During their coronavirus quarantine in Lighthouse Point, Florida, the Connors family watched Marvel movies. All of them. In order.
For Erin Connors, who graduated from the University of Florida in May, it was a strange time, marred by an abrupt return from her senior-year study abroad in Dublin. For her mother, Linda Connors, who works for the government in Broward County, Erin’s and her brother’s return home was a similarly difficult transition.
The older siblings left for college when their younger sister, Riley, was in elementary school. They’ve now come back to see their sister as a teenager. Linda Connors has spent some of this time “just trying to work through those relationship changes and making sure that I step out of the issues as much as possible and let them resolve them on their own.”
In the beginning of the shutdown, Erin Connors says, “we were all together doing things. And then as this has dragged out so much, I feel like my parents are pretty good, for the most part, but I know other parents who aren’t quite as good at giving space. It can be hard to have to be back in an environment where you kind of have to be turned on all the time.”
After the coronavirus shut down schools, many college students returned to their family homes. Now, as 2020 graduates face an uncertain job market, delayed start dates and little sense of when offices can reopen, some are staying longer than planned. Others are at home indefinitely. These recent graduates—and their parents—face an ongoing renegotiation of space, roles and rules, and the additional stressors of a pandemic. It’s a new world, and young adults have some advice for their parents on how to navigate it.
Rodgalyn Saint Elien, a student at Rowan University, had always commuted to her classes from her home in Willingboro, N.J. She’s walking in Rowan’s graduation this month but is taking another semester to complete student-teaching hours for her elementary education major.
Though Saint Elien lived at home during college, she typically did her work on Rowan’s campus. She doesn’t have Internet access at home, and after campus shut down, Zoom calls took place on her phone’s data plan. The transition to spending all of her time at home with her mother and older sister required an adjustment. But after six years of school and a double major, it was “kind of like a relief.”
Saint Elien stresses that boundaries are key. “Just because your child is home more often doesn’t mean that they’re always available to you. That’s one thing that my mother had to get used to,” she says.
Will Pemberton, who graduated from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania this year, echoes the need for space. He’s living at home in Chicago with his mother, stepfather and younger sister. He’ll be starting his investment banking job at Citigroup in August from home, and he hopes to move to New York City by the end of the year.
One thing he’s realized: “The walls in my house are thinner than I thought.” Noise in common areas sometimes seeps through, making completing work difficult. He’s already told his family that, once work starts, the hours will be long—some days, he’ll work until 8 or 9 p.m. “It’s something I’ll just have to constantly remind them of, and I think that they’ll respect that,” Pemberton says.
As Regine Galanti, the founder of Long Island Behavioral Psychology in New York, explains, this stage of life is called “emerging adulthood.” Many college graduates are nearing the end of this phase. A return to their childhood bedroom can feel like being “knocked back down.”
“This is not specific to the pandemic,” she continues. “It’s just exacerbated by it.”
It’s a tricky stