It's 6:30 a.m.—another school day in our household. I run upstairs to knock on our son's bedroom door and let him know the shower is free and that we are all running late for school.
That scenario wouldn't be unusual in most families, except that this son is 28 years old. He is also a teacher. He not only lives with us (his parents) but also carpools to school with me, his mom. Actually, it's not really carpooling—he catches a ride with me because he doesn't have a car.
Among his many other identities, our son carries the label of "emerging adult." Emerging adults share a feeling of in-between-ness in their lives. They are well beyond the teenage years but not quite fully independent adults. They often live with their parents (see box on p. 18).
As I write this, my husband, Dennis, and I are the parents of four sons and a daughter in-law, all in their 20s. Above our dining room table, four clocks remind us of one short season when all four of our children not only lived away from home but lived in four different time zones. Under varying circumstances, for different reasons, and at different seasons, they have all returned to the family home for a time.
During a recent summer our eldest son, Rueben, and our daughter-in-law, Asia, lived with us. They were en route from work, music, and university in San Francisco to the same in Kingston, Ontario. It was just one of several returns home for Rueben since leaving for university the first time 10 years earlier.
Our third son, Asher, has spent the past eight years away from home at university, with stretches of time in Canada as well as overseas. Until his recent employment with an architectural firm in Vancouver, he has always come "home." These stays stretched from two weeks to four months, and prior to each stay there was always a phone call confirming flight numbers and arrival times. A welcome back home was never questioned.
Our youngest son, Gabriel, now in his fourth year of university in Ontario, still calls our house on Telegraph Trail home, though he has been away for stretches of university and work in Alberta.
Our second-eldest son, Joshua, is the one living with us now. Like his brothers, his journeys, travels, and studies have always brought him back home. When we spent six months in Africa several years ago, he tended our cows, fed our chickens, and planted our spring garden. This year he is teaching at the local Christian high school after having taught kindergarten children in Seoul, South Korea, for one year.
Our situation is not atypical. An increasing number of parents find themselves welcoming their adult children back into the family home.
Some emerging adults have never left home, but most have been away for a period of time. Although for many returning home would not be their first choice, many see it as a short-term solution and appreciate the support and willingness of their parents to allow them back.
As is often the case with a newly defined phenomenon, most of us do not have the experiences of our own parents to draw on. Influenced by many factors, the previous generation encouraged post-high-school education but also expected that after high school their children would move out of the family home, become financially independent, marry, and purchase a home.
Our adult children have come back to our home under many circumstances, often in between or at the end of a course of study. Some needed a place to stay when transitioning for a career change or a geographical move. Cultural saturation or travel weariness can also draw children back to the family home. Some come home flat broke, and still others need healing from a broken heart or spirit.
In most cases, the home emerging adults return to is the one where they spent their teenage years. The chance that young adults will return to their parents' home for a prolonged period is minimized if the parents have moved out of the family home the children knew as teens. Statistics also show that the relationship with the mother has an impact on whether or not the young adult is able to reintegrate back into the family home.
Scripture is clear about children honoring their parents and parents in turn honoring their children. Caring for each other as time and circumstance require is both honoring and obedient—though not always easy or convenient.
Living with young adults is very different from living with teenagers. As children become adults, the anxieties and responsibilities that come with raising teenagers fade. I don't know when I outgrew the habit of waiting up for adult children, but I eventually did.
Sharing a home with an adult child is an art, even if it's also a necessity. It's important that parents and their living-at-home adult child openly communicate about how this new household unit will function. Juggling several family, work, and social schedules is just one challenge. Dividing up household chores is another. Who takes care of the bathroom? The laundry? The fridge? The garbage?
Reclaiming physical space in a house that has become occupied during a child's absence can also be difficult. More than once, as guitars and art easels, coats and shoes take over the open spaces, we have been reminded that "You have the whole house. I have only one room."
Financial obligations, particularly regarding room and board, need to be discussed, clearly understood, and agreed upon by both the young adult and parents. Preparing and sharing family meals and participating in a shared devotional life, church life, and social networks can also either enrich communal life or become sources of increased tension.
