By Fara Nizamani
“Failure to launch,” the current label for kids staying at home past the age of 22 or so, has always bothered me a bit. It sounds more like an aborted space shuttle mission than a family living situation. Experts bombard us with advice—telling us that we should wring our hands because we are doing our kids the greatest disservice by enabling them to sponge off of their well-meaning but spineless parents far longer than society thinks they should, but is that the reality for most families? Multi-generational households are the way the majority of humans have always lived, at least up until about a century ago, and are really only uncommon in the Western world.
So why is “living in mom’s basement” such a terrible thing? I really don’t know. I have listened to many friends who seem to be counting the days until their kids leave, often citing strife and continuous clashes with their offspring as the reason. Others seem to be chomping at the bit to get on with their lives, as if they can’t do that while their kids live at home. Still others enjoy their kids’ presence and don’t necessarily want them to leave home, but think it’s best for everyone if the separation happens as soon after high school graduation as possible. It’s as if they fear that neither they nor their children will be healthy if they continue to live at home, or that they will be sneered at for having kids who have “failed to launch,” an indirect accusation that they are too invested in the parental relationship, are incapable of seeing themselves as separate from their children.
This anxiety over how best to help kids learn independence and, by extension, what makes a “good” parent has left many struggling to justify their choices. For example, I have never been a stay-at-home mom, and I sometimes still struggle with the guilt even though all three of my children are now technically adults. I went back to work full-time within eight weeks after all three of my kids were born, and still did what many moms do: I put most of my time and energy into my children, with the goal of helping them learn to transition into their own successful, independent lives. I think I have succeeded. My entire world no longer has to be laser-focused on them like it was when they were little, wiping noses and tying shoes and arranging playdates and preventing them from inadvertently poisoning the cat. And yet, all of my adult children still live at home or have done so since they have been well past eighteen.
The free time that I have now is exhilarating. I have taken up traditional Okinawan karate, I am very active in social and political causes, and I am contemplating taking guitar lessons. The kids see me doing what I love, setting an example of the balancing act that is family life. I have my life, and they have theirs.
Leaving the family nest is an individual process. My oldest daughter lived at home until she had a couple of years of college under her belt, my son is living at home and working part-time while he finishes his degree, and my youngest daughter is a senior in high school, also works part time, and will be attending a local community college for two years before transferring to who knows where. While I have not necessarily encouraged them to go to college far away, I have also not demanded that they stay nearby. It has always been their choice.
My son would have moved out long ago had he been financially able. He has weighed the pros and cons of living on his own while in college and has decided that taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans just to be able to live with friends or in a dorm is not worth it to him. He would rather live at home and not be saddled with enormous debt when he graduates. While he completes his degree, he is also working on an ESL teaching certificate so he can travel extensively and teach English to defray the costs. My youngest daughter wants to study abroad and is already trying to figure out the public transportation systems in at least four European countries.
Despite their current housing situation, this sounds suspiciously like young people planning to fly the nest and explore the world, not live in their mom’s house until they retire.
This living arrangement works out well for our family. For example, I enjoy cooking, and they seem to enjoy eating what I make, even though they are quite capable of foraging for their own meals. However, I am not slaving in the kitchen and washing piles of laundry and picking up towels from the bathroom floor. We have evolved.
My daughter comes home from high school or work and wants to talk about her day. Imagine that. A teenager voluntarily engaging in conversation with her mother. She asks if I want her to put on some tea water. My son calls before he comes home and asks if we need anything from the store. We watch Counter-Strike tournaments on Twitch. We thoroughly enjoy each other’s company, whether playing board games or sitting outside near the fire bowl or going to a movie or out for coffee or French pastries, and even though we have squabbles like any other family, I would hang out with them even if they weren’t my kids.
Does that sound a little weird, that my adult kids and I choose to spend time together regularly? A friend of mine looked at me askance when I told her that I was having dinner and game night with the younglings and mumbled something about boundaries and space. But she needn’t have been alarmed. We are not socially stunted or clingy, nor are we inordinately wrapped up in each other. There is no co-dependence at my house. They go out with their friends all the time—movies, meals, Netflix marathons, library for studying, soccer games, farmers markets. They also retreat to their rooms and watch videos or take BuzzFeed quizzes all evening.
They know what their needs are and how to meet them. They will leave the nest and fly when they are ready. No one is in any rush.
One day, I will wake up to find that all three of my kids have successfully “launched.” I know it will be bittersweet—missing the love and laughter and almost-daily contact that has been the norm for decades, while at the same time cheering them on with maternal pride as they spread their wings and soar through their own lives. Until then, I will enjoy the one that we have now, sharing the nest we built together.
Fara Nizamani is an English professor in the Seattle area. She enjoys practicing karate, sneering at coffee snobs, hurling insults at her video game opponents, and enjoying an evening of good conversation in front of a fire pit.
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