Three generations on a family mission in cooperation

Eileen McDonnell is part of a growing trend of multigenerational households. She lives with her mother, Barbara, and daughter, Claire, with other family nearby.

Eileen C. McDonnell, chief executive of Penn Mutual Life Insurance, was named Drexel's Business Leader of the Year.

Sitting next to her at the April award luncheon were her brother Bill McDonnell and sister Barbara Kelnhofer. Not unusual, except when you consider that her siblings and their spouses moved from New York to Philadelphia to help raise their families en masse after McDonnell got the CEO job in 2013.

In addition to running a company, Eileen McDonnell is a single mother and a baby boomer living in a three-generation household - part of a trend among Americans who want their elderly parents living with them and their children.

Half the McDonnell clan - three of six siblings, their five children, and their mother - relocated to Doylestown when Eileen got the CEO's position at Penn Mutual. All live within a few miles of each other.

McDonnell's widowed mother, Barbara McDonnell, 80, shares a home with her and her daughter, Claire, 11.

"We sat down as an extended family after I got the offer, and I said, 'I can't do it myself,'" Eileen said. "My mom was already living with me. My sister and brother then moved here, as well. We made it happen on purpose. My story is relatable for anyone who's a caretaker to a parent and raising a child while having a career."

Sometimes, sister Barbara stays overnight when Eileen travels and "cares for [Claire] if she is out of school sick. Bill helps when I have service workers in my home, as his schedule provides him with great flexibility." (He's an insurance agent.)

"With this CEO single mom, it takes a village, and fortunately I have amazing support from my family," McDonnell said.

About seven million grandparents lived with grandchildren in 2013, up from 5.8 million in 2000, Census Bureau data show.

Overall, about 23 percent of Americans are "sandwiched" between their children and their parents. That is, they have parents 65 or older and either were raising a young child or providing financial assistance to a grown child in the preceding 12 months, the Pew Research Center reported in 2015.

McDonnell, now 53, adopted Claire at 18 months old from Russia.

"During my interview here with Penn Mutual, I said I didn't go halfway around the world to adopt a child not to participate in her life," she said.

"I'm the product of a stay-at-home mom. I have four sisters who made choices working part time, some staying home," she said. "If I was not in the office because I had left to go be the reader at school, and that was going to be an issue for you, you have the wrong girl - I said that from the start before I took the job."

When not working, "I am mommying. My daughter rides horses, something I never did. So I go from executive presentations to very dirty, dusty Saturdays and Sundays with my daughter."

Claire has celiac disease and eats a gluten-free diet. "I make sure the lunch is packed right, the homework gets signed. I don't delegate that," McDonnell said.

Barbara McDonnell said she "hadn't envisioned being part of a three-generation household, but after raising six children and always having family around me, I wasn't prepared for how lonely widowhood would be."

"I knew that I could be of assistance to Eileen as responsibilities of her career grew, in helping to manage her home and periodic baby-sitting for Claire," Barbara said. "It has kept me young at heart."

Eileen McDonnell can definitely afford extra help. "But," she said, "what do you choose to afford help for? That's a choice I make. I'm a CEO by day, but I am a mom all the time. I waited a long time for her."

Multiple generations in the same home can work - when everyone has some privacy.

"People want to be able to look after their parents, but their parents often want to be left alone," said Tony Polk, of Tony's Rolodex, which helps connect families with senior-placement advocates.

Did Eileen McDonnell think she'd ever live with her mother?

"No, but circumstances evolved where we are today. My mother is in my home by choice. She's not interested in assisted living. Her mother was in a facility for Alzheimer's for eight years, and she doesn't want that."

Women often end up hurting themselves financially by leaving the workforce to care for spouses or elderly parents. Eileen McDonnell did it twice: She left a prior employer to care for her ailing father. Then she left work again to adopt her daughter, and spent a few years consulting and teaching at the American College in Bryn Mawr.

But she had some money saved and, she said, "I made sure first that I had a network and a plan."

"Women shortchange themselves, thinking perhaps they don't deserve to come back," McDonnell said. "I was out of corporate life for three years, and I didn't take a pay cut. I stayed visible. When I was presented, I was not viewed as disengaged. It's OK to go back to work."

earvedlund@phillynews.com

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@erinarvedlund