Hi, Carolyn: Our daughter "Annie" has moved back home at age 33 to save some money while doing postdoc work and teaching college courses. She works hard and studies for grueling hours, and she contributes to household expenses. Our daughter "Bonnie" has moved back home at 29 after a sudden breakup, bringing our 15-month-old grandchild with her. Bonnie works but does not earn much money, and we are encouraging her to save it instead of giving it to us because we know she wants to live independently with her child as soon as possible.
When Bonnie is not working, she is mostly tied up with her baby.
Neither daughter really contributes to the housework, but they are good housemates and we are really happy to have them both home.
Annie is resentful that Bonnie does not pay "rent," and feels she has been given a pass simply because she has a child. Bonnie feels judged and looked down on by her sister. My husband and I are often caught in the middle, and the tension sometimes leads us to regret opening our home to both kids.
One or both will probably move out within the next year. Until then, how do we cope? Do we intervene or stay out of it?
Boomeranged: Two things.
1. Annie is being shortsighted. Good families don’t take care of everything equally; instead they commit equally to taking care of needs. That means if Annie needs X she gets X, and if Bonnie need Y she gets Y, because what exactly is accomplished by handing Bonnie X just because that’s what Annie got? I use the term “shortsighted” because neither you nor Annie nor Bonnie knows what is in store for everyone, so for all you know Annie is five years out from needing XYZ all at once — and the pricklier she gets with Bonnie now, the more Annie opens herself to Bonnie’s resentful payback, plus interest. Which I hope she won’t do because that’s petty, but still.
2. Annie is paying her way but she doesn’t hold voting shares in your household. You decide how your resources are allocated, you decide which kid needs what, you decide what’s fair. If Annie isn’t happy to be mooching on less favorable terms than her sister is, then she needs to either take that up with you or move out. Resenting Bonnie for it is misplaced and unfair.
So, time to sit down with Annie. State your policy clearly: Different kids, different needs, same commitment to meeting needs, with the understanding that life is long and bean-counting serves nobody. If she’s not willing to trust that your home is a supportive one and that your judgment is good and that things will even out in the end, then she can take her complaints to you, and even propose other solutions, or forever hold her peace — because you will not stand for tension or hostility between the siblings.
If there’s old baggage here and either Annie or Bonnie tries to hand it back to you by way of explanation for the current rift, then decline to accept it. Say you will think carefully about your role in creating this dynamic — toward moving forward, however. Not back.