The permutations of our family roles are many and multilayered. You may have been the child appointed to raise the family banner high — because you were smart or good-looking or great at sports — and so you got out of doing things the others got stuck with. Or maybe that was your brother. Perhaps you were the steady, responsible one that everyone could rely on. Or the hapless little kid who always needed rescuing.
The assignment of these roles can be arbitrary: which kid was born first or reminds Mom of her sister (whom she either liked or resented), or who is most like Dad (and how Mom feels about Dad), and on and on. Whatever their origins, they tend to stick. And whenever the family gets together, you all slip automatically into your old slots. It’s the most natural thing in the world.
Changing Roles as Parents Age
Nowhere is this truer than in the long-running family drama that revolves around aging parents.
Family roles that may have worked when kids were kids and parents were parents are not likely to function well in this new dynamic. Families work as a unit, with each person’s role complementing and supporting the other. After decades apart, however, everyone is changed. If Mom was the decision-maker, for example, she may be too frail or have dementia. If Dad was the peacemaker, maybe he’s gone. So families need to adapt.
But these roles are so deeply ingrained that examining and adjusting them can be daunting. When challenged, many people tend to get defensive and tend to cling — usually unconsciously — more tightly. But working toward adapting these reflexive behaviors even a little can yield a big payoff in personal growth and family dynamics.
The Challenge of Shifting Family Dynamics
Here are two contrasting examples, culled from years of interviewing families for my book, They’re Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy. (Names have been changed.)
At 64, Rhoda held fiercely to her family position. The eldest child, she became a “little mother” to her siblings starting when she was barely five, ultimately taking care of seven others.
As the family kept expanding, Rhoda's "little-mother" role grew in stature and responsibility, with her brood of siblings looking up to her and obeying her. Like a lot of children thrust into this leadership role, she learned to suppress her own needs and get her satisfaction and sense of worth from taking care of others. And, whether or not she realized it, she also deeply resented that no one was taking care of her.
Forty years later, when Rhoda's widowed mother began to show signs of dementia, she automatically took charge. But over time, several of her younger siblings noticed something disturbing. Rhoda was exercising a tyrannical control over their mother’s daily routines that bordered on abusive. After these now grown-up sisters and brothers conferred, they reluctantly allowed themselves to see flaws in the big sister that they still looked up to. They realized that she was acting out her old resentments of no one taking care of her under the guise of being a super-efficient manager.
Working together, and trying to spare Rhoda’s feelings as best they could, they shifted arrangements for their mother’s care to make it more of a group effort. Unable to see why she should not take charge as always, Rhoda felt dethroned and became bitter. She bowed out of day-to-day decisions and never fully forgave her siblings. Today, seven years later, she still harbors deep resentment.
Letting Go, Stepping Up
In a family of four girls and two boys, Lauren was one of two older sisters. The girls, especially the eldest, had always ruled in their family. The younger boys were seen as less competent, and they showed little inclination to lead.
For years it had been assumed that Lauren, a nurse living in Maryland, would eventually take care of their widowed dad in upstate New York. She lived closer to him than her sisters and had medical expertise. And she'd always been looked up to by her siblings as one of the “ruling sisters.”
But when her father needed care, two unexpected things occurred. First, Lauren had to deal with some health issues in her own immediate family and had no time to take care of her father. Then her youngest brother, a blue-collar worker still living in their hometown, began to step up — for the first time in his life. Lauren was taken aback. Everything in her fought to reclaim her position. But when she came to see that her “little” brother, now in his 50s, was both well intentioned and capable of helping out with their father, she realized it was time to let go of being the leader.
It wasn’t easy for her to do, but it felt right for her and her siblings. Lauren took on a secondary role, advising and helping when needed. Over time, she and her brother grew closer than they had ever been. As their dad's care went smoothly, she appreciated her brother more. The way Lauren and her brother were able to cooperate also produced a stronger connection among all the siblings as they each adjusted to the new order. Instead of re-enacitng childhood roles, everyone was now acting as a full adult in order to best serve the interests of their father.
New times and new realities demand a loosening of those ill-fitting old roles. When done right, the results can be nothing short of liberating for all concerned.