When Kristine Mestaz’s son, Jeremy Cunningham, now 20, moved to Arizona for college, she was sad but supportive and grew accustomed to his absence. Then the pandemic happened, and her nest was refilled: He returned home to Auburn, California, in March 2020 for spring break but didn’t leave, as his school, Arizona State University, went online.
“I have loved every minute of it,” Mestaz said. She taught Jeremy, who is her only child, how to cook. They went on daily walks, watched movies and discussed world events. Now, after more than a year at home, he’s heading back to Arizona at the end of May to begin an internship. Although she knows her son needs to move on with his life, Mestaz said she is already missing him.
“I know I have to be an empty nester again. I know he has to be on his own. But my heart hurts,” she said.
Mestaz is one of the many parents who are having to readjust to having an empty nest again. According to a Pew Research Center report published in September, 52% of American young adults — 26.6 million of those ages 18-29 — were living with one or both of their parents in July, exceeding the previous peak recorded at the end of the Great Depression.
Having their kids back home wasn’t roses and sunshine for all parents. According to Linda Sapadin, a clinical psychologist in private practice on Long Island, New York, “there may have been space constraints, noise issues and adolescent conflicts over behavior that created renewed conflict.” Yet for others, the time provided an unexpected opportunity to form even closer bonds with their young adults who were no longer surly teenagers.
Although Pew has not updated its report, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies has been tracking patterns in census data. Daniel McCue, a senior research associate at the center, said there is evidence that as the pandemic eased in late summer and early fall of 2020, many young adults moved out. Young adults in the workforce tended to leave by the fall, he said, while students were more likely to still be living with their parents.
Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insight for the National Association of Realtors, noted that of homebuyers today, the largest segment — 37% — are millennials.
“Living at home for the past year has given a lot of young adults a better financial leg up to be able to purchase a home,” she said.
Katie Collins, who lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, with her wife, Kelly Collins, had her daughter, Liza Goodman, 22, home for nearly 11 months when she returned from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, during her junior year.
Being with her every day, all day “provided the gift of uninterrupted time with my daughter, the time to really see the adult she had become, the scholar she was becoming and the thoughtful, funny person she was,” Katie Collins said. When she dropped her back at school in January, “I drove away feeling as though I’d had a limb amputated. This was worse than freshman year.” She cried for an hour in her kitchen when she returned home, “the kind of crying I hadn’t let myself do for an entire year of pandemic life.”
Billye Jones, a social worker based in New York City and adjunct professor at New York University, said that amid the devastation wrought by the coronavirus, parents may feel it’s “indulgent” to dwell on their sadness about having their children leave. She recommended practicing self-compassion and not judging yourself harshly for being upset.
“It’s important to say, ‘My child is gone, and I feel bad about it, and I miss them,’ ” she said. She urged “sitting with the sadness and allowing yourself the space to grieve that.”
Kelly Salasin’s sons, ages 20 and 25, moved back home to southern Vermont from Washington, D.C., and Burlington, Vermont, along with her older son’s partner. A writer, she initially ached for the quiet, empty house and was prone to stealing time early in the morning or in the middle of the night to work. She said the chaos her children brought made it feel like she was living in a college dormitory. Eventually, the five of them, including her husband, a teacher, settled “into a rhythm of parallel lives, relatively conflict-free.”
But since her son moved back to Burlington for school in September and her older son and his partner left for New York City in March, “they took that life force with them,” she said. “I’m not the kind of mom who never wanted her kids to grow up, but my heart has its own agenda, and especially after a year together, its agenda is loud,” she said. “My husband and I had to go through the whole empty-nest feeling all over again.”
Kari Tabag, a licensed clinical social worker and professor at Adelphi University with a private practice on Long Island, said that after adult children move out, organizing the home or areas where they lived may be empowering, allowing you to “take your house back.”
Salasin and her husband, Casey Deane, rearranged every room in their house, including turning one of the kids’ bedrooms into a room for exercise and music.
“It was an intense process, but I needed to do it to reclaim the house as ours,” she said.
Sapadin suggested finding ways to fill your time “with things that feel good and feel productive and feel like you’re moving on,” whether it’s activities, work or opportunities to learn new skills. Mestaz has already shifted her focus. In October, she got a puppy. She started an exercise regimen in January and is working toward a half marathon. And she plans to take cooking classes.
Jones urged both parents and young adults to build on the strengths that were established in the relationship while they were home, maintaining what worked well. Both she and Tabag recommended continuing to rely on technology like Zoom to stay connected. Tabag suggested continuing virtually with activities you enjoyed together, like cooking or watching movies.
And don’t hesitate to be open with your feelings, Tabag said, communicating your appreciation for each other. And when a parent says, “I love you,” “I miss you,” or “Thank you,” to a child, she gives the child the opportunity to respond, even if it’s just with a thumbs-up or an emoji.
Even as vaccinations make the risk of the coronavirus less dire, some families have other reasons to fear for each other’s safety. Tabag works with several Asian families and said that in the wake of Asian hate crimes, parents are worried that they can’t protect their children. They used to end conversations with “I love you. Take care,” she said. “Now it’s ‘Stay safe.’ ” At the same time, some children she works with fear they can’t be there to protect their parents.
Tabag said filial piety is ingrained in Asian children, who are expected to listen, follow directives and not talk back to parents and elders. She believes open communication between parents and children involving concerns about acts of hatred is important.
“Asian parents need to speak with their children and disclose their concerns for their safety. This gives the green light for children to open up to their parents and voice their concerns about their parent’s safety.”
She also noted that for some parents, having their adult children move out is an emotional transition that could lead to depression.
“Parents may feel stagnant in their daily lives and routines,” she said, “which serves as a consistent reminder of their children’s absence.”
If you are taking your child’s departure particularly hard, be on the alert for signs of clinical depression. Tabag said that if the parent isn’t getting out of bed, eats or sleeps too much or too little, isn’t practicing routine hygiene, or feels hopeless — and these symptoms last more than two weeks — they may want to consider seeking professional help.
Sapadin said that in most cases, the sadness is generally short-lived, and parents can take solace in the fact that, at least with college students, they may be back during breaks.
Collins’ daughter will be back after she graduates in May.
“The thought of having her home for another stretch of time is actually very appealing,” she said. “I won’t be in a rush to kick her out of the nest — as long as she remembers to unload the dishwasher.”