By Mark Gauert
City & Shore Magazine
From the moment children come into our lives, we parents are getting them ready to leave. It’s even our goal – though we know we’ll be sad when they do.
We get them up and out to school. We get them up and out to Little League. We get them up and out for extracurricular activities that make them attractive to colleges and employers, so they’ll get up and go there.
It’s what we want as parents, for our children to be ready when they leave. Ready for whatever awaits them out there.
But there’s no telling what’s awaiting them out there now, in this time of pandemic. And lately, just as my wife and I had been thinking about downsizing, the children we got ready have moved back in with us again.
That was never our goal – though we’re happy they’re here.
Our lifelong preparations worked – they were ready when it was time for college, and they left us for dorms and apartments and lives of their own.
Now they’re back – both our boys, ages 26 and 28 – and it feels strange to see them again in their childhood bedrooms. Every day they’re here may feel like a happy Thanksgiving or Father’s Day visit – and we may, selfishly, wish it could go on – but it also feels contrary to everything we worked for, as parents. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly – and children leave home.
Well, like everything else turned upside down by this pandemic, we’re finding our way on that, too.
“Their life is in flux right now, and they do not have a stable home base where they feel safe and comfortable,” says Daniel Liberman, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, in a recent interview in The Washington Post. “For the majority of them, in the context of fear and uncertainty, their instinct is to return home to their family of origin.”
We may even, at least temporarily, be part of a trend, too. “In 2016, a record 64 million people, or 20 percent of the U.S. population, lived with multiple generations under one roof,” according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. “Among a broader group of young adults, those ages 18 to 34, living with parents surpassed other living arrangements in 2014 for the first time in more than 130 years.”
And that was before coronavirus lockdowns started sending even more children back from schools and jobs to their family of origin – and, sometimes, their childhood home.
The son who finished his PhD last year has a Zoom classroom for the courses he teaches for a Midwest college in his bedroom on one side of the house. I wonder what his students think when they see the Florida Marlins bobbleheads from his boyhood on the shelf behind him.
The son who’s still working on his graduate degree is setting up a Zoom classroom for the courses he’s taking at a Florida college in his bedroom on the other side of the house. I wonder what his professors think when they see his parents awkwardly pressed into cameo performances as his “patients.”
We each have a corner of the house reserved for work, meeting in the middle for lunch and dinner or maybe a TV show at night, like we did when they were growing up. It helps that they can cook for themselves, do their own laundry and clean up after themselves, which, memorably, wasn’t always the case.
Mostly, it helps that we can talk about all of this in person now, too. About any fear and uncertainty about what happens next. Like we did when we worried about more mundane things, like SAT scores and batter’s elbow and how late they could stay out on a school night.
I don’t know what to think about this second childhood, as a parent who was always getting the children ready to leave us. It’s at once familiar, strange, wrong …
And wonderful. Like the moment children first came into our lives.
I know this isn’t what we worked for, as parents, all the years the children were growing up.
But I see them doing all the things we hoped they’d do. Working out problems on their own. Finding work, in resourceful ways we never would have imagined. Finishing school, miles from campus. Staying in touch with friends and family, even if remotely.
Finding their way – slowly, cautiously, like all of us – in a world we never could have prepared them for with school, Little League and extracurricular activities alone.
From the moment our children came back into our lives, we knew we’d be getting ready for them to leave us again. It’s even our goal now – even though we’ll be sad to see them go.
But we’re not thinking about downsizing anymore. No, not any time soon.
Mark Gauert is the editor of City & Shore, the Sun Sentinel’s magazine, firstname.lastname@example.org.