Boomerang Kids: Hey, Mom, I'm Home

Her house was already full to bursting with kids—and then the older boys moved back in. How one mother made room for them in her house and heart

by Jacquelyn Mitchard
full house illustration
Photograph: Zohar Lazar

The phone rang at 6 am.

“Mom!” Dan said. “I’m about to cross the bridge.”

Having just filled out a fourth grader’s permission slip, cleared off the breakfast dishes and opened my laptop, I said, “Honey, hi...what time is it out there? Sunrise in the Rockies? Why do you have to go to work so early?” My 26-year-old son, Dan, was a chef in Vail, Colorado. Every day he crossed a bridge to get to his job at a trendy Italian restaurant in the village.

There was a silence.

“So, yeah,” Dan said. “I meant the Sagamore Bridge.”

Now, the Sagamore Bridge is not in Colorado. It’s in Massachusetts, connecting the mainland to Cape Cod, where we live. “I had just enough money left over from my plane ticket to grab the bus from Boston.” He paused. “It does look pretty, Mom. The road home always looks the prettiest.”

He had me at home.

A half hour later I was at the bus stop, my arms around a son a full foot taller than I and even skinnier than he had been eight months before. “Where’s your luggage?” I asked. When he moved west, Dan had mailed boxes.

Another silence.

He’d sold his parka and skis to buy the plane ticket. His roomie had accepted his TV and Xbox in exchange for back rent. Rents out there were high, and while Dan was good at making money, he was even more gifted at spending it.

So, I thought, this made two boomerangs in the basement—grown children who hadn’t actually failed to launch but had engine trouble necessitating a speedy re-entry.

I texted the other boomerang. Marty, 23, had lived here his first year out of school. Then, on the verge of amassing the bankroll he would need to move to New York, the next step for a young actor, he’d been T-boned on the way to a rehearsal in Boston, his car totaled, his hand broken in a way that would cost him two surgeries and six months of physical therapy. I’d never been more grateful for my health insurance or for the bunk bed next to the boiler in the little makeshift basement office.

Marty met us at the door. “First of all,” he told his brother, “you do your own laundry. No dirty tube socks under the mattress. No pizza boxes on the floor. And second, this room never smells of anything you drink or smoke. And third...good to see you, bro.” While Marty, who was neat to the point of neurosis, didn’t exactly relish welcoming a slovenly supersaurus into his 8-by-12 space, he and Dan had been best friends all their lives.

By the time the younger kids—six of them, ages six to 17—burst in the door from school, Dan was whipping up homemade tagliatelle with pesto, a peace offering that was both aromatic and incredibly messy.

“Munchkins!” Dan yelled, hugging 14-year-old Merit and literally lifting 13-year-old Mia off the floor.

The little ones were thrilled. My husband, Chris, who walked in a while later, was not.

“How are we going to work this?” he asked—a fair question.

We both glanced at Dan, who by then was sprawled, asleep, on the sofa. When he heard Chris’s voice, he woke.

“Pop!” he said, getting up to give Chris a hard hug. Dan may stuff tube socks under the mattress, but his heart is as big as his head. I saw Chris struggle between trepidation and joy that Dan was here and in one piece. Dan had always been the kind of person who seemed less likely to make decisions than to have them happen to him.

“Do you have a plan worked out?” Chris asked.

“Yep,” Dan said. “I got my old job back, and I know a guy who has a place at the beach.”

Dan always knew a guy.

That night, Marty and Dan climbed into steel bunk beds intended for children and into the calculus of a phenomenon born of prolonged childhoods and hard times. According to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center, 36 percent of young adults ages 18 to 31 live with their parents for months or years—even after they’ve finished college and begun working. This percentage has risen steadily since 2007, as the recession deepened.

Rarely is moving back home a matter of choice. Jobs get dicey; debt gets out of hand. When the tipping point comes, the truth of what Robert Frost said is tested: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

For us, the issue was complicated. Our current house was tiny compared with the sprawling home we’d left in Wisconsin a year before. With Dan in the mix, there would be 10 of us, including two of my three older sons. I had Dan, Marty and the eldest, Rob, with my first husband, who died when I was in my late thirties. After I married Chris three years later, he adopted the older kids, and over the course of our marriage, six more came along. The only one missing now was Rob.

A few days after Dan’s arrival, Chris brought a sheaf of printouts to bed. “OK, I’ve got the gist of the advice on boomerangs. When an adult child comes back, you do a written plan. This can’t be open-ended. We have to decide how much grocery money is fair to contribute and how much rent...”

“For a bunk bed in a boiler room?” I asked.

“What he’s got is better than nothing,” Chris pointed out.

“OK,” I said. “You write up the plan for the two of them to sign.” I knew that Chris would never get it done, which would give me time to think before I drew up the document myself.