While parents must let go of taking responsibility for their adult children, those children must also embrace their own emerging adulthood and make their own decisions. For the young adult this can be a difficult transition. Living back in the family home invariably reminds Joshua that he is the child and we are his parents. It's easy to fall back into old patterns that we thought we had all outgrown.
The return of adult children to the parental home for a time can also be a source of surprise blessings. Young adults who return home have the chance to renew and strengthen relationships with younger siblings. Their own childhood memories awaken. Both parents and young adults have the opportunity to share and expand their tastes in food, music, film, and literature.
In a culture that values and promotes independence, both for young adults as well as their emerging "empty nester" parents, choosing or being forced through circumstance to live in mutual dependence is not usually lauded. But embracing these opportunities for interdependent living has surprised us with blessing. In our family, for example, we enjoyed the shared experiences of spreading a winter's worth of manure on the fields, canning a year's supply of applesauce, and taking pride in our joint effort at home renovations.
As I write this, it is evening. Thinking back to this morning, I realize that the rush was not about getting a teenager out of bed, but about getting a family of adults who slept in up for a new day. I am not the mother of a teenager but of a young man who teaches high school students every day and who does his share in our household. This evening he made dinner, and he is now cooking soup stock for tomorrow and preparing a grocery list. We will sit down for a glass of wine before bed and chat about our day. And we will laugh together.
Right now, we are treasuring Joshua's company, knowing that this time, too, will pass.
Who Are They?
The term emerging adult was coined by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, who teaches as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He began a study in 1995, conducting interviews with 300 young people ages 18 to 29 from varied economic, regional, and cultural backgrounds across the United States. Arnett published his findings and assessment in the book Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties (Oxford University Press, 2004).
Arnett identifies five main features that define this era of emerging adulthood:
- Identity exploration. Young people are deciding who they are and exploring what they want out of work, education, and relationships.
- Instability. The post-high school years are marked by repeated residence changes as young people either go to college and/or work and live on their own or with roommates. For most, frequent moves end as they begin establishing families and careers.
- Self-focus. Freed of the parent- and society-directed routine of school, young people try to decide what they want to do, where they want to go, and who they want to be with—before those choices get limited by the commitments of marriage, children, and career.
- Feeling in-between. Many emerging adults say they are taking responsibility for themselves but still do not completely feel like an adult.
- Possibilities. Optimism reigns—for careers, travel, and relationships. Most emerging adults believe they have a good chance of a better life than their parents have. And even if their parents are divorced, they believe they'll find a lifelong soulmate.
Back to the Nest
Somewhere there is a very important article in some chic men's magazine that gives 10 easy steps to perfect bachelorhood. And somewhere near the top, in bold, somewhat threatening print, it says, MOVE OUT OF YOUR PARENTS' HOUSE!
Unfortunately that article won't have my name under it, while this one does—an article defending, or at least publicly making excuses to the single women of the Christian Reformed Church, why I am still living in my parents' house.
Watching the birds on my parents' feeder points to the most ubiquitous of familial metaphors: the home as nest. This generally evokes the image of small sparrow-like birds in quaint birdhouses watching their young flop and flit their way toward flight and finally wing away to begin life on their own. Then I picture my own family bird box, where there have been as many as two seagulls stuffed back in with Ma n' Pa Sparrow, squeaking and squawking into adulthood.
This new title I have fallen under, "emerging adult," does little to create a better sense of self than does the bird metaphor. Rather, it gives an inadequate, get-out-of-the-water-you-tadpole-that-never-lost-his-tail feeling. Adding to this sense of inadequacy is the struggle to find balance in singleness and an unstable world.
There are many different reasons why "emerging adults" end up back home. Life, we've discovered, doesn't come with an instruction manual, and things don't always go as we planned. And in our financially re-emerging times, few options are as good as the familiar stability of the family nest.
Life inside this bird box is a lesson in humility, frugality, blessing, and grace—a lesson that I have needed. It reminds me what's truly important.
I prefer the metaphor of home as nest to the sludge puddle that "emerging adults" suggests. But I'm sure that as my parents see me lurch out of my bedroom in the morning with disheveled hair and unshaven face, they wish I would read at least a few tips on self-preservation that can be found on the magazine racks.