How do we kids conduct an "intervention" for our parents?

Their lives seem out of control, and we're frightened for them.

By Cary Tennis
Published June 22, 2005 6:49PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

How do you conduct a "Party of Five"-style "intervention" for your parents? And what if they're not alcoholics or nut cases but just unhappy and overworked?

I'm 30 years old. My parents were really young when they had kids and they had very little time beforehand to be a couple. Now that we've all left home, I think they're having trouble learning how to be happy together.

Their life isn't easy. They're in their mid-50s and work together to run a very small business that involves doing too much manual labor. My dad has been working hard all his life and isn't going to be able to handle it much longer. Since they're self-employed, they have no retirement, only bare-bones but expensive healthcare and no vacation time. They don't own a home. Sometimes they seem to have savings; sometimes they seem insecure about money.

Providing their kids with a good education was really important to them. Putting us through private schools meant a lot of sacrifices. My siblings and I are all doing fairly well now, although none of us makes a lot of money, in part because they were so supportive of us as artists and free-thinkers. We all fully expect to have to support them in their old age. It's something we've always known, so that's not the issue. We just want them to make it that far.

There are two things that have been really upsetting me lately. First, they are always tired, more than before, and they are increasingly unhappy. For the last few years, my mom has been telling me that something has to change with the business or they're going to have to get a divorce. All my life, they've been the happiest couple I've known. But they work seven days a week. All they do is work -- running around all day to various clients and then doing office work at home until bedtime. My dad has started waking my mom up with a "to do" list instead of a "good morning." Even though neither of them were well-educated, they're really smart and really good at what they do. I'm sure if they had the time, they could figure out how to transition their business into something they could manage into their old age.

Second, they make me really unhappy. I have a good life. My husband and I are saving to buy a house and are talking about having kids soon. It makes me so sad to think I might own a home before them. And I want them to be around if we have a baby. They were always around when we were little, working as little as possible to make only the money they needed so they could be with us.

I've half-jokingly told both my siblings and my parents that we need to have an "intervention." My dad's reply was, "When?" My siblings and I are all on the same page, except they don't seem to think there's anything we can do about it. The summer is a slower time for them at work and I don't want it to pass by again with no one doing anything to try to make things better. I don't want to see what might happen to them after another hard year.

But what can we do? I could get everyone together for a family meeting, but what would we say? And how can kids say, "There's a problem here" without being patronizing or being disregarded?

Sad Daughter

Dear Sad Daughter,

What is fascinating about such family dramas as you describe -- and dangerous, and infinitely complex, and potentially painful -- is that there are two related issues that we must pursue at the same time but that often work against each other. One issue is utterly practical: Your parents are getting older; they are eventually going to need some help; things would go better if some decisions could be made now about the future. So naturally everybody ought to sit down and talk about it.

The other is this: When the siblings gather to save their parents, old bones rattle and the earth shudders in its orbit. Every family has its horrors and this gathering is the season of their germination: The autumn of the father's withering and the mother's abnegation is the spring of turmoil for sons and daughters. No one knows what you will find when you turn your family upside down and shake it. You do not have access to the codes, the secret promises to each other and to yourselves, the map that shows where the mines are buried. Nor do you know what will happen when the strongest man in the world has to lean on your elbow. You never know just how it's going to feel to shoulder his frail weight and realize that if you fall it won't be your father who picks you up, that you're going to stay down until somebody stronger comes along, that the strongest man in the world, by declamation if not in actual fact, is now becoming, bit by bit, just another old man in a world crowded with old men.

When the siblings gather to save the parents, a devil is unleashed. This I know.

Still, duty and hope compel you. You can do some good things and you should try to do them even though in doing them you may encounter drama you had not imagined -- outbursts, resistance, hidden sorrows, long-held anger, simmering disappointment, the psyche struggling to right itself as the family system capsizes. And that is what you are facing, basically -- a capsizing, or reversal, of power and responsibility. You see these once invincible actors bowed under unseen burdens, crushed by the weight of time, submerged in trying to stay afloat, and it frightens you. So you naturally, out of fear, think you'd better grab the reins.

But fear dissolves in knowledge. So take some time to think about their situation. What is really going on? They are in their mid-50s. They are probably tired! They've been working so hard for so long, they may not even know how tired they are, or why they are tired -- they used to be able to work this hard without falling apart! They are tired and they are scared: What's going to happen to them? They are tired and scared and their pride feels threatened: Here they've always been the stalwart heroes of their children's lives, and now what? On the brink of failure, dependence, unable to cope? But not yet ready to throw in the towel, not for another 20 years probably. There are many practical plans, financial plans, health plans, housing plans, to consider, many expert opinions, many useful publications, many educational examples of provident preparation to be seen in the actions of friends and relatives. You naturally will want your parents to think about all these things. But they may be unable to think, too tired to think, too harried to think. When in hell are they supposed to sit down and plan out this "future" you talk about? When? they may ask. During some Caribbean cruise?

So how might they feel about an "intervention"? Threatened? Yes, by all means. Insulted? Perhaps. Hungry for rescue? Perhaps that too. Frightened of change? Undoubtedly.

So all those things will rise to the surface when you gather. If not expressed, they will still be there, trust me. Still you must gather and hope for the best. How could you just stand by and do nothing? And what of all your siblings and their equivalent feelings? First and foremost, of course, when any weakness of the parents is contemplated, it's the fear of their death that surfaces. One doesn't really want to think about that, ever. So one finds a way around it; one minimizes, one represses, one ignores, one makes light of, one plays whatever role one learned to play whenever fear was in the family air.

And if I may speak from experience, "solutions" dreamed up by the kids have a way of backfiring; it's as though some germ of perverse fate is unleashed when the children attempt to step in and begin arranging things for the parents. That is not so strange, actually; things having been turned on their head, perversity is quite the norm. So I warn you: If you do not go slowly, if you do not first merely sit down and say, "We are coming together to see if we can be of help," if you do not pay attention first to the relationships and later to the practical necessities, if you act without seeing that everything you do now is a symbol of something else, if you neglect to acknowledge how slippery the floor is, you are in for craziness beyond imagining.

The truth is, you may be in for craziness beyond imagining no matter how careful you are. It's in the nature of things.

So welcome to the party!

Party of Five! Your table is ready!

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