At first, during those balmy spring months, things went well. Dan slept most of the time before his job began in May, but when he was awake, he dressed up the dining. Both of the guys backstopped me, picking up the kids from activities or delivering them to doctor appointments. One afternoon I was stuck in traffic and already 15 minutes late retrieving nine-year-old Will from dodgeball. Everyone knows that helplessness. I pulled over to call my husband, but before I could dial, a text pinged in from Marty: “Got Will.” It was good having two more majors to monitor the minors. In the ensuing weeks, Marty, whose injured hand was on the mend, also got our yard in shape. Dan helped Chris chainsaw some deadwood and build a rock wall. Hearing the older sons downstairs, talking and laughing, made our house feel like home again. There was a yin and a yang to that, though. The floor of our bedroom was the ceiling of the room where they slept, which cost us some privacy.

More than once, Chris and I sought time alone. In a twist on a time--honored tradition, we went parking on the far side of our small circular driveway, under cover of some scrubby trees. The irony wasn’t lost on us: We weren’t kids sneaking away from our parents’ house but parents on the lam from our kids’ house.

“It’s just for a while,” I said hopefully. “It’ll work out.”

But that weekend a former girlfriend of Marty’s named Nora, who was also an actor, visited from New York. I fell asleep by 10 pm, as usual. The next morning, however, as Marty rummaged in the fridge for bagels (Nora had daintily decamped to the sofa, where we’d left pillows and blankets for her), Chris said, “Son, your mom tells me I don’t know what love is. But now I know what it sounds like.”

Marty flushed. He didn’t reply, but there were no return engagements.

Then, in late May, Rob, 28, came for a visit from the Midwest, where he still lived. He announced he was heading east—far east—to Japan, as part of that country’s program welcoming young Americans, especially those fluent in Japanese (as Rob is), to teach English. With summer in full swing, we had a ball that week, spending family nights on fierce song-lyric tournaments.

One night Rob said wistfully, “I’d love to save the money I’m shelling out on rent. And I miss you guys. But I could never live here. The house is way too small. And you’d drive me nuts!”

Irony was never so manifest.

Within a few days, however, he’d brainstormed with his brothers and located a possible computer-repair gig that would help him save money until he left for Japan—the following April.

Of all the older kids, Rob was always the prickliest, but also the most courteous. “It would really help me if I could live here, but if you mind..."

I waited for Chris, who waited for me.

“It will all work out,” I said.

Marty, Dan, Rob: It was a trifecta. And by summer it was a tribe.

For some reason, summer catapulted our older boys back into frat-house mode. Red Solo cups bloomed among the hydrangeas, and 17-year-old Francie, whose bedroom is downstairs, complained of loud Dexter marathons while she tried to sleep before her final exams. A cheap TV set for the boys’ room solved that, but I went ballistic over the beer cups with their friends’ bloated cigarette butts swimming in them. This wasn’t a flophouse! The guys told me to back off: They were old enough to do what they wanted. But a gentle reminder that adolescent girls didn’t need to see grown men parading in from the outside shower in boxers was all it took to inaugurate the brotherhood of the traveling robe. We bickered about meals cooked outside our bedroom door at 2 am but also about politics, music and books, which was fun. I was actually meeting “the brothers” as adults for the first time, and in a unique fashion.

In my generation, moving out was for good; I never really lived at home again after I left for college at 16. People got married in their early twenties and had kids. For new college grads, even an entry-level salary was enough to pay half the rent on a pretty nice apartment. Those grads dreamed of saving up $20,000 to make a down payment on a house, not to pay off student loans. Parents saw their adult children when they went to work beside them in the factory or the family business, or when they moved in down the block or visited from town.

In our sons’ generation, all but a few graduate from college older and deeper in debt. In real dollars, that first job pays for just about as much as, or less than, my first newspaper job did in 1980. The rent on my first apartment was $300 a month. The rent Dan paid for the place he shared in Vail was $1,500 a month and considered a steal. No wonder this generation also marries later.

So I rotated like a top bumping off emotions—frustration, satisfaction and pure, hopeless sympathy for their plight. On good days, having the older boys around felt like a privilege. How easily Dan whipped up breakfast crêpes; how effortlessly Rob fixed the computer; and with what skill Marty taught Francie to play “Clair de Lune,” my favorite song, on our old piano.

Then came the boys’ first fight.

Jokingly at first, Dan called Marty “fat ass.” Marty responded that he, Marty, was home because of his injuries, but Dan was just a slacker. There was a shove, then a harder shove. Rob joined the fray. Of course, our sons had been fighting all their lives—scuffling, tussling, wrestling—and now here they were again, careening into couches, with vases swaying and the littlest siblings caught between fascination and terror. At the end, the hole in the wall matched the one they’d made when they were 12, 14 and 17.

Contrition and plastering followed, but Atticus, seven, said tearfully, “They’re too big to fight.”

Not long after, Francie slapped Marty for double dipping a spoon in the chili she was making, and in return he hit her with a wooden spoon across the shoulders.

