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Bungee Families

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You Can Go Home Again

By Martha Straus

In the spring of 1973, a couple of months before I left for college, my parents moved into a one-bedroom apartment. I have no traumatic memories of this event, and I don't recall worrying that anyone might have thought it odd at the time. Young people my age were expected to leave the parental nest, so downsizing made perfect sense. But now when I speak about it, people are astonished. Many express sympathy; some even pity me. These days, my own daughter, Lizzy, a recent college graduate living 200 miles away, is dismayed when she learns that I've allowed guests to sleep in her sacred bedroom. n What a difference one generation can make! The truth is, I really love having Lizzy home, and she'll be welcome here if her city plans don't pan out. If she comes back home for any reason, we'll still be trendy: about 25 million young adults between between 18 and 34 are currently residing with their parents, and 65 percent of college grads move home for a year or two. It's the new family paradigm of bungee families: young adults and their boomer parents, mutually attached and living together for a while longer.

Just a generation ago, the child-rearing contract was clearly designed to last for about 18 years. Most families then, like my own, seemed pleased with a planned adolescent departure date. Kids didn't want to live at home, and after all the protesting and rebelling we'd put our parents through, they were usually relieved to see us go. By the time we'd finished high school, it was more than reasonable for our parents to assume that we'd move out and one way or another (through a job, going to college, getting married) start to stand on our own two unsubsidized feet. Most of us lived up to these expectations, not giving them a second thought—until we had kids of our own.

Family therapists were enthusiastic champions of this cultural narrative. Back in 1980, when Jay Haley's generative book Leaving Home was published, family treatment with late adolescents in the home focused on removing impediments to their departure. Parents learned to take charge and get their kids packing. Indeed, throughout much of American history, the ideal of successful maturity has touted the virtues of autonomy and individuation. The psychological necessity for such separation permeated popular sentiment, where even now it remains relatively unchallenged.

In its basic form, this story holds that most emerging adults still living at home are wretched, entitled, or manipulative kids, who are victimizing their hapless "permaparents." These parents, in turn, should get their own lives, stop being wimps and concierges, and escort their leeching offspring out the door. Good parents raise differentiated individuals who create their own paths. Even without agreeing on all the negative elements, most therapists still accept that an offspring's independence is the mark of a parental job well done, and that a successful intervention is one that helps cut the cord.

But in much of the world, over a vast range of cultures, this severing of ties has never been a goal. From most of Africa and Latin America to Italy, the Pacific Islands, East Asia, the Mideast, and Greece, extended families provide the basic family unit. Lecturing recently in Cuba, I was practically laughed out of the room for talking about how isolated emerging adults can feel in the United States; the audience couldn't imagine anything so absurd. The housing shortage there is real, but so is the assumption that members of extended families should support each other as a matter of course. In Cuba, as in other collectivistic cultures, extended families reside together, and it's quite typical for adult children to stay on at home for many years, even after marriage and babies. And why not?

The going-away story has dominated the American zeitgeist for much of our history, and has become the default setting for adolescents moving into adulthood. But now, for a variety of reasons—social, cultural, economic—the old narrative of "up and out" appears to have taken a 180-degree turn, and many observers are concerned. Frank Furstenberg, a University of Pennsylvania sociology professor and researcher who's studied emerging adults for years, recently concluded, "The conveyer belt that transported adolescents into adulthood has broken down." Like many others who therapize, analyze, and criticize what's happening, Furstenberg speaks in terms of crisis and decline. If the "correct" developmental standard is and should be "When they turn 18, start getting them out of the house," then, yes, the system is busted, and alarming numbers of families are doomed to be failures in it.

But maybe the story isn't about failure and dysfunction, but about change. In fact, it seems likelier that the forms and functions of families have evolved so rapidly over the past three decades that the old plotline doesn't fit the new reality anymore. To put it bluntly, we're not our parents' generation, and our kids aren't the way we were at their age. There's no enduring measurement of success based on what was normal and desirable back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth (as my kids like to say), in 1970. We're all coauthoring a new story, and though we don't know how it'll all turn out, it may have possibilities for strengthening family life and improving the transition from youth to adulthood in ways we never imagined.

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