“You can’t go home again,” according to the old saying. Tell that to the adult children who are returning to live with their parents, or never leaving, in record numbers. For the first time in recent history, more young adults are living with their parents than cohabitating in romantic or married situations. No doubt about it: how we think about parenting and retirement have changed.
While the economic downturn associated with COVID-19 explains some of the recent rise in adult children moving back home, this trend has been increasing since the 1960s. The employment market has changed drastically, for one thing.
Gone are the factory jobs and other opportunities for people who have not graduated college. Delayed marriage and increasing divorce rates have also contributed to the rise in intergenerational households, as has the skyrocketing price of housing.
There are, however, two different groups of adult children who return home for support.
The first are those who move back in for a short stay, to save money, complete schooling or recover from a life crisis, like a divorce, and will then bounce back. These “boomerang kids,” as the expression goes, will leave the nest (again) and live independently.
The second, and very different, group of adult children who return to their parents for support are those with serious problems that affect their ability to be self-supporting — such as substance misuse, mental illness, or chronic unemployment. These adults do not easily bounce back into independent living.
I should know. As a gerontologist who studies women’s experiences as they age, I have talked to hundreds of mothers who do not speak up when asked “how are the kids?” These women are silent, in shame and sorrow, because their children are not OK.
Sure, mothering in later life can be hard for many of us, but for the women whose adult children do not follow the expected path or timetable in their development (what sociologists refer to as “off time”), the responsibility of motherhood changes what they thought would be a more peaceful period in their lives. There is no peace for them.
Difficult adult children
There’s no telling how many women are living with, sometimes caring for, a “difficult adult child.” While “difficult” may sound like a pejorative term, from a mother’s view the situation is exactly that—difficult. I chose this name to acknowledge not just the challenges faced by the grown children, but the hardships passed along to the mothers who cared for them.
Giving a name to a family problem is the first step in being able to take action. When “domestic violence” was first used in the 1970s, it allowed women to link their experiences with others which, in turn, prompted them to seek help.
Likewise, the terms “difficult adult child” and “difficult mothering,” which I use to describe the older mothers’ experiences, is helping women break feelings of isolation, bring relief and empowerment.
Looking after the well-being of a young child can be a fascinating and enriching experience. Protecting an adult child is not the same. Mothers whose adult children may be depressed, anxious, mentally ill or despondent are immersed in a relationship that offers none of the magic a young child can provide.
They often feel trapped in their child’s despair and bad decisions. The interaction may be additionally strained because the adult child resents her new dependency on her parents and may become sullen, uncommunicative and angry. This is a hard burden for a mother to bear.