Boomerang kids: whatever happened to my empty nest?

Life became a lot quieter for Elizabeth Meakins when her sons left for university. Now she finds herself with a full house again – and she's not the only one

Elizabeth Meakins
Monday 03 December 2012 21:30

The other night I was jolted into wakefulness by a dream, which I guess makes it more of a nightmare. In this nocturnal drama I am in my kitchen when the front door opens and one of my sons (aged 21) enters with a group of friends. I recognise some of them but several faces are unknown. Just as I'm wondering how many of their names I can remember, the front door again opens and now my eldest son (aged 23) appears with friends.

In the next part of the dream, this cluster of twenty-somethings drifts towards the kitchen to say hello to me and my youngest (aged 9). I wonder slightly anxiously how hungry they all are but do my best to extend a hospitable welcome. Then all of a sudden it becomes shockingly, hurtfully clear that my older boys want me to go and live in the dank and cobwebby cellar so that they can have more room in the house. To add insult to injury, the idea of building a wall, which would cut me off from access to the exit hatch, is somehow made clear to me.

Well, from now on things get decidedly dramatic. I now find myself under the floorboards, furious and hurt by this filial expulsion. I hunt around fruitlessly for another exit when I realise that my banishers are now all clattering down the ladder to join me. Have they come to build that wall?

Just before I wake up my confusion and hurt turns to huge relief, as in a flash of understanding I realise there never was going to be a wall. Instead there is a kind of lightweight hurdle between us which we lean on as we chat amicably and easily. Even in the dream I am conscious of the fact that becoming a prisoner in my own home was a figment of my own imagining.

Dreams. We all have them. Some of us try to find meaning in them. Part of my work as a psychotherapist involves that fascinating and often fruitful search. So what about my own unconscious messages? Why on earth am I anxiously dreaming about banishment in my own home?

Initially I could only see the funny side of this unconscious drama. I shared it with my children and it made us all laugh. Its meaning seemed obvious: both of my older sons have recently returned home after finishing their first degrees. Both are doing what we have always encouraged them to do: following their interests. One of them wants to be an actor, the other to work in radio as a sports journalist. I would love to feel uncomplicatedly celebratory about all of this. And most of the time, most of me is genuinely able to be so. But their ambition to follow their dreams is inadvertently giving me nightmares. Without any significant paid work they are unable to rent a room of their own. So here they are, back once again in the family home.

I am not alone. Several of my friends also have children who have recently boomeranged back home. Most of these youngsters have staggeringly high student debt. A few have "proper" jobs. Some, like mine, are increasing their mountain of debt by doing further studies. Others have joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Some of these friends had only just discovered what the term "empty nest" meant when their homes became flutteringly full again. Others, like me, were quite enjoying the extra elbow room of an emptier rather than empty nest.

It really does seem like last week if not yesterday that we bravely and a bit tearfully bid them good luck and goodbye. And now those same plastic Ikea storage bags with the same broken zips are home again.

In the weeks following their return, a kind of "phone a friend" helpline develops between a few of us. A lot of our early conversations are about practical things: comparing notes over our expectations about meals, laundry, housework. For those whose children have "real" work and are living at home in order not to spend everything they earn on rent, there is the "how much should they contribute?" question.

I can't join in with that one, and sometimes catch myself feeling shamefully envious of those who have achieved the suited security of a regular income. As I watch one of my sons set off to drama school, his bag packed with the apparently prerequisite jock strap and black tights and the other to a journalism course with headphones and fluffy mike, I can't help feeling anxious about how long it might take them to make their own way financially. Given the bleakness of the current recession and the huge debt that their studies will leave them with, how long will it be before they can afford to live independently?

Recently I've noticed how conversations with friends about our boomerang children have shifted gear from practical to emotional issues. Nowadays the focus is less about what "they" are (or are not) doing, more about the nature of the relationship between us. They went away as adolescents, returned as adults, and yet too often, we cringingly confess, we slip into treating them as children, compulsively doing too much for them and then blowing a fuse when we can't stop ourselves from doing too much.

After one of these conversations the less palatable side of my dream becomes uncomfortably clear. There I was, trying to mother the whole goddamn lot of them, treating them as children rather than adults who are well able to look after themselves. I am the one who is walling myself up and restricting both myself and my relationship with those around me in the process. They, on the other hand, seem quite able to relate more equally and amicably over a smallish hurdle.

Freud was always baffled by women's capacity to spend so much time and energy looking after others, and even today, as a woman, mother and psychotherapist, I know how easily doing too much for others (so smothering them with unrequested "help") can be disguised as tender loving care. (Just before writing this piece I caught myself resentfully lugging laundry around that actually no one had even asked me to wash).

Relating to one's adult children as adults rather than children is never going to be plain sailing and living under the same roof inevitably makes this process more challenging. But both individually and as a culture we all need to wake up to the new domestic situation we are in. My eldest sons are among more than three million young adults currently living back at home. As these numbers continue to rise, we all need to remember that mollycoddling gets dangerously in the way of healthy emotional growth. As they grow older we need to make sure that wherever they are living, we have done our best to let them grow up.

Elizabeth Meakins's book, 'What Will You Do With My Story?', containing many of the columns she wrote for 'The Independent' (in Tales from the Therapists Couch), is published by Karnac, £16.99. To order this book for the special price of £15.99 including P&P go to

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