How do you continue being a parent when your children are old enough to be parents themselves? Priya Kulasagaran finds out.
In the West, or at least in Hollywood movies, living with one’s parents as an adult is supposed to be a source of shame. However, the tide is shifting: in America for instance, one in three millennials currently live with their parents. Most of them are hardly slackers as well, with three quarters of them being either employed or continuing their studies.
Over here in Asia, such a lifestyle arrangement is hardly news. Culturally, returning home after high school or college is not only encouraged, but expected. Most children will stay with their parents up until marriage and some even after marriage. Children are meant to stay with their parents to be taken care of, and as the parents grow older, the children are expected to take care of their parents in their home.
What may be shifting however, are the expectations of parents and their adult children who live under the same roof. “I think we’re in an adjustment phase between traditional Asian culture and modern lifestyles,” says Rachel Morais, 65. “I lived with my parents until I got married, but I also had adult responsibilities. What worries me now is when I see grown children wanting the comforts of home without doing anything to pitch in themselves. These people will find it harder to cope when they do have to live out on their own.”
Rachel says that while she has no issues with her three adult daughters living with her, anecdotes from her friends seem to indicate that some parents have yet to let their children do the hard work of “adulting”. “The issue is not so much the children living at home, but more of whether they can function without their parents. An older retired couple I know still has their 34-year-old son living with them, and they do everything for him: from doing all the chores to even paying his bills. He doesn’t even know how to turn on the washing machine,” she adds.
By contrast, Rachel’s approach with her children is to strike a balance between being helpful and maintaining boundaries. “Of course, I will do anything for them if they need my help, but I’ve made it clear that they need to be independent. My children contribute to the bills, because they know I have limited funds. We also have a timetable of chores, so everyone does their share. It’s almost like living with housemates in a way; we’re all adults now, and everyone should behave as such,” she says.
Breaking old patterns
For Dennis Lai, 61, having his twenty-something son move back home after university meant revisiting old habits. Although being fully independent while pursuing his studies in Australia, his son seemed to revert back to being a teenager when he returned to the country.
“At first we were just so happy to have him home again,” laughs Sim. “He wanted to take some time off before looking for a job, and we agreed. One month became two months, and on and on. He was doing some part-time work here and there, but we were supporting him financially for the most part; his pay was just his own pocket money. He was content to wake up late and hang out with his friends. My wife would occasionally grumble about him not doing chores, but we let him be because we wanted to be supportive parents. We still saw him as our little boy.”
As almost a year passed in this manner, Sim decided one day that things had to change. The turning point was in feeling that his son was not learning to cultivate a good working ethic. “I was worried about how he was going to make his way in the world once we are gone. We tried talking and motivating him to do something with his life, but it fell on deaf ears. So I made a bit of a drastic decision: he had to start paying rent, or he would have to move out. The ‘rate’ was not much, but apparently it was enough for him to go out there and get a job,” shares Sim.
As her children were growing up, P. Malar admits to being a bit of a “helicopter parent”. “I had less issues with my older daughter, but with my younger son, I felt like I had to push him a lot more for his own good,” says the 56-year-old. “He also used to have terrible asthma, so naturally I was protective of him. Looking back, I may have been a bit too protective.”
Malar’s epiphany was not borne out of her own experience, but rather encountering more overbearing parents. A former lecturer, she recalls having to field complaints and meddling from parents of her students — even after they had graduated. “One parent, of a 25-year-old mind you, was really infamous for this. The student was already working, and the mother asked us to go speak to the employer because she felt that her child was being ‘overworked’! The student herself was pleasant, but I noticed that she was very shy, lacked confidence, and just couldn’t make the simplest of decisions. I started to wonder if my son would turn out the same way,” she says.
Now in his early twenties, Malar’s son has proven to be a well-adjusted adult, but Malar believes their relationship is a work in progress. “Compared to my daughter, he is more reluctant to discuss his life with me — I think it is because in the past, I used to immediately want to ‘fix’ things instead of just listening to him,” she says. “So these days, instead of pestering him for details, I let him come to me if he needs help. It’s hard sometimes, to see him making the same mistakes I did at his age, but he needs to find his own way of being an adult.”