The never-empty nest

July 21, 2014
adult kids at home

Twenty years ago when I was a working mother of young children my constant companion was guilt. Was I spending enough time with my children? Now that my sons are 25 and 22, and still living at home, I’ve probably spent more time with my children than the average 1950s housewife ever did with hers. Yet there’s a new guilt for parents to contend with: is it abnormal for our adult children to be living with us? Are we stunting their development?

The reasons young adults are living with Mum and Dad are well-known: more go to university or TAFE; low government support for student living allowances; insecure entry-level jobs. Rents are high and first homes out of reach unless parents contribute to the deposit. But there’s more to the story than economics. Speaking broadly, our kids seem to like our company, and we theirs. The generation gap that plagued us in our youth is generally no big deal today. Many of us left home young at a time when the Vietnam War, the Rolling Stones, and sexual liberation split the generations. Now that we’re parents, our views on pre-marital sex are usually relaxed, including it happening under our roof. Many parents and adult children share tastes in popular culture. Adult children text their parents often, and befriend them on Facebook. When I left home at 21, and then moved to the US at 22, my poor parents waited six weeks between letters.

I’m enjoying living with my adult sons. Living with them as adults is different from living with them as children. They have heads full of ideas, plans, and opinions on the world. Our dinner-time conversations are interesting. We’re getting to know each other as mature people. It’s given me a chance to make up to one son for the screaming banshee I became in his HSC year, and to forge a close relationship with him. It’s given me a chance to see the “late-bloomer” son emerge as a talented and admirable young man. I’m happy to provide the younger son with a base while he decides whether a career in the arts is possible. I’m happy to provide the older one with a base while he saves madly to get a foothold in the property market. It just goes to show I need not have worried twenty years ago about the harm I might be doing them. They’ve turned out fine.

But beneath the surface there’s unease. Many societies celebrate extended families; ours celebrates independence. For generations young people have struck out on their own in their late teens or early 20s. They learnt hard lessons and they had fun with their peers. By living at home, are our kids missing out on both the hard lessons and the fun, stuck in some extended adolescence? Sometimes, looking back on my communal living days, I do feel sorry for my sons. Sometimes I worry whether we’re over-involved and providing too much support. Re-assuring research from the US, however, shows the closer bonds today between young adults and their parents should be celebrated. Young adults who receive help from their parents, whether board or a willing ear on the day’s events, are happier and clearer about their goals than young people who lack that support. “It turns out that many parents and children want this close contact,” write the researchers Karen Fingerman of the University of Texas, and Frank Furstenberg, of the University of Pennsylvania. They point out that 25 years ago young people sought advice from naive peers. Today they receive advice and help from middle-aged adults with greater life experience and material resources to offer. “Forty years ago, the news media were filled with reports of a generation gap. Let’s be grateful we’ve finally solved that problem,” they write.

For some parents living with adult children is a second chance. One friend who’d held a big management job when her daughter was young says she’s now the “dream mother” to her 25- year-old. “I’m pleased she didn’t do what I did, fly the coop as soon as she could,” said my friend. “I’ve loved having her around, negotiating a lovely adult friendship.”

But parental support can’t be endless. Most of us are happy to help; we acknowledge the economic forces arrayed against the young today. Still, we want to see our children moving towards independence. We want to see them making progress, having a plan. If they’re unemployed, smoking dope all day, month after month, year after year, parental goodwill evaporates. If they splurge all their savings on travel and gadgets, they can’t expect parents to bail them out. If they aim to be novelists or film-makers, parental support will one day reach its limits. How they conduct themselves at home also matters – whether as children, or as mature adults who pay board, cook meals, and don’t wait to be asked to empty the dishwasher and take out the garbage.

It’s a pleasure to live with my adult sons. I’m glad to have had so much time with them. But I’m hoping, for their sake, for a dip in rents and housing prices. I’m hoping they won’t be saddled with more university debts under the proposed changes. I’m confident they’ll forge independent lives. It’s just a matter of time.

What’s your view/experience? Please leave a comment.

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