When my first book, The Mother Zone, came out in 1992, parenting was still a non-subject. Yes, I know, this is hard to believe, now that we are awash in “mother lit” and, most recently, a lot of hand-wringing about whether helicopter parents are undermining their grown kids’ independence. When a publisher asked me if I wanted to write a sequel to The Mother Zone, I said “You must be joking—my son is 24!” But of course, the joke was on me.
The year that my 19-year-old son left home to go to school in Montreal, I thought we had all “graduated” from family. What I didn’t realize was that (a) motherhood is a chronic condition, and (b) the big shifts in our family, the real pulling apart and sorting out of our new adult roles, was still to come. And for me this was going to raise the same fears and doubts I had felt as a new mother—except that now my job was to un-mother, and to let go. A bit trickier than driving him to music lessons.
When I embarked on writing a book (Home Free: The Myth of the Empty Nest) about this new third act of family, I thought I might be the only one confused about how close families should be. But as it turns out, I’m not alone.
So much about family life has changed so quickly in the past 50 years. The clueless characters who used to wave stiffly to their children from the far side of the generation gap have evolved into the spectre of the Friendly Parent, quick to forward YouTube videos to their kids, proofread their essays, or zip off to Ikea to buy them a duvet. I see nothing wrong with this, by the way. When my son, now 27, was still in college, I was happy to proofread and shop for duvets. Still, I can’t get over how different this new, fused version of family is from my own experience of growing up.
Although I knew I could always count on my parents to bail me out financially, I never had to ask them; a benign economy shone down on the young, and life was easy—perhaps easier than it ever will be again. In 1971, I could get by (and travel for months at a time) on the money I earned writing a freelance book-review column for a newspaper. Quaint skills! Roughly the equivalent of working as a blacksmith today. Or . . . being a narwhal impersonator. I can’t think of anything that’s arcane enough to convey just how obsolete my first job has become.
Astutely, my parents saw writing as an insecure pursuit. But what did they know? Our parents didn’t share our music or our values. Many of us mistrusted the very concept of family, a bourgeois institution (we said) created to oppress women and shore up the patriarchy. “They f–k you up, your mum and dad,” begins the famous poem from that year, by Philip Larkin.
Hmmm. There’s still some truth in this, but nobody seems to have come up with a better arrangement than “family,” regardless of the genders or sexual persuasions involved, for raising children, tolerating our fellow human beings and helping each other through life. Family is a jalopy, not a Porsche, but it takes us down the road.
I saw an article in the real estate section of the paper the other day about a mother who was building an adorable little cabin, 10 by 12 feet square, on the property behind her house, where her 24-year-old college-student daughter could live rent-free. In North America, we fret about this sort of thing, but in Italy, this is nothing new; a study published by the London Centre for Economics reported that a mind-boggling 85 per cent of Italian men aged 18 to 34 still live with their parents. Even when the daughters are factored in, the percentage of grown kids living with their parents in Italy is still over 50 per cent. According to a recent Guardian article, one minister has called for a new law forcing “bamboccioni” (mummies’ boys and girls) to leave home at 18. And when they leave, the maternal ties often remain. One bachelor in Rome ships his laundry to his mother in Bari on Friday and gets his shirts back ironed perfectly by Monday.
But what’s wrong with offering our kids affordable shelter in an economy where the unemployment rates among the young are twice what they are for adults? Does this new protracted family life erode our kids’ independence, or are we just helping them tackle a much tougher world than the one we grew up in?
The deal used to be that kids left home at 18 to “find themselves.” Then the day they turned 21 they magically became adults. Many of our parents did just that, putting on shirts and ties, getting married, having babies at an age when today’s kids are still binge-drinking or applying to business schools.
But what if this pattern—leaving home at the end of adolescence—is the real historical aberration, and the current tendency of sticking closer to home for longer periods marks a return to normal? Now that my son and I have met on the other side of the leaving-home dramas, I’ve come to the conclusion that these lingering familial bonds might be a good thing: signs of a return to normal clannishness, after an era of hard-core individualism. This is what struck Casey, too, when he first travelled in Mexico, and everyone he met asked, with a note of concern, “Where is your family?” It’s only a narrow stratum of the world that defines maturity as “leaving home.”
“Delayed transition” is the sociological term for this new tendency in families. But is it new? In previous centuries, children rarely left the shade of the family tree; sons grew up to work alongside their fathers in the family business or girls married the boy from two farms over. Then the Industrial Revolution arrived, driving workers into urban areas, and the era of modern travel began. Children who left home had to go farther afield, sans cellphone. Corporations transferred employees and scattered families all over the globe, in the hard-to-fathom days before the communications revolution.