“She’s a kid, Marty,” I reminded him.

“She’s a jerk,” he told me.

Tears sprang to my eyes as I remembered the seven-year-old Marty cradling his infant sister. “She was your heart,” I said.

Marty turned to me, his own eyes awash in misery. “I know! Why did you let her grow up to be an entitled brat?”

Who was entitled? It was Marty who was driving my car. Only a few weeks later, Dan asked me if I could move the kids’ computer out of the boiler room: “It’s annoying enough to have people walking through to do laundry without the little kids coming in to play Club Penguin.”

I was too dumbfounded to answer. Finally, I said, “This isn’t set up for you. This is their home, where they have to be. If you don’t like it, move!”

One morning, a note turned up on the bathroom mirror pointing out that we were out of frozen pizza.

Chris asked, “What are you going to do about this?”

I shrugged. “Get some frozen pizza.”

“What you really need to get,” Chris said, “is some counseling, so that they can all move and you can be OK with whatever that means.” During this period, every tussle between us started this way. Chris was fed up, which made him slip on his Dad-as-Scrooge hat, while I was forced into the defensive crouch of protecting my young.

“What if it means Dan ends up homeless?”

Chris said, “You know that isn’t what I want.”

“But you could be”—I made air quotes—“ ‘OK with that’?”

The battle was on, each of us digging deep for insults, me insisting that Chris couldn’t love “the old kids” because they had come from my first marriage, him hurling back the truth that I was doing laundry for 11, plus working two jobs, and the power bill was higher by half.

The next day, we were both abashed. But I agreed that I should be the one to write down the “exit strategy” goals.

Before I could, we went to a matinee performance of Next to Normal, a musical in which Marty played two roles—to luminous effect. The same night, as I went to look for the guys with my list, I overheard them upstairs telling the youngest three a story. I lingered outside the door. “When we were little like you, before Mom married Dad, she had no money,” Rob was saying.

“We don’t have much now!” Atticus pointed out. Even he knew that Chris and I had been wiped out years earlier by an investment theft.

“Well,” Rob went on, “every Friday night we would go to the diner for hot dogs and fries, and then Mom would take us on moon walks. One night, we walked around the outside of the zoo in the dark and tried to guess which animals were making which sounds...”

“We go for walks in the dark sometimes!” Marta, eight, said. Still beaming from our description of Marty’s theater performance, Atticus said, “Marty, why don’t you get famous and buy Mom a big, big house like we used to have?”

Quietly, Marty said, “That’s the plan, buddy.”

With my own plan in hand, I crept back downstairs. That night, I read all those printouts again, then took my own moon walk. When I was a child, my parents and grandparents shared a house that neither couple could have afforded on their own. I remember it as the safest of havens. Of course I was providing a refuge for my kids. Worse things could happen in the world.

There would be no set of written rules. Written rules are for children, like gold stars for brushing your teeth.

I would ignore the pundits who advised that the last thing we should do was make life too comfortable for the boomerangs. Make them feel that they had washed up here through some failure of character on their part (or ours)? No way. They were welcome to share whatever food and warmth we had. But no more making me yell at them to pick up smelly socks or wet towels. No more covert “just this once” payment of their phone bills. I would commiserate; I struggled with those bills myself. But I would no longer act like a mommy. Adults sharing a common space respect one another’s possessions and privacy. I would quietly, but firmly, expect that.

Most of all, there would be no more pinning them down to an “exit date.” Making them sign such a document would only demean three kids who never planned to have to rely on their parents. Someday I would be an old woman, and I didn’t want these, my eldest ones, -discussing an “exit plan” for me.

When my attitude changed, so did theirs. I spooled back my cross or cautionary words. In return, they dialed down the sarcasm. I treated them like adults. They treated me with enhanced courtesy. A fragile peace descended.

After a couple of months, having saved some money, Rob decided to return to Madison until it was time to go to Japan. Marty will leave for New York right after Christmas.

Dan will probably stay the longest. We actually urged him to stay home for a while—to work hard and to save hard—so that, by the time he leaves, he’ll have a nest egg and smarter spending habits.

When Dan goes, he’ll be doing what he’s supposed to do, lighting out for the territories. I’ll be relieved.

I’ll also be bereft.

It doesn’t take a PhD to figure out that a woman who has nine children has never hankered after an empty nest.

I really don’t know how our sons will look back on this time. But since they got a chance to live with us in the middle of our lives, when we were both still tough and vigorous, for them it might be like that moment in Our Town when Emily, as a ghost, looks at her parents and cries out, “They’re so young and beautiful! Why did they ever have to get old? But just for a moment now, we’re all together...just for a moment, we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.”

We did that.

We had that.

No regrets. 

JACQUELYN MITCHARD is a contributing editor at More. Her new novel, What We Lost in the Dark, debuts in December.

Next: Coming Out to My Parents

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First Published Wed, 2013-10-30 14:07

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