SAN JOSE, Calif. — Pat Read enjoyed life on her own in her Northern California home after her two kids left for college, graduated, started their careers and set themselves up in their own apartments.
But about a year ago, stuff happened. Her children were hit by soaring rents, and her family faced a situation that is becoming familiar to many parents in the Bay Area and is transforming how people live together in the United States.
First, 30-year-old Lisa got priced out of an apartment she was sharing with roommates in Oakland, then 28-year-old Jeff could no longer afford his jacked-up $1,700-a-month one bedroom.
“I told them they were welcome to move back home but under certain conditions,” Read said.
For Read, she knew her children weren’t typical of despairing stories about the “boomerang generation.” They weren’t mooching millennials who have “failure to launch” issues but hard-working young adults faced with a challenging housing market.
Still, she realized it was important to talk about everyone’s expectations for living together and to lay out some ground rules, including her need for them to pay rent.
It turns out that Read’s demand for clarity is just what was needed, according to therapists and other experts in how families can cope with this phenomenon.
As it happens, Read found that things went much more smoothly than she expected. She hasn’t missed the peace and freedom of her empty nest and in fact prizes the opportunity to get to know her kids in a new way.
“It is a joy living with people who love you unconditionally,” she said. While she expects her children to move out one day, she’s “enjoying the heck out of their company.” She loves their energy, humor, warmth and knowledge “about all things technological.”
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Read isn’t alone in finding the bright side to what is sometimes regarded as a modern social failure: a young person supposedly not meeting an important milestone towards adulthood by establishing an independent household. Many other parents talked to also say the experience has been beneficial for their families.
“We enjoy hearing about their work day, friends, ideas,” said Liz Peters, a San Jose mother who’s had her four children move back at various points. “We have another partner for movie watching, coffee outings, and walking.”
At the same time, these positive parent-adult child experiences don’t come without effort, as Read’s situation shows. Other parents likewise said they talked to their kids about paying rent or giving the arrangement a deadline. “Part of the success is knowing it is temporary,” added Peters.
Of course, these experiences aren’t universal. Some parents also discussed how they felt disrespected by their adult children. One father said his daughter, 34, and son, 32, have decent-paying jobs, but he suspects they live at home rent free because they want to spend what they earn on “new cars, travel, other things in life.”
He’d like to set deadlines for his children to leave, but he feels stuck because their mother won’t change the current arrangement. Recently he was distressed to hear his son voice a true “failure to launch” sentiment, saying: “I don’t know what I’m going to do when you and mom die. Who is going to take care of me?”
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It’s likely that more parents will face the return of adult children, not just because of housing costs but also the burden of student debt and shifting social patterns, which includes young adults delaying marriage and the starting of families.
About 25 million adults live with their parents, and the numbers continue to rise, according to Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. census data. As of 2016, 15 percent of 25- to 35-year-old Americans were living in their parents’ home, the highest share since 1940. Today’s young adults also are more likely to be at home for an extended stay of a year or longer, compared with previous generations.
Margie Ryerson, a Bay Area therapist, said one of the biggest mistakes families make is in assuming that everyone can start living together again because they’re family.
“That usually breaks down because so much has changed, with everyone living independently of one another,” she said. Day-to-day matters — such as how to share common space, meals or household chores — can cause tensions, as was the case with an aggrieved client whose son kept eating leftovers that the parent used to enjoy for himself.
But conflicts usually arise over bigger issues. Ruth Kalb, an area psychologist, said these issues aren’t always easy to talk about and include “money, boundaries, mutual respect, shifting roles, expectations and needs.”
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For Read, the big issue she wanted to get out of the way with her children was how they would relate to one another. She told them, “We would be housemates, not parent and child.”
That meant she wouldn’t tell them they couldn’t have overnight guests or stay out all night. At the same time, she expected them to respect her feelings enough to call if they weren’t coming home so she wouldn’t wake at 2 a.m. worrying that something bad had happened.
Christina Newberry, the Canadian author of “The Hands-on Guide to Surviving Adult Children Living at Home,” agrees that a successful arrangement with adult kids at home depends on managing expectations. She especially emphasizes the need for clarity on financial issues, saying it’s important for parents to not give their children a free ride and rob them of the chance to gain independence.
Each family must decide what constitute a free ride. Dana Tucker, of San Jose, and her husband didn’t see themselves as going easy on their 23-year-old son when he moved back home to start a well-paying job at Microsoft.
They charged no rent at first, but that’s because they had all agreed to a specific plan: For six months, their son would focus on repaying back student loans they had co-signed. Once those were paid off, he would contribute $500 a month in rent while paying back his other loans.
In his 16 months back under mom and dad’s roof, he contributed in other ways and was good company, especially carpooling to work with his father every day, Tucker said. “He mowed the lawn without asking, bought groceries when we ran out of something, did his own laundry, didn’t have parties while we were away.”
By giving their son a chance to free himself from debt, Tucker believes he was better able to launch himself into the world. Ten years later, he still has his good Microsoft job, is married and owns his home.
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For Pat, who didn’t want her last name used, letting her adult children live with her is a return to the traditional multi-generational household, though she recognizes there is a “stigma” for young adults who are not out on their own. She currently lives with her boyfriend, as well as two of her daughters and a young grandchild. Over the years, her 3,100-square-foot home has found space for up to 11 children, grandchildren and significant others.
“As the rents got so high, I encouraged them to move back home to save some money,” said Pat, who charges a nominal rent. “Thankfully, they all have very good jobs. I didn’t want to see them paying astronomical rent to live nearby. … I believe a multi-generational household can be very beneficial for all of us.”
The benefits come as parents age. Pat said her children helped her provide 24/7 care for her husband, who suffered with Lewy body dementia for three years before he died in January 2016. “We never had any hired help, only hospice,” she said. With her children around, she was also able to have her mother live with her before she died last summer at age 101.
In her family, they work hard to respect one another’s private spaces and have worked out schedules for laundry. “But I would say that the single most important thing you need to live together like this is a sense of humor,” she said. “It really helps a lot.”