Parents in Middle

By the time parents reach late middle age, they are well down the frequency curve of the number of children still living with them. Less than 10% of households headed by parents in their early fifties contain children under 18 years of age (see Figure 7-4). This is the so-called empty nest or postparental phase of the family life cycle. It is the time when the children have moved out and parents are left alone to be either depressed or rejuvenated, depending on one's point of view. It actually turns out that, although the departure of one's children is stressful for some parents, for most parents the empty-nest period is a time of even greater satisfaction than when the children were younger and living at home (Neugarten, 1970). The parents now have more time for avocational and vocational pursuits, for reestablishing their relationships with each other as well as with relatives and friends, and for contemplating what to do with the rest of their lives.

The postparental phase of the family life cycle occurs sooner in middle-class and white American families than in working-class and nonwhite families. Because working-class and nonwhite families have more children, they are present for a longer period of time than in middle-class and white families. Regardless of class or color, today's young adults do not always remain "out of the nest"; financial pressures and personal difficulties often result in their returning home for brief or even prolonged periods. Not only are parents often surprised when their adult children come home to stay, but many are downright unhappy about it (Barber, 1989). This is also true when children delay their departure from home as long as possible, forcing their parents to hint and hustle them on their way to independent living.

Age of Parents

Figure 7-4 Percentage of households with children, by age of parents and children.

(Based on data from Saluter, 1996.)

Age of Parents

Figure 7-4 Percentage of households with children, by age of parents and children.

(Based on data from Saluter, 1996.)

Middle-agers are also referred to as the sandwich generation, a term that reflects their position between the generation of their children and that of their own parents. Being "caught in the middle," as it were, is obviously not pleasant when pressure comes from one's children and one's own parents. In general, middle-aged adults spend a lot of time, energy, and money helping their children and their parents (Brody, 1990). The life-satisfaction and self-evaluations of most middle-agers who have children are greatly affected by how those children have turned out. Even though the children may no longer live with their parents, the interpersonal relationship between the two generations usually improves when the latter become young adults and set out on their own paths (Troll & Bengtson, 1982).

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