they’ve never had to deal with and, really, neither have I.
Regardless, I’m the person they’re turning to for advice, telling them to help with the lawyer but that they should support a person through a problem like divorce, not try to solve the problem for them.
There were many heavy silences in these discussions, blank spaces occupied by the quiet sounds of their gears turning. Maybe they were realizing for the first time that their children are adults. It is an interesting position for all of us.
For my boyfriend (and, by default, me as well) playing parent-to-a-parent is a much bigger job: his mother recently moved in with us for economic and practical reasons.
He, an only child, was raised by a single mother who co-parented with the help of his grandmother. When his grandmother passed away at age 94 this summer, his mother swapped her role as a relative who lived hours away from us for a new one as our live-in dependent. She’s saddled with debt and living without savings. Without her mom, there were only two people she could turn to: us.
It’s been an interesting process, living with a sexagenarian looking for a job in a city new to her, an experience that is unfolding from her new life on our couch. My boyfriend and I are helping her write cover letters and make friends. We make dinner for our new family unit every night.
To mixed results, we’re making this caregiving situation work, at the expense of personal freedoms, savings accounts and mental health. This situation is temporary, yes, but as I told my boyfriend days after she moved in: this is our life now. There will never not be a moment when we are not the caregivers for his mother.
So, I made an appointment with a therapist.
Compared to the lives of many caregivers, our situation isn’t too tough. For one thing, there’s no medical aspect. But, as the Mayo Clinic puts it, a caregiver is “anyone who provides help to another person in need.” We’re doing that in our way.
This is happening for millennials more and more. The average U.S. caregiver is 49 years old, but one in four caregivers is a millennial.
The issue is that most millennial caregivers are not financially equipped for the role, a 2018 AARP study found. They don’t have the support systems they need to thrive, either emotionally or economically, under the circumstances.
Millennial caregivers can face setbacks in their own careers and in starting their own families.
David Grusky, a professor of sociology at Stanford University, sees the issue as compounding of problems for an age group who have historically been beset by problems.
Millennials “are the first generation to experience in full blush a ‘new economy’ in which upward mobility is uncommon, income inequality is extreme and work is precarious,” Grusky said. “If that weren’t enough, many of them also entered the economy in the midst of the Great Recession, not exactly an opportune time to attempt to start a career.”
This is especially true for black millennials, he said.
Paired with student debt, low-paying jobs, lack of homeownership and racial inequality, the stress of caregiving for millennials is no joke. The result is long-term scarring, Grusky said.
Much of my boyfriend’s and my specific problem has to do with something called “parentification.” The term refers to “children who act as their parents’ caretakers,” said Fran Brown, president of the Michigan School of Psychology and a private-practice psychologist.
There are two types of parentification — destructive and adaptive — and they have very different results.
Destructive parentification happens when young people, especially children, take on roles and responsibilities that are inappropriate to their stage of development. These roles eventually take over their identity and dissolve their boundaries.
Adaptive parentification is more transient, situational and less likely to consume the child.
Brown studies parentification in young children, but her findings may relate to young adults too, she said.
“We do know that the earlier and more age inappropriate of the caretaking charge, the more destructive the consequences for the child,” Brown said.
Parentification happens when a child fills in a blank a parent has, be it physical, emotional, financial or something else. The relationship can distort and create an environment for dependency, rather than give and take.
Millennials often get wrapped up in the stereotype that they’re living off the graces of their adult parents, that they are the stereotype of the privileged, entitled adult child.
For some, that may be the case. For my boyfriend and I, for many of our friends, and many of our peers across the country, the luxuries of benefitting from parents are nonexistent. Why? Because we parent our parents.
And that’s OK — for the most part. Yes, it can be annoying. Yes, it can be difficult. But it’s something we feel we have to do.
What comes with it is a greater need to look out for ourselves. We have to pay attention to how caretaking affects us physically, financially, socially and emotionally. We have to learn give and take. My boyfriend and I are handling this by reminding each other that our situation is temporary, and that we need to maintain at least some aspects of our lives from before this big change happened.
We love our parents, but we also love ourselves and each other. We all deserve to feel supported.
Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer based in Los Angeles. He loves dogs, champagne and short shorts.