I was just starting to master this whole parenting thing around the time my kids left for college.
I was learning to let them make their own decisions, sparing them the need to roll their eyes at my advice. I had finally grasped the concept of natural consequences, which states that flunking a class is its own punishment, one that’s only weakened by adding an artificial consequence like grounding to it. I was transforming myself from a helicopter into a safety net.
It had taken me eighteen years, but I had figured it out. Then they were gone.
My parenting skills reached new heights while they were in college. Freed from curfew battles and dirty-room wars, I was a new kind of parent. I was free to ponder deep philosophical questions. Like if their dorm room is a mess and I don’t see it, is it really messy? If my daughter is oversleeping, and I don’t hear her alarm, am I just dreaming? If my kid’s at a kegger, and I’m sound asleep, is there really anything I can do about it?
I settled in for a four-year high, which came crashing down along with the economy, as one, then another, and yet another of our five kids graduated and moved back in. According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, 39 percent of young adults ages 18 to 34 say they either live with their parents now or moved back in temporarily in recent years because of the economy.* Just because you’re not alone, doesn’t make it easy.
*[Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph incorrectly stated the percent of young adults who have lived with their parents because of the economy in recent years.]
Suddenly all your parenting skills have to be re-learned. Because now philosophy doesn’t work. They’re still slobs, but you’re no longer blinded by the sweet ignorance provided by hundreds of miles of highway. They’re oversleeping again – and yes that alarm you’re hearing is not in your dream.
You watch them spending too much money on things they couldn’t afford if they were paying rent like they’re supposed to but aren’t because you’re still trying to figure out: A) How temporary is this? B) Do I want to be my kid’s landlord? C) Am I lucky my kids love me enough to move home? D) Am I a sucker?
And the list goes on. While you’re pondering these vital questions, they’re reverting back to the kids they were when you still gave them allowances. They walk past overflowing trash cans, leave their dirty dishes for someone else to wash, keep their lights and other electricity-sucking devices on at all times, and respond to your suggestion that they rake leaves with their own philosophical look, one that says, “Are leaves really the enemy?”
You start to worry. You ask your spouse, “Is this stint at home stunting their development? Are we too easy on them? Shouldn’t they at least be buying their own deodorant and feminine things? Where would you have rather lived when you were 25: with your parents or in prison? How are they going to learn how to plunge a toilet or change the batteries in a smoke alarm if I’m always doing that?”
Your spouse responds with information from an article she’s recently read about really smart parents – the ones who had their kids on waiting lists for pre-school in utero. They charge their kids rent when they move back in as adults and then give back a portion when they move out. You see the brilliance of this idea but remind yourself that this is only temporary.
Six months become a year. And you start to wonder, “What is the nature of temporary?” You ask, “Will I ever walk naked into the kitchen again to start the coffee?”
But something else has been taking place, immune to all these questions. Something strange and wonderful. There is laughter in the house. And mirth. Your Facebook page is being updated in ways that are hysterically funny and slightly inappropriate. You are privy to ridiculously silly YouTube videos.
Young people start showing up in your kitchen. And they’re much more interesting than they were when they hung out in your kitchen as high school students. Your wife and daughter are doing their nails together and giggling.
You might even find yourself going out to hear music at midnight, like I did the other night, with two of our kids.
You don’t know where you are. Is this post-parenthood? Are these roommates of yours adults or post-adolescents? What are the rules? Is it OK to be friends with these strange people who resemble your children?
And you realize – as I did after my brilliant spouse pointed it out to me – that this is exactly what parenthood has always been: being on a road trip without a map or GPS. There’s no spare tire. And your phone is almost out of juice. The tank’s on E. The snacks are almost gone. But the kids are cracking up in the backseat. And you’re a lot happier than a responsible adult should be.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.