Life Stages: Middle Adulthood

by on December 31, 2011

in Bernice's Research

caring for a parent

Bernice continues her discussion of Life Stages from the perspective of the only-child adult.

After the  Young adult life -stage, which is concerned with making relationships and settling down, we move into the middle-adult, life-stage. Middle adulthood is the time when we are actively involved in generativity. This is about helping the next generation and could be through raising children or contributing to the welfare of future generations through paid or voluntary work,  or even perhaps in some other way. However it is also at this stage that many only children and non onlies,  find themselves caring for elderly parents.

My research suggests that this phase of caring for elderly parents is particularly challenging for onlies, who often have strong feelings of responsibility toward parents’ and at the same time no siblings to share these feelings with. It also means that for some only-children the projected responsibility of elderly parents has coloured their views about having children, leading them to decide not to have any or in some cases this includes not having a partner either. Only children’s inter-dependence with their parents can mean they are not able to countenance either leaving the parental nest or placing a partners needs above those of a parent. On occasions this leads to the break down of the relationship with the partner and middle adulthood can be a time of divorce and separation.

 A common theme from my original website concerning generativity showed that numbers of only children choose not to have children of their own. The reasons varied and included:

  1. Not experiencing being a child when a child meant they felt alienated towards the idea of being responsible for a child.
  2. Never really feeling they could relate to children as they had been encouraged to grown up as ‘a little adult’.
  3. Their own negative experience of growing up an only-child meant they were not happy to reproduce that for a child.

 Some others certainly did not want to be to childless and wished to try and create the family they believed they had missed out on. They chose to have several children or even large families.  Fortunately some only children really appreciated their only child upbringing and were happy to have one child.  However these appeared to be in the minority with my UK co-researchers.

 Therefore the stage of middle adulthood, for the only child, can be one of balancing many conflicting demands. This is of course true of people with siblings, but the difference is the extra pressure of duty that many only children feel towards their parent/s as the only person to care for them. This responsibility is often coupled with a strong parental expectation to be looked after in old age. When there are no siblings to discuss or share this responsibility and when one’s partner who has siblings does not really understand,  the duty felt by the only child can seem excessive.  The following extract is taken from my original research and captures the sense of both responsibility, duty and pressure:

We’re having major alterations done to this house to have my mother come and live here and that wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t an only-child. This actually gives her a proper space to be a disabled old lady.

I’ve been saying I would do this for my mum for a long, long time. There were times where she would have liked it to have happened earlier.

Since I went through that sort of pain barrier of: ‘Oh my god my life is at an end!’ The difficulty (of being an only child) has always been the emotional side of it- feeling pressurized – feeling demanded of – feeling that I’m smothered by everybody else’s needs. (Amy)

The final post in this series of Life Stages will be on Late Adulthood.


  • Conniepopenhagen

    Reading this was like a breath of fresh air for me as an only child & parental responsibilities as my parents transition through their life stage.  Meanwhile I am moving through my own & the sense of duty and responsibility becomes “excessive” as the article says.  I call it something else ;)   Thank you for your writing.  With much love & sincerity. 

    • MonicaWRobinson

      I am considered the middle child and although I have both a brother and sisters, Ifelt the overwhelming pressure of caring for my parents during their late stages.  When I was single it was” all you are single and have no responsibilities such as husband or children” now that I am married with 1 child of my own I was told” Now, you are married and have the support of your husband”.

      I didn’t get much help from siblings but my husband was my strength.  He supported me through it all.  I can relate to overwhelming pressure, exhaustion and a sense of duty.  To God be the Glory…

      with sincerity ,


  • Julieta

    I am going through all those feelings and not knowing how to deal with an increasing sense of resentment towards my parents. 

    I am and only daughter.  My childhood was financially difficult and emotionally intense because my mother’s constantly reminder that  ” I was all she had in the world” ( although she has 3 siblings and a husband). My parents are still together, but since a very young age I have been the family problem solver. I have always felt responsible for my parents happiness and well being, to the extent that since age 16 I have worked to help out with the family finances (messed up by my fathers alcoholism). I had a really hard time paying the rent to provide roof for the 3 of us, while at the same time paying for my college education.   

    At the age of 25 I moved to a different continent trying to put distance with my parents, however as the article say, the emotional attachment was left intact, mostly due to manipulation, I call it “emotional blackmail” from my mother.  I was aware of it at times, but still found so difficult so say NO. At 28 I got married but chose not to  have children,  knowing that I couldn’t either care for more people or feed more mouths.  I’ve never felt comfortable around kids.

    I am 38 now, my husband is 48 and he wast recently diagnosed with cancer, my parents are both in their late 70′s and their expectations of my financial /emotional support have only increased.  It is almost like they don’t care that my husband is ill and that my life has crumbled, they still expect me to put their needs first. My marriage has suffered a lot  from this situation with my parents,  I never felt understood by my husband, and now I realize that my husband has felt displaced in my life by my parents and I feel guilty about that, too.  Right now I feel terribly overwhelmed with all this responsibility on my shoulders, my husbands illness and the fear of losing him.  I thought that at least I had solved the issue of growing old alone… not sure of that now.

    To me, my parents are my “karma” , some kind of punishment I can’t get rid off. Deep in my heart I feel it is not fair if my husband dies before my parents, I frequently wish it was the other way around ( and soon). 
    Thank you for this article, it is nice to know that  to some degree, others have to deal with similar issues.

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