When fledglings head back to the nest

Returning to live at home after the freedom of university life may seem the ultimate nightmare, writes Kate Hilpern, but more and more graduates are doing it
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It was bad enough when your mother arrived at the halls of residence with enough home-baked pies to see you through a PhD, but it was nothing compared to the embarrassment caused by her lecture on housework to everyone in your shared lodgings. And that was just her first visit.

But fear not, you thought, for you have left the nest now, and sooner or later she will be forced to come to terms with this. But one sombre day in your final year, you wake up in a cold sweat.

Why? Because you suddenly realise the possibility (let's be honest - probability) that you will have to move back home until you have enough funds to regain your independence.

Even psychologists admit that this can be an emotional calamity. "Parents tend to perceive their offspring as children even when they are trying not to," explains Peter Sharp, principal educational psychologist at Southampton City Council.

"So if the child has lived independently for three years, only to be forced to return to a situation in which dependence is intensified, it can be a recipe for disaster."

According to Sharp, there are two major ways in which this can happen. First,the graduate can slip back into the child role, as Russell Cartright, 27, knows all too well.

"Having spent the last few months of university working flat out for my degree, I was only too pleased to return to a place where all my washing, ironing and cooking were done for me. My mother even said that until I started earning, I didn't have to give her any rent. The only trouble was, that stopped me earning for almost a year.

"I became lazy, and too scared of fending for myself, and I found that I didn't really make an effort in looking for decent employment."

Alternatively - and more commonly - the graduate refuses to fall back into this role.

The graduate wants the parents to be no more than landlords, but parents find this very hard. As a consequence there tend to be clashes over two main issues - space and values. In terms of space, the parents have had three or more years of their own independence and now feel that their physical and psychological space is being impinged upon.

They're no longer used to compromising bathroom space and choice of television programmes, and though they have got out of the habit of worrying what time their daughter will arrive home at night, this may start to be a problem again.

In terms of values, while the child has been away she will probably have developed a different set to those of her parents. Coupled with the fact that the parents have lost the control they used to have over these matters, there can be an enormous amount of friction.

Susan Ellis, 22, planned to stay with her mother for eight months, by which time she hoped to have saved enough to share accommodation. She lasted six weeks.

"My relationship with my mum was fine when I was away, but as soon as I went home I was treated as if I was 18 and had never been away. It probably didn't help that I'd rarely been home for holidays.

"Not only was I not allowed to smoke in the house, but my mum started throwing my cigarette packets away. Then she started demanding that unless I was at home in time to eat with the rest of the family, I'd have to miss dinner altogether.

"When I went out she said that having friends back after 11pm was forbidden, and the final straw was when she said my boyfriend wasn't allowed to stay so often."

And this, says Sharp, can be a particularly hazardous psychological issue. "If you're more interested in your boyfriend than in your mum and dad, he can represent a threat to your parents' relationship with you. Then he can become the scapegoat for all sorts of things."

According to Rick Portsmouth, a psychologist, if the graduate moves home for the sole reason of unemployment, this constitutes a third main potential for disaster.

"If you've spent three years learning a skill in order to get a job, you can feel let down when you don't get one. And that anger is most likely to be deflected on to those closest to you, because it is safe to do so. Additionally, the parents may feel let down because they've supported their child for several years and it is not yet to any avail. So there can be all sorts of guilt and hostility around."

But it is not all doom and gloom. Clare Motler, 26, moved home after university three years ago and is still there.

"My family is extremely flexible and accepting of me as an adult, and I think that's why it works out. No one minds if I don't come home, or if I bring anyone home, or anything. And I'm a very family-orientated person so they know I want to be here rather than having to be."

Clare's mother Jill, 46, is what Sharp describes as a "typical laissez- faire parent of the Sixties".

She says: "I love having young people around. I like their views and their music, and so it's great for me to have Clare around. We live in a big house so we all have our space, but when Clare decides to move out, of course, we'll respect that too."

There is, however, evidence from student counsellors and student helplines that problems are most rife among students directly after holidays - especially Christmas - indicating that family conflicts remain widespread at this stage of the lifespan.

But, says Dr John Proctor, senior educational psychologist at Aberdeen City Council, if issues around teenage rebellion are successfully resolved prior to university, you have a far greater chance of achieving compromise.

According to research, you also have a better chance of harmony at home if you have siblings and more than one parent, for this means there tends to be less emotional dependence.

And being female helps, too. Studies reveal that mothers and daughters are much more likely to develop a friendship than mothers and sons, although Susan Ellis (whose resentment towards her mother continues, despite the fact that she moved out 10 months ago) begs to differ.

How to live with your parents when you are over 21

As soon as you move back home, establish the ground rules. Can your partner sleep over? Can you smoke in the house?

Work out an acceptable figure for rent and agree on what you are paying for. Will you buy your own food and do your own cooking? Who will do your washing?

If you feel you are being treated as a child, say so at a time other than when you are in the middle of a row. Agree to try to understand your parents' point of view if they will do the same for you.

Don't move back indefinitely. Agree a period of time for your intended stay and re-evaluate it near the end of the time. That way, you won't appear to be taking advantage of your parents.

If your stay is causing hostility that cannot be worked out, take responsibility for your own actions and try to move out as soon as you can. After all, it is their home.

Kate Hilpern