Now email and Skype have made geographical separation almost a non-issue. Everyone is in touch with everyone, more often, including parents and their kids.
If we think of grown children staying close to the family (not necessarily under the same roof, but looped in) as normal rather than a sign of arrested adolescence, then where did we get the idea that kids should leave home at 18?
I think it may have arisen from circumstances that have nothing to do with the natural curve of childhood development: the spread of post-secondary education from the rich to the middle class, and the outbreak of two world wars. At 18, children (mostly boys) either left home to go off to college or to fight in wars. And because these teenagers undertook the responsibilities of fighting in a war, we assumed they came back home as grown men.
But ask any mother who has lost a son in combat: a 19-year-old is a boy. War may prematurely age (or kill) its young soldiers but it doesn’t necessarily turn them into adults. Leaving home and growing up are separate enterprises.
But the future still worries me. And part of the problem when I try to imagine it is this: I can’t. The future used to be so easy to visualize, a Jetsons landscape of housecleaning robots and mono-cars gliding along on elevated rails. Life in this cartoon world-to-come where everyone wears jumpsuits is zippy and homogeneous. Now it feels as if the very concept of The Future belongs to the past. Whenever I try to envision my son embedded in some yet-to-arrive landscape, there’s a mist around it (or a pall). The details won’t come into focus. It’s not that I lack faith in him—it’s the things I can’t imagine that lie ahead. Forty years ago, political issues were more circumscribed, wars had clear boundaries, and Canada was the ho-hum country where nothing bad could happen. Now pandemics, environmental dramas and terrorism are a potential threat to even the most sheltered child.
With good reason, parents see the future as an edgy, competitive, unforgiving place, and we want our kids to have what it takes to cope with it. But you never know which qualities will equip your child for the world, in ways his parents can’t understand. The DIY kid might be more nimble than the deep and narrow Ph.D. We need to have faith in our kids’ sometimes wacky instincts about how to navigate the future.
I am surprised to find that more and more I do have faith. Even though I’m anxious about the obstacles still ahead of my son, I feel optimistic at heart. I am beginning to believe that his resistance to the more traditional routes is part of an ongoing canny, intuitive adaptation to a new world. (Perhaps it qualifies as “evolution.”) “It’s like I’m doing my own unofficial graduate program,” he says about his industrious, self-regulated days of multiple jobs, ambitious creative endeavours and social networking. He’s paying his rent and hanging on to his dreams, as he acquires the skills, knowledge and values that will take him forward, in ways I cannot imagine.
Just when our kids need forbearance, support, and maybe some benign neglect around the topic of careers, they’re more likely to encounter our fear that they will “lose their place” if they take too long figuring things out. But they don’t need more nervousness; my son looks over his shoulder, too.
The world is precarious. We want to see our kids on a foolproof, well-lit path. But that safe path no longer exists. It’s a wraparound frontier now.
It was a family gathering a few days after the death of my mother, at the age of 99. My husband, Brian, had put together a slide show with some old photographs of my mother’s life, from a startled, round-faced baby in 1911 to a college student in a black wool bathing suit doing headstands on a beach. Then a bride in a tailored suit and hat with one foot on the runner of a Model T Ford; a new mother in front of her house, slightly frowning; finally, a grandmother in a fuchsia shirt laughing and brandishing her sherry glass. I told the people gathered in my parents’ former living room a few stories about her. Then the grandsons spoke up.
“She was always doing something, or making something, and I would do it with her,” said Daniel, who has become a gifted visual artist. “Whether it was painting, or cooking, or raking the garden. I learned alongside her.”
My nephew Jake was partly raised by my parents for his first eight years. Full of emotion, he simply said thank you to his grandmother for everything she’d done. Then Casey, the middle grandson, got up to say a few words.
Our family tends not to dress up for special occasions, but he had ironed his good white shirt and put on his suit. He wore leather shoes, polished, and his hair was combed back, just like my father in his youth. It was a nod to the importance of family rituals and a tribute to my dapper dad.
Standing in the middle of a room filled with friends and neighbours, he said that when he was little he took his grandparents and their benevolent, broadloomed realm for granted. He came for visits, ate the dinner especially prepared with his allergies and appetites in mind, then escaped the dinner table to eat his second dessert while watching cartoons in the den. He assumed that this cared-for world was just one corner of a bigger, similarly forgiving universe.
“It took a while before I realized that they had created this world for us and that it didn’t just exist on its own.”
There were a few nods around the room. I wondered if we were going to be able to give our grandchildren the same sense of a warm, coherent environment (with less beige broadloom) in which to thrive. That was what we ran away from. But our children who won’t leave home or the ones who come back are more grown up, in many ways, than us.