Make Way for (Returning) Ducklings
Perhaps it’s been (mostly) wonderful, having your young adult child return home to wait out the pandemic. Whether he or she is a college student now doing virtual learning, a new grad with no job prospects and (an average) student loan debt of nearly $33,000, or a recently-laid-off worker who can no longer afford an apartment and has no income other than The Bank of Mom and Dad, that not-so-little duckling may be with you for some months to come.
This time, it’s not as a welcome holiday-and-summer-vacation visitor, with a duffel bag of dirty laundry. He or she no longer is the eager freshman you launched one or many years ago, but a grown-up version of that beloved child, with plenty of baggage – both tangible and emotional – and no apparent plans to leave.
Perhaps even no apparent plans at all.
And what has happened to YOUR plans for downsizing to that condo in the city? Or your dreams to travel around the world? All on hold – indefinitely.
Even before the pandemic, the number of young adults returning home to live with their parents was significantly higher – about 34% – than any time since the 1950s, and while no one has exact numbers, it vastly tops the 11% figure of 1980.
The student or recent grad you welcomed with open arms back in March now seems to be here for the long haul. And with huge competition for grad schools, unemployment rates sky-high, and the world economy reeling, your Returning Duckling (RD) may be searching for a place to make her mark in this world.
For now, that place is Your Home. Neither of you planned for any of this – so now what?
You may not want her there. And frankly, after time away at college or a couple of years living with a roommate who moved out suddenly and a rent she can no longer afford, she would much rather have her own digs. But even if you both are delighted to have this chance to live together, and function as a family under one roof again, her expectations for your relationship with her may be much different than yours.
Either way, you find yourselves charting new territory, and now must find a way to re-organize your life, routines, and your no-longer-empty nest to house the Child Who Came to Dinner – and stayed!
Here are three steps you can take to begin to organize your life and your home to accommodate your RD, and ensure that your relationship – and your lives – remain healthy and productive:
1. Clearly understand your own role
Be mindful that, although you may agree to support your RD for a period of time while he “finds himself,” takes a break after all that schooling, applies for further education or training, or looks for a job with salary sufficient to pay for his own living space, this is your choice, not your obligation. Your legal duty to support your child financially ended when he turned 18.
Of course, most of us feel an emotional and familial obligation – after all, we love our kids, and we’d do almost anything for them – but we ourselves need to be very clear about what kinds of support are helpful, and which may delay their development into healthy, self-sufficient adults.
Are you having trouble letting go? Doing for your RD what he is – or should be – capable of doing for himself, whether laundry, making medical appointments, or conducting job research, can give a mixed message. “I want to help you” easily can be heard as “I’m not sure you’re competent enough to do this (or to do this correctly),” thus undermining his confidence in his own abilities.
Save your help and instruction for the critical life skills those many years of public and/or private education may have failed to impart: how to establish credit, begin an organized job search, secure appropriate legal help to draw up a medical directive, and choose a health care proxy and power of attorney (yes, your 18-year-old should have these documents – and while you are at it, make the time to review your own, since your child no longer needs a legal guardian).
Once you yourself are comfortable with the difference between “enabling” and “helping,” you will find it much easier to take the next step.
2. Discuss mutual expectations of the new living arrangement, and together set mutual boundaries.
Can you respect your RD’s privacy – in her room, on the Internet, on the phone?
“Just because our living situation has reverted to what it was in high school,” says a new grad, “does not mean that our relationship needs to revert back to that time.”
Fair enough. But new limits should be discussed and agreed upon. Here are some common areas of potential contention:
- Do you have a time limit for how long your child can live in your home? For the duration of the pandemic? Or should he be making plans to secure housing elsewhere?
- Will she have her old room back – the one her younger sister happily claimed or which has become your long-awaited, precious yoga and meditation space?
- Who is responsible for chores, and how will they be re-allocated, given the presence of another adult in the home?
- Does he have use of the family car, and who pays for gas and the increase in insurance?
- Who covers her cell phone bill?
- Is there unlimited access to the refrigerator and pantry?
- Will there be a reasonable “curfew” so that your RD’s comings and goings do not disturb the rest of the household? And do you have clear agreement on which activities and gatherings are safe for all members of the household, and meet your comfort level for risk exposure?
Respectful discussion can smooth over the bumps. But in the end, you are entitled to make the rules – it’s your house.
3. Help your child move forward toward independent adulthood
What are your RD’s next steps? Parents have a right to expect that all members of the family be productive and will contribute to the best of their ability. In short, financing a lifestyle in which your child wakes at noon, or spends his time shopping online with your credit card, ultimately is not helpful to his growth and development – or yours!
Will she take a job – any job – or go back to school for an advanced degree or technical training? If these are not an option, perhaps an internship or volunteer work – even virtually – will help her get the experience needed to compete in the job market.
Perhaps your RD can take on a larger portion of the household chores or responsibilities, such as paying bills, cleaning, home maintenance, shopping, or managing investments. Most of these skills are not taught in high school or college, and it’s not too late to learn in a relatively safe, supervised setting. Paying rent or contributing significant labor not only helps to defray the cost of supporting your adult child, but also gives him the dignity of paying (at least a portion of) his own way.
If your RD is not already privy to the family finances, this may be a good time to teach her what it costs to run your household, and how to set funds aside for retirement, give to charity, and save for emergencies, as well as calculating the exact incremental cost of her room, board, health insurance, and other basic expenses.
In fact, this is a good time for you (and your spouse if you have one) to review your own finances. Most financial planners give their own version of this advice: “Supporting your grown children at the expense of your own retirement is never a good idea. You need to take care of yourself first.”
Recognize that there are challenges on both sides, and hold regular family meetings to review how things are going. Engage the services of a Professional Organizer, if necessary, to help you with decisions about space, personal possessions, and time management issues, and to help your young adult set and work toward her goals. Try to keep your sense of humor and perspective. Do your best to enjoy one another’s company, appreciate your strengths, tolerate one another’s foibles, and keep in mind that you have the same goal: for your child to become a happy, healthy, productive, independent adult.