'I still make my adult son's packed lunch'

people nowadays don’t earn much. If
we can make it a bit easier, why not?”
“Young people nowadays don’t earn much. If we can make it a bit easier, why not?” Photo: Stocksy

"I know he's 23 but I still struggle to see him as properly grown up," says Amanda Pampel, 53, of her son Louis, who recently moved back into the family home. "He's perfectly capable, but as soon as he came back I wanted to mollycoddle him."

Amanda, who runs an au pair agency, has continued her daily involvement in her son's life well into what was once considered independent adulthood.

Until Louis recently found a fulltime job, Amanda and her husband David supported him financially, funding his phone and petrol.

They still don't charge him rent.

He's saving for his own place, and it seems silly to make him pay to live at home," says Amanda. "Young people nowadays don't earn much. If we can make it a bit easier, why not?"

She drives Louis to the station every day so he can commute to his office, and makes his packed lunch. "I know he could do it himself," she says, "but it's just a nice thing to do."

Amanda admits this could be seen as smothering or infantilising her son. But Louis, too, is happy with the situation.

"I love living at home. I have dinner waiting on the table for me each evening and a lift to the station every morning. What more could I ask for?"

For his generation, he adds, "it's normal for parents to support kids until they are able to do it themselves. Now I'm earning, though, I much prefer not to trouble my mum for extra money."


It sounds straightforward enough, but I know from my own experience that it isn't always so simple.

My own son lives where he grew up, 320 kilometres from where I now live, and though he's 25, I worry endlessly, check in on social media daily – much to his irritation – and am happy to offer financial back-up if required.

Clinical psychologist Dr Chirag Gorasia says it may be healthier for me, and mothers like me, to practise a little tough love rather than embracing a state of endless support.

"The concept of parenting has changed and both parents and children now find it difficult to let go," says. Dr Gorasia "Financial support can often mean a better quality of life for young adults. However, it can also mean that children end up less able to cope with challenges, as they've not had much experience of resolving their issues independently."

A recent opinion piece in the The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health medical journal states that adolescence now lasts until the age of 24, whereas it used to be considered at an end by 19. This coincides with social issues keeping young adults at home, including high rents and fewer jobs, as well as an upward shift in the median age for first marriages – in Australia in 2016 it was 30.3 years for men and 28.7 for women.

Young people in first jobs stand little chance of scraping together a house deposit, so it's little surprise that the average age parents expect children to leave home is now 25.

This is not exactly new: in the past, whole families often lived together until death did they part. But nowadays, with personal independence prized and sex before marriage no longer taboo, it's a big ask for both generations to get along under the same roof indefinitely. Family dynamics can easily slip back into old patterns and parents can feel resentment towards their overgrown cuckoos, who often return to the nest just just as their parents had become used to freedom.

Should we be negotiating our way into old age as our grown-up children remain at home, or is there a good time to say enough is enough?

"I wish I'd done that sooner," says Claire Winters, 56, mother of Alfie, 27, who recently moved into a flatshare. "Alfie was home for three years, and every day was a battle. I felt that as we were supporting him financially he should help around the house, but he was always leaving a mess, and coming home at odd hours – once he set the toaster on fire when he was drunk at 3am. It was like living with a big, unmanageable labrador."

Claire set house rules – she would never tidy his bedroom and he would do his own washing – but enforcing them was tough. "He didn't care if he lived in a tip," she says, "but I worried about mice. And when he brought girlfriends home, I felt embarrassed because I could overhear everything."

Clearly, it's necessary for 20-somethings to form romantic relationships, but "Alfie hated it when I was around the next day," says Claire. "He felt having breakfast with his mum was tantamount to asking the girl to marry him. The few times it happened, I pretended I had an early meeting and left them to it."

Experts agree that it's vital to set boundaries – for parents to respect their children's adult status, and for grown-up children to accept strictures when they're living in the family home.

"I really think it's a quid pro quo situation," says Laurie Cooper, 56. "When my daughter Sasha came home after uni, she struggled to get a job. Eventually it became clear that she was sticking around for longer than we'd planned, so we had to set some rules."

They agreed that she would pay a small amount towards the bills, and do her own washing. She'd also shop and cook one night a week. "It doesn't sound like much, but it meant she was making some effort and she no longer felt like a drain on our resources."

While it may seem practical for children to move back to the nest, not all experts concur. "Having your children home again can be rewarding as you all develop a more adult relationship," says psychotherapist Ellie Roberts. "But most parents know that the appropriate developmental stage is for their children to move away from the home and establish themselves in relationships and work."

She believes that greater involvement in education has resulted in helicopter parenting, where we overprotect children. "Education has become stressful for children and parents tend to compensate by offering a kind of butler service," she says.

But once education is done, she suggests, it's time to let go. Grotty flat-shares may not be appealing compared to home, but "even a not-very-nice flat-share is a reality check and a spur to establishing one's own life".

Roberts warns against the temptation to check in on social media. "It has blurred the boundaries," she says. "If parents aren't careful, their anxiety about what their children are up to can drive them into becoming voyeurs. It can also lead to parents assuming they are 'friends' when it's more developmentally healthy for children that their parents remain parents."

This strikes like an arrow to the heart. My constant interest in my son's life and my longing to chat with him, check he's okay, has often led me into what could more realistically be termed pestering than parenting.

"Being supportive isn't the same as over-involvement," Roberts says (as I nod). What is a bad idea, she says, is "enmeshment – when the young person finds it difficult to separate and is constantly either appeasing the parents or rebelling against them."

For many parents, cutting the apron strings can feel like severing the most precious tie. I never understood the mothers raving about "having the house to themselves" once the kids were "out of the way". But it's dawned on me that my neediness where my son is concerned is doing neither of us any good. If we want our children to enjoy the freedom and independence that we did, regardless of financial restrictions, the first step is to start treating them as the adults they are.

How to cut the apron strings

Don't follow your kids on social media

At least, not unless they ask you to. They have to go out and make mistakes, so don't spy on them.

Withdraw financial support gradually

Grown-up kids have to learn to contribute to society and the family – but if you like, keep money aside to help with a house deposit.

Spell out the rules

Write them down and remember this – there have to be consequences for breaking them.

Back off

Create an independent life beyond parenting; don't fit around theirs.

Set a communication date

A regular check-in is fine – call weekly or visit every month. If there are boundaries, you're not overstepping.

Gary Bloom, psychotherapist

This article originally appeared in Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph (UK).