The return of stinky socks: Why having kids home from college isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Claire McCarthy,MD

I am ready for my oldest two children to go back to college.

With the two of them around, the house is louder and messier. The laundry went from manageable to impossible again, and the grocery bill skyrocketed. They consider it their house; I consider it mine. That used to mean the same thing, but somehow it doesn’t anymore; how they like to live in their house is different from how I like to live in mine. Zack’s newfound cleanliness, which he boasted about often over the semester, apparently only applies to dorm rooms. His bedroom is trashed and smelly again.

There’s also the work involved in managing five kids. Over the fall, we’ve gotten used to managing three—which is still a lot of work, with three school dropoffs and pickups, swim practice, karate practice, homework, playdates, and everything else—but is definitely easier than managing five. Now Michaela needs to get dropped off at the train for work, Zack is picking up a shift at the YMCA or wants to go work out, dinner schedules and menus need to be adjusted, there are extra errands and appointments. They want to stay up late and then stay in bed until noon, which is disorienting and disruptive. And, of course, they are always asking to borrow the car.

They have come back from college different: more independent, used to doing what they want to do when they want to do it. Which makes sense, as they have been living on their own—and they are both legal adults. But besides the fact that we are paying their hefty tuition bills (so much for independence), they are part of a family.

I tried laying down ground rules. I did it up front. “I can’t believe you’re having this conversation with us in the car before we’re even home,” Michaela said after I picked her up at Northeastern and picked Zack up at the airport. I’m doing it before I’m angry with either one of you, I told them. You can’t live at home the way you live at college. We expect that you’ll be respectful and helpful.

“I tried laying down ground rules. ‘I can’t believe you’re having this conversation with us in the car before we’re even home,’ Michaela said. ‘I’m doing it before I’m angry with either one of you,’ I said.

And mostly, they are. But it’s weird. Like curfews—as legal adults, they think they shouldn’t have one. But when they come in late it wakes us up, and we can’t help worrying about them. So we want them to have a curfew. And general house rules about things like screen time or rotating chores—do they apply to them anymore? And while my expectation was that they would babysit the little ones whenever we needed them to, they clearly did not share that expectation. Everything becomes a dance, a negotiation.

It’s a little easier with Michaela—she’s in her second year at college, and has been through this with us before. She rolls her eyes and complains sometimes, but she’s more comfortable with the negotiation dance; she asserts herself on things that are important to her and gives in quickly on things that aren’t. She’s more comfortable in general, having had practice at this whole being-at-home-again thing.

With Zack, it’s more complicated. This is his first extended time at home since starting college, and we can see him trying to figure out how he feels and what to do. He wants to be here, he loves his family—and yet he misses his school friends (especially his girlfriend) and his independence. He isn’t sure what he can ask for or what he can do—and when he’s not sure, it makes me unsure. One moment he’s being sweet and thoughtful, and the next moment he’s being self-centered and making us crazy. It’s exhausting.

They never stop being your children, people say, and it’s true. But they do stop being children. Therein lies the challenge: how do you parent an adult?

I don’t know the answer to that. If I did, this winter break would have been easy, and it hasn’t been. I think it has something to do with being available—available to listen, available to help—while allowing a little distance. I think it also has something to do with being consistent, with providing home and familiarity and values that don’t change when everything around them changes. I think it has a lot to do with loving them—because we all need to know we are loved. We need it badly.

As much as I complain about them, I like the adults that Michaela and Zack are becoming. They may be messy and loud, but they are kind, interesting, (mostly) responsible, and fun. And here’s what’s really cool: at various times during this break, each has been supportive, has asked me how I’m doing, has talked with me and really listened. That’s the gift, I’m realizing, of having adult children: they can be your friends.

There’s not much more of break. Michaela goes back this weekend, and Zack the weekend after. Life will soon be neater, quieter, and more manageable. And yet, I know that I will miss them—and I’ll look forward to having them home again.