Life with a ‘boomerang’ child

October 27, 2010 | Viewpoints | Number 21
Melissa Miller |

Up until a few days ago, there were three different kinds of toothpaste in our bathroom, one belonging to each of the three people living in our home. My husband and I have long agreed on different brands; having two kinds seems to be better than complaining about each other’s preferences. The third tube belonged to our son, who was back “at home” for a short time. The extra tube of toothpaste was a visual reminder of our altered household.

Like many young adults, our son returned to the family nest after experiencing the freedom and responsibility of living independently. As summer ended, he found himself to be temporarily homeless when his best efforts to find a suitable apartment were unsuccessful. He asked to live with us briefly, and we readily agreed. We love our son, and we want to provide for him.

At the same time, I was a little anxious about it. For starters, our basement was under renovation, so our son would need to use the guest room just beside our bedroom, making us all a little cozy. The same applied to the house’s only bathroom. Would the cosiness become cramped? Would we get irritated with the unfamiliar closeness?

Furthermore, middle-aged people can get quite set in their ways; at least the two that live in my house are so inclined. How flexible could we be in accommodating our son’s interests, friends and activities? He was used to living free from parental observation; how would he adjust to our presence in his daily life? What about his independence, such an important value in our culture? Does living at home delay or prevent him from fully becoming an adult? Are there psychological consequences for young adults still living at home?

What about the parent-child dance? Could we treat each other as relatively equal housemates, or would we fall back into family interactions more appropriate to other stages of life? Would I be unable to hold back from reminding my son to put on his coat when he went out? Would he feel the need to be oppositional or defensive, just to assert his independence? The Bible doesn’t readily answer these questions, given the differences between family life thousands of years ago and family life in Canada today. Psalm 37’s injunction, “do not fret”—repeated three times—could be a starting point.

Other families find themselves in the same situation. Many adult children return home, and they and their parents ask the questions I asked. It’s a phenomenon known as “boomeranging,” as the children who appear to be launched return to their parental home, often for multiple times.

Our boomerang experience was a success. As planned, our son soon found an affordable apartment; six weeks after he moved in with us, he was gone. The time we’d had together was pleasant, with none of my worries coming true. The kinds of things that make relationships work—respectful communication, flexibility and clear expectations—were in ample supply. Mutual affection and spontaneous play were the icing on the cake. Our cheerful temporary arrangement felt like an unexpected and delightful gift.

Of course, there was the empty space left behind when our son moved out. One woman says she feels like her womb makes an adjustment, stretching and contracting, each time her kids come and go. The easy solution to that: a soft and friendly kitten who took up residence just two days later. Not that he’s a replacement for my son!

Melissa Miller ( lives in Winnipeg, Man., where she ponders family relationships as a pastor, counsellor and author.

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