Next week, my third child, Jerry, aged 18, is going off to university, and although he is not the first of my four children to leave home, I am, quite frankly, dreading it. As for many other parents, it’s a difficult time. We have got used to living together during lockdown, and now this unity is being dismantled as a new cohort of young adults heads off to study away from home.
I am aware that I am finding the idea of Jerry leaving pretty difficult. This is not just because I have lived with him and looked after him for nearly two decades, but also because it is a fracture in the stability of my family, a small nick out of the papier-mache model I have created, a little break in the carefully constructed family unit. For I have lived with my children – Raymond, 25, Leonard, 19, Jerry, 18 and Ottoline, 15 – for over a quarter of a century.
And, what’s more, I like living like this. I like everything about it. I like how close we are, how much fun we have. I like the fact we play together and eat together, and we communicate on a level I enjoy. And the older my children get, the more I like them. I can talk to them about complicated things like emotions or politics or the environment or novels or music. I appreciate their input. It’s refreshing to live with younger humans who potentially open up the concepts of different viewpoints to my own.
In fact, I intend to live like this for quite a while longer. I am stating this as my intention loudly and clearly because, over the years, people have been very judgmental about my living arrangements. It seems totally verboten to say I actually like living in this way. The implication is that there is something deeply unhealthy about it.
I am not sure why people get so upset. It has begun to make me feel embarrassed, especially as my oldest, Raymond, will be 26 in October. When I tell people this, some look horrified. Others quiz me on when he is moving out, stating that maybe it’s time Leonard left, too.
The unspoken accusation seems to be that I am somehow “wrong” by continuing to live with them, as if some law has been written down that means all children have to leave once they turn 18. People endlessly start their questioning of me with the statement: “When I was their age…”
But, of course, times have changed. We all know how expensive it is to live now – most children in their 20s do not have the earning capacity to move in to anything but student digs with mould in the bathroom and tattered curtains.
It was deemed OK during lockdown when kids fled back home by the dozen but now I find myself being endlessly lectured on how unhealthy it is, and why won’t I let them go, and why won’t they let me go? I’ve had enough of it.
In the face of all this opprobrium, I have started wondering why we live in this culture whereby children are supposed to move out before they’ve reached their third decade on the planet. The idea is that being independent is healthy – but is it? Living alone in a pit is depressing. Living in the family unit, where people support each other and everyone has their own independence but contributes to the bills, doing the cooking, helping out, helping each other out, seems a much better way to live.
In other cultures, families cohabit and no one turns a hair. Children get brought up in extended families, old people reside with their adult children and people think forcing kids out of the home is inhumane. In many cultures, children not only continue to live with their parents but they also work with them. I encounter this particularly in Italy and Greece, but I am sure it exists in many other countries.
Closer to home, my older children contribute financially, which really helps me – they both have jobs. The money they’d spend on a room in a shared flat they spend on being in our home. This is especially helpful now fuel prices are biting. Although, of course, there is an argument to say that my fuel bills might be cheaper if we used fewer rooms.
But it’s more than that. Life would feel less fun and less colourful if my children weren’t around.
In 2020, David Brooks wrote a long article in the Atlantic about the nuclear family and how the model – of two parents and 2.5 children who grow up and leave home before they turn 20 or so – no longer applies in modern society. More than that, he claims that the nuclear family is actually a false construct that took hold in the mid-60s but is actually redundant now.
In the article, headlined The nuclear family was a mistake, he writes: “The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.”
He goes on to say: “If you want to summarise the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: we’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximise their talents and expand their options.
“The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working class and poor.”
And all this, in conclusion, leads to people living in loneliness and disconnected from each other.
I know I don’t share a house with all of my relatives, but the next time someone raises an eyebrow at the rather communal way I choose to live, I will remember that the family and support is something vital to our ongoing mental, physical and spiritual health. That’s why I still live with my children.