Q:My wife and I recently sent our last child off to college. We were ready to sell the house and travel around the country, but our oldest daughter just lost her job and is planning to move back home. How can my wife and I enjoy our retirement but help our daughter at the same time?
A: One of the biggest risks to adjusting to a child’s leaving is that she might come back. All of us have certain preconceived notions about when major life events are supposed to take place, and we have a social clock that rings at the appropriate time. If the clock doesn’t go off at the right time, we’re likely to feel some stress. Moving out of the house is one of those events, and for most of us, the clock is set for eighteen, which is when the majority of American kids move out.
If a child is going to college at eighteen, we’re perfectly content to hit the snooze button and let her hang out at home for a few more years. You may even be secretly-or not-so-secretly-thrilled to have someone around again who’s dependent on you. Or you may be thrilled to have someone around you can be dependent on. But if she’s still home at thirty-five, you’re not going to be as happy. If you had plans to retire or to sell your house and spend two years on the road living out of an RV, you may resent her for interfering with your new, more independent lifestyle and for making you be an active parent longer than you wanted to. And you might see her moving back (or never leaving) as a sign of some failure on your-or her-part. In contrast, if the clock goes off too early, say fourteen or fifteen, you might feel that you’ve done something wrong, that you weren’t a caring enough father.
In the United States, almost 60 percent of twenty-two-to-twenty-four-year olds are living at home. For the twenty-five to twenty-nine set, it’s about 30 percent, and it’s down to one in four thirty-to-thirty-four-year olds. Ninety percent of adult children living at home are single, but that still leaves plenty of married kids coming home to roost with Ma and Pa for a while. The most common reasons are housing costs, debt, unemployment, and divorce. Unfortunately, we’re a downwardly mobile society. It used to be that children almost always had a better life than their parents. But with housing costs rising a lot faster than salaries, many young adults feel that there’s no way they’ll ever get ahead. In addition, young adults are waiting longer before getting married. Between 1970 and 2000 the average age at first marriage for women increased from 20.8 to 25.1; for men, it went from 23.2 to 26.8 years.
About twice as many young men as women live at home. Why? Well, first of all, because women get married younger, they tend to leave home sooner. They’re also more likely to have a husband or boyfriend to support them (which is much more uncommon for young men), say researchers Paul Glick and Sung-ling Lin. Second, there’s an attitude issue. Young men tend to have the idea that parents have an obligation to house their children. They’re also less likely to think that children should pay for the privilege, say Constance Shehan and Jeffrey Dwyer. Third, men living at home are more likely to be unemployed than women, although it’s not clear whether they’re home because they aren’t working or they aren’t working because they’re home and they don’t have to.
Interestingly, researchers William Aquilino and Khalil Supple found that most parents whose adult children, ages nineteen -thirty-four, live at home are happy with things the way they are. There were, however, two important factors that caused problems. First, the child’s being unemployed or financially dependent on the parent increased the chances of parent-child conflict. Second, having a divorced or separated child-especially one with a baby in tow-move back home reduced the parents’ satisfaction with the entire living arrangement.
If your child does move back home (or doesn’t leave in the first place), resist the urge to shout, "This is not a hotel!" and set up a lot of ground rules-doing so is the fastest way to create conflict. Adult kids don’t want a hotel either. They want a home, independence, and self-respect. If your young adult child had responsibilities as a teen, and she had a respectful relationship with you and your wife, it’s pretty safe to assume that nothing will change. She knows that coming home is a temporary solution-something to help her over the hump-and she’s looking forward to getting out there on her own.
In general, adult children don’t feel very good about living at home and being dependent on their parents again. They worry that they’ll be stuck there forever, and some respond to their own fears by behaving irresponsibly. Laying down the law and treating your child like a, well, child, will be counterproductive. If she’s not being responsible, sit her down and start a conversation with, "It must be hard for you to be living at home. How can we make things easier for all of us?" That’s the time to gently raise issues such as how long she’ll be staying, whether she’ll be paying rent or contributing financially, whether she’ll have any responsibilities or chores to do, and if it’s okay to borrow the car.
It may also be a time to go over your domestic policies, which will probably be pretty similar to the ones you had when your child was living at home the first time around. Do you have a curfew? What’s your philosophy on bringing lovers home (of course she’s not a virgin, but, hey, it’s your house, so you make the rules)? Do you want her to call home if she’s going to be late (if only to keep you from worrying)? How about smoking or doing drugs (is it okay at home? okay out of the home? neither?)? If necessary, establish some milestones. If she’s unemployed, you might expect her to have a certain number of interviews or send out a certain number of r’sum’s per week. If she’s at home because of a drug or alcohol problem, you might set a timetable for finishing a rehab program.
Whatever you do, make sure that you establish some boundaries and agree to respect each other’s privacy. That means that you don’t pry into her personal life, and she stays off your favorite chair. Don’t expect her to be interested in participating in all your activities, and don’t expect to be invited to participate in hers. And if your child moves home with her family, get clear up front how often you’ll be available for baby-sitting duty. Don’t let yourself get treated as a live-in nanny in your own home.
The purpose of all this is to help your child become more independent. It’s also to keep you from building up a huge amount of resentment at being taken advantage of. You need to strike a good balance between allowing your adult child the freedom she needs, asking her to take on a reasonable amount of adult responsibility, and your own sanity. Remember, though, that the more rules you have, the greater the potential for conflict. So try to keep them to a minimum and bring them up only if you really need to.