January 17, 2004


Robert Frost once wrote that "home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."


In these days of adults in their 20s and 30s returning to live with their parents, there are some new lessons from Frost's belief.


For one of my patients, the return of her son after 15 years signalled more than the failure of his marriage and his need to

find a place, any place, to put his head. It spoke to his need to re-establish himself in a new city (or at least, new since he left it so long ago) in a new job.


Mom had been widowed for more than a decade, so his return was a strange and rather sudden blessing. He's now The Good Son -- the house has been painted, new shelves built, and they actually keep each other company during the evening. He isn't on a constant tear any more and when he decamped over Christmas to spend more time with his own children, she felt his absence keenly.


Indeed, this man fits into the mode of most city dwellers reported on by Dr. Edward Laumann in his ground-breaking Chicago Sex and the Citystudy. Polling 2,000 people, Dr. Laumann discovered that a majority of them will be single or unattached for more than half of their lives from the age of 15 to 50. What does this say to parents? Well, maybe not "keep the extra room," but certainly "add a Murphy bed or futon just in case."


For another of my patients, the term Good Son would never apply. As a teenager, he had sculpted a double Mohawk on his head while still wearing a raccoon tail down the back of his vest. His growing up had been fractious, a function of the unspoken battles between his mom and dad. He was bright, but oh boy, he was weird, the kind of kid who would have originated "Goth" rather than just copying it. And let's not pull our punches here: He was violent as well, once breaking his mother's arm when she caught the full vent of her child's fury.


Things started to turn around when his mother began attending a tough-love group run by a psychiatrist for parents in dire straits about such kids. Her guilt about throwing her only child out of her home in order to save her sanity grew all the more intense as her husband began to decline into mental illness and physical ruin.


But all that was a few years ago, and her son has come home again.


He had travelled far and wide and was now back, but no longer on the outs with the world and his parents. During the five years since I saw him last, he had mellowed a lot. In fact, he was taking a film-production course that was both demanding and expensive. The cost of the course was covered by a small inheritance left by an uncle. But the means to accomplish the task was cemented by living at home with mom. She had agreed to let him stay for as long as it took him to complete the course. But after that, he was on his own and, by definition, out of her house.


When I met him in my office, there wasn't a hint of resentment; he had sustained himself for more than five years by working in restaurants in places all over the globe, and this taught him a different appreciation for what his mother offered him. With great grades but no real prospects in film, he began looking for shared accommodations and cooking work in town. His relationship with his mother was altogether adult, mutual and respectful.


Then there are those children-adults who are truly desperate for a place to call home.


As a teen, this family's middle son sank like a stone, his life and theirs shredded by booze and drugs. It's been a long and painful way back for him, marked by counselling, treatment centres and failed attempts at government-supported work programs. He is now in his mid-20s, and his parents are harbouring him again, holding their breath for him to have even a tiny success in the world.


His mother, a respected child therapist who runs programs for the behaviorally and learning disabled, wears a mantle of sadness about her boy. She and her husband feel utterly helpless in bridging the gap between the idea and the act -- their son's great intentions and tiny actions -- with the constant fear that, meeting failure once again, he will revert to the quick escape offered by chemicals.


Yes, even an outstanding professional such as his mother is not above needing somewhere to turn for support. Forget the multiple ironies here, especially the one about having to parent a child long after that was supposed to be past.


So what works for the pain of the professional? In this instance, as in many others, my suggestion has been Al-Anon, the support group for family and friends of alcoholics and addicts. It's not at all psychiatric or even psychological in its approach, but perhaps because of that, it is a place of comfort where we the healers can all come and listen and share -- without having to "do."


My feeling is that a lot more adult children come home: It may be only a way station when life sidelines them from work or a serious relationship. It may have to do with the financial cost of living independently, especially in big expensive cities.


As a parent, you can feel resentful at the intrusion and the assumption of lifelong hospitality. Or you can remind yourself that the vows you have made for better for worse with your spouse may more aptly apply to your children, till death do you part .


As Bill Cosby said: "Human beings are the only species who allow their offspring to come back home."

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.