A Fresh Start: Parents Relocate to Lend a Hand
A move from Ohio to Chicago offers a couple the benefits of new working roles and valuable time with their grandchildren
Earlier this year, Cheryl Harris, 65, and her husband Mike, 67, packed up their belongings in West Chester Township, Ohio, where they'd lived for 40 years. Their destination: Chicago, a city they'd never thought they could afford.
That wasn't the only thing unexpected about their move.
Cheryl was about to become chief of staff to her 43-year-old daughter, Melissa Harris, the founder of M. Harris & Co., a multi-million-dollar marketing and communications firm. And Mike was about to start overseeing upkeep at Melissa's home in a Chicago neighborhood, the kind of urban environment he'd never lived in before.
For the older couple, it was a fresh start, an opportunity to earn some money in retirement, and a way to help their daughter achieve a better work-life balance.
Melissa made her an offer: come to Chicago and help me out at work and home.
For Melissa and her husband, Eric Lomonaco, it was a chance to get relief from time-consuming responsibilities and make sure their two young children grew up with grandparents, as they had.
How did this unusual arrangement – a twist on older parents lending a helping hand to adult children — come to pass? It depends on who you ask.
By her account, in 2022, Cheryl, a nurse and health care manager, had become uneasy about the future of the Ohio hospital where she'd worked 31 years. Executives had hired McKinsey & Co., a consultant, to evaluate operations and Cheryl foresaw disruptive changes ahead.
She remembers talking about her reservations with Melissa and mentioning in passing that she'd like to retire early. The next day, Melissa made her an offer: come to Chicago and help me out at work and home.
A Good Move
For her part, Melissa says her mom made the ask. "She might have been joking but she said, 'can I come work for you?,'" she told me. "When I called her back the next day, I said I would love for you to work with me and I'll make sure you're paid well. But I need you and Dad here: I need someone, who if I'm in a work emergency, can pick up the kids at school or run to Costco or grab takeout for dinner."
Within months, Cheryl and Mike had sold the 3,800 square foot home where they'd raised Melissa and her sister Andrea. The house had belonged to Cheryl's parents; she, Mike and the girls moved in with Cheryl's mother after her father died in his 50s.
In Chicago, the older couple bought a two-bedroom, 1,200 square foot apartment six blocks from Melissa and Eric's home on the north side of Chicago. "I like apartment living: we really don't need any more space and we walk three to five miles most days. I love that," Mike said.
He's busied himself handling all kinds of issues at Melissa and Eric's house. The day before we talked, Mike painted the deck. He also pays bills, takes his grandson to school every morning, shops for food, manages the housekeepers and arranges appliance repairs, among other tasks.
"It's a lot of work, but I get paid for what I do," Mike said, adding that he's happy to help out.
As for Cheryl, her job description at Melissa's firm was initially vague but she soon proved herself invaluable. Recently, when Melissa was unable to go on a river cruise with a potential client, Cheryl went instead. When a designer at the firm had a family medical issue at the last minute, Cheryl flew to Florida and manned a display at the Orlando convention center.
Part of the Team
"I knew I was bringing on a really competent administrator, but my mom has really been able to pinch hit even more than I expected," Melissa told me.
"We don't think of her as 'the mom' – Cheryl has just made herself part of the team," said Cristi Kempf, who's overseeing business development at Melissa's firm. "She fits right in and she's very competent and approachable."
Lest there be any confusion about who's really the boss, Melissa said "the idea that I tell my mom what to do is hilarious. That just isn't the case."
"I think the nicest thing for me is, this reminds me of when I was growing up with my grandma."
Still, Melissa admitted her mom is "very good at reading my needs" and was emphatic about the impact: "Having her here has made my life so much better."
Has the transition been difficult? Not really, both couples say. Cheryl and Mike have learned to get around Chicago on public transportation and appreciate not having to drive. Still, Mike finds Chicagoans "not near as nice and polite" as people back in Ohio and doesn't appreciate it when cars race through intersections.
Cheryl understands the need to set boundaries now that the couple's lives are so deeply intertwined. "We try to let Melissa and Eric run the show," she told me, while admitting that sometimes she offers too much advice too freely.
"Having your in-laws be around all the time versus going out of your way to see each other – there has to be a balance. But overall, I think it's been great, and the kids have been really excited to be with them," said Eric, who grew up in Michigan with both sets of grandparents nearby.
"We've always been close, so I don't really think our relationship has changed. I think the nicest thing for me is, this reminds me of when I was growing up with my grandma," Melissa said. "Other than my parents, she was the most important person in my life – an amazing, resilient, generous person."
While Cheryl and Mike are healthy, they know they're entering a period of life when that can't be taken for granted. Which is another reason the move to Chicago, a city with abundant medical facilities, seemed like a good idea.
"I understood that the older I get, the more I'll need my kids," Cheryl told me. "We can't live somewhere away from our daughters and expect them, if something happened to one of us, to uproot their lives and come help us. Making this move while we're able, it makes a lot more sense."