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

“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.

First published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue

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Sam Esh01.13.2014

Sometimes I feel that way with my kids.It is interesting how hard it is to take care of them. This boomerang would be fun for them. thttp://www.newbeginningsatwaverly.com

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