Even when dating is not an issue, renegotiating the child-parent relationship creates big questions about what constitutes appropriately supportive parenting. Two of Phyllis Lombardi Siclari’s adult children live with her and her husband in West Haven, Connecticut. She makes dinner for all every night, frequently does her son’s laundry and doesn’t expect the kids to pay rent, although they are theoretically responsible for their credit card charges, cell phone bills and car-insurance payments. “But they are always short,” she says. “It never fails: We have to front them.” The kids eventually pay her back, but she worries that she shouldn’t bail them out. “I don’t want to cripple them, as do so many parents who let their kids walk all over them,” she explains. But it’s not easy to find the right balance between being supportive and letting adults be adults. And many people can’t provide help without putting themselves in financial jeopardy—a problem pervasive enough that the British have coined a term: KIPPERS, or kids in parents’ pockets eroding retirement savings.
There are also conflicting emotions about where to place blame for the situation. “You’re in a constant back-and-forth,” says Jane, a film editor who asked that her name be changed to spare her 25-year-old son’s feelings. “Is his joblessness somehow my fault? His fault? Or is the world just screwing with him?” She feels frustrated that her connections have not helped him land a spot, despite his Ivy League degree, and that the lessons of her work experience seem meaningless in this economy. When prospective employers behave thoughtlessly toward her son, “I start to feel the way I haven’t felt since he was little and someone was picking on him in the playground—almost a desire to hurt people,” she says. Her son has had an array of internships, jobs that ultimately didn’t go where he needed them to go and a year in New York subsidized by his parents. Jane describes him as “terrific,” with a great work ethic, “and I look at him and I think, Where is society now that it has no use for someone like this?” Then at bad moments, “my head starts to spin, and I think there must be something wrong with him that I just don’t see.”
Unlike teenagers, people in their twenties have a reasonable expectation that their adult lives are their own (even when they’re still reaping the benefits of living at home). And that can also be hard on their parents. “Emotionally, it’s a bit of a roller coaster,” says Irene, a therapist who also asked to use another name for this story. She’s losing sleep over her 25-year-old daughter’s social life: “When Serena was in California, if she was out until 4 am clubbing and driving with a few drinks in her, at least I didn’t know.” Now Irene lies in bed, unable to do more than doze until her daughter is safely in the driveway. Serena has been home for a year after an unpaid audio-technology internship and a part-time job—neither of which paid off in the ways she’d hoped—followed by the promise of an opportunity in Florida, which failed to materialize. She’s now back in school, but when she first went home, “she basically did nothing from December to May,” says Irene. “She wasn’t earning a penny. She slept a lot and surfed the Web and turned down most of our suggestions about getting work.”