'We have had the chance to get to know each other as adults in a way I never knew my own parents'

What happens when grown-up children return to live with their parents? By Anne Spackman
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The Independent Online
Many parents may not be looking forward to their grown-up children returning for Christmas this year - not because they don't like them, but because they are already there. The phenomenon of the 20-something child coming back to live at home is becoming a feature of most prosperous neighbourhoods in large towns and cities. It is partly due to the rise in rents - up by as much as 10 per cent this year. But the underlying cause is the change in employment patterns, meaning longer periods of education and training, less job security, or, indeed, no job at all for many people in their twenties.

The National Child Development Study, which has followed a group of children from their birth in 1958 through to the present day, found that about one fifth of children return to live at home at least once. It also discovered that the numbers returning rose when unemployment rates increased.

The new trend mostly affects the urban middle class, whose houses are large enough to take two generations in reasonable comfort. In cities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and London, where good accommodation is expensive, families are turning their basements or top floors into semi-separate accommodation for their children. (Children are less likely to return home if their parents live in the country because the job prospects are poor and social isolation makes it less attractive.)

But how does it work out? How easy is it for parents to adapt to the idea that their house is also their child's house and that the child is now an adult? How easy is it for people in their twenties who are used to the freedom of student life?

The generation of affected parents grew up in the Sixties. Many said how much closer they were to their own children than they had even been to their parents. Working mothers felt their children were aware of the demands on their time and accepted they had their own life to lead. They themselves had been able to buy large houses relatively cheaply. For their children the only option was shelling out hundreds of pounds a month for a grotty flat.

The biggest problem on both sides seems to be one of perceptions. A few parents expressed the worry that people would think they were mollycoddling their children, although they didn't fear that themselves. Some children were reluctant to advertise the fact that they were living at home - not because they disliked it, but because they felt that it was not the done thing.

Amanda Theunissen is a television producer, living in Bristol. She and her husband have been sharing their house in Clifton with their son Richard, who returned home at the age of 24 to train to be a lawyer. He lived on the top floor, but not in a self-contained flat. He has just moved to Cardiff to do his solicitor's articles.

"We've always been very close as a family," says Mrs Theunissen. "There was a brief period when my daughter was back at home, too. From my point of view it has been nothing but a bonus. We have all had the chance to get to know each other as adults in a way I never knew my parents.

"Our ways of life are almost the same - we read the same books, we listen to the same music, we laugh at the same jokes. I like their friends. I get such pleasure from their company. It makes the house more interesting. It makes a great difference that this arrangement is by choice rather than imposition. It would be terrible if they thought they were stuck here forever."

Richard Theunissen adds: "The parent-child relationship has been transformed. I am no longer a child living in my parent's house; we are adults living together - though I'm conscious that it is still the parental home.

"I've never felt particularly restricted, partly because of the size of the house and partly because my parents were so accommodating. By and large I have enjoyed it very much. Both my parents are, I think, people I would be interested in anyway.

"The only real drawback is a feeling that you see your contemporaries are establishing their own homes and you are not doing so yourself. There is a perceived pressure that it is peculiar not to have done that, even though I know a number of people who haven't."

Catherine Porteous is a trustee of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. She and her husband live in the main part of the family home in Notting Hill, west London. Their son Tom, 35, who works abroad for much of the year, spends his time in London living in the flat downstairs with his wife Amira and son Younus. "We have something of a tradition of extended families," Mrs Porteous explains.

"My parents lived in the flat downstairs when the children were small, so I hope I've learned from that experience. My mother was a model of discretion and my father was not. He used to come in at any time and borrow books and leave his cigarette ends all over the place.

"We are so lucky that we have a lovely daughter-in-law, who thinks the family is very important. When we are away for the weekend they can spread out into our house and have friends round for dinner. But they always clear up afterwards.

"For the grandparents and grandchildren it's absolute bliss. When Tom was at school and I was working he used to go and have tea with granny. It's lovely for me because I get to see my grandson all the time. But it all has to be worked at. It's important that they have their privacy, that they don't get bounced on all the time."

Tom Porteous is equally as satisfied: "I don't spend that much time in London, so when I do come back it's nice to have a flat which is usually empty and beneath my parents' house. It would be great to have a big flat somewhere central but it's not really affordable. If we needed to settle down in London I feel it would be right to get a bigger place. But it's very nice to be here.

"It works for us. Our son gets to see his grandparents and his cousins. I remember when I was a child and my grandparents lived in this flat, going down to have supper with them. I think it's good for children to have a sense of family in that way."