Commentary: When adult children choose to move out, relationships can improve
Marriage does not have to be the reason some adult children move out. Living apart can bring everyone closer, says writer Josephine Chia.
SINGAPORE: Margaret Fuller, a 19th century American journalist, editor and feminist, said: “A house is no home unless it contains food and fire for the mind, as well as for the body.”
Here in Singapore, the COVID-19 pandemic has impressed upon us, the true meaning of home.
We suddenly have to live in close quarters, for long periods, with our family. Much as we love our family, being thrust continually into their presence, with little respite during the pandemic becomes a challenge.
Where we used to be able to leave home in the morning for the office or workplace and return home in the evening, COVID-19 restrictions forced us instead, to stay home and navigate confined spaces. This is especially so if your family lives in a small flat which makes us value our personal space more.
In the light of this, young millennials or singletons have preferred to set up home away from parents who might cramp their style, so to speak.
The pandemic might have been the push needed for adult children to move out but changing attitudes, plentiful options for renting and higher incomes are also enabling them to leave the parental nest.
While it is true that parents can provide physical food, emotional comfort, and security, it is not possible for them to fulfil the existential hunger of a young adult with a huge generational gap or provide the “food and fire” for their children’s mind.
Let me illustrate this with an account that might be more common that we think. A young man was home alone when a pipe in the bathroom burst. As he had never dealt with such matters, he didn’t know how to contact a plumber.
He called his father, who was out at dinner, who told him to turn off the “stopcock” immediately.
“What is that?” he asked, bewildered.
That day, the young man learnt that there is a main faucet one can turn off that stops all taps and pipes in a flat. Of course, a water emergency is hardly a big life lesson, but it is what Fuller references – when you are on your own, you deal with unexpected things that feed the “food and fire” of your mind.
When our children move into their own homes, they will make mistakes, but this is exactly what is needed for people need to grow.
In Western societies, it is a normal and expected rite of passage for a young person to leave the parental home, usually at 18 when they head to college. But in the more conservative Asian setting, it is not uncommon for a child to live with his parents long after they need active supervision.
There is an important caveat – there may be instances where a young adult child needs his parents to care for him. After all, not every bird can fly until their wings are ready for flight.
In general, most capable young adults live with their parents because it comes with all the attendant plus points. There are cooked meals, laundry is taken care of and the biggest bonus – no amount from a salary needs to go to rent.
But for those who are ready to spread their wings, they should not feel guilty because it is a natural progression of life. A healthy young adult will have needs and aspirations that do not match their parents’ and they are perfectly justified to strike out boldly to explore the world.
In Western societies, a child wanting to move out is not seen as casting an aspersion on someone’s quality of parenting. I would argue it is emotionally healthy for young people to strike out on their own.
Here in Singapore, children usually only move out when they get married. In the old days, this happened when a child is in their early twenties or younger. But now, latest statistics show the median age for women who married in 2020 was 28.8 years old, and 30.4 years old for men, which means adults can live with parents well past their late 20s.
While it is true that there is no real impetus to set up a home without marriage, there is one important reason why it may be better – it is a chance for parents to deepen their relationships with their children.
In my experience talking to friends, most parents find that adult children living with them hardly have time for meaningful interactions. They often come home late from work, exchange a few greetings, have a meal and disappear into their rooms.
Some parents said they found relationships becoming stronger when their children move out – because when they finally meet, they have a lot to catch up on and these conversations are better too.
Unfortunately, there is still vestigial remains of the old ways. Some parents, especially mothers, cling to their adult kids and can’t let go. Some do not have a strong social life and live vicariously through their children. This dependence can make it hard for children to form natural, intimate relationships with others.
The term, Empty Nest Syndrome, refers to the period when children leave their parents’ home. Some studies have shown that mothers seemed more affected by this than fathers. Often, this period coincides with the women having their menopause, which could be an emotionally turbulent time too.
So young adults leaving home can provide assurances to meet up regularly. Plus, technology makes things much easier - video calls and WhatsApp can bridge the separation more easily today. By sharing their lives, it can reduce the sense of loss their parents may feel at their departure.
TIME TO ENJOY LIFE WITHOUT CHILDREN
Those in their 30s and early 40s in Singapore have parents who are from the Merdeka Generation (MG). Many in this generation worked hard to give their families a better life.
Now that they are in their 60s and 70s, and some are retired or semi-retired, many of them want to spend their last remaining years, doing things they could not have done whilst working hard, providing their children with higher education and a standard of life they themselves did not have.
It’s perfectly understandable that many of them want to travel, although the pandemic has stalled plans, and enjoy leisure activities that bring them joy and allow them to make new friends.
An interesting German research done in 2019 on parents above 55 found that they were much happier after their children moved out. The stress of “active” parenting which involved juggling childcare and work, give away to a much more joyful “social compact” where children play a supportive emotional role to parents.
In a sense, this relationship, now free of day-to-day caregiving is replaced by quiet, equal companionship.
Both parties can meet up regularly to have a nice tete-a-tete, over a meal and the conversation is more about news to share about work or relationships and less about grumbles and complaints or about getting on each other’s nerves.
There’s something to be said about the heart growing much fonder when you don’t see each other every day in the same small space. Despite living apart, you are still together and that is a win-win for everyone.
Josephine Chia is an award-winning Peranakan Author. Her book, Kampong Spirit, Gotong Royong, Life in Potong Pasir, won the Singapore Literature in 2014. Her young adult novel, Big Tree in a Small Pot won the Singapore Publishers Book Awards in 2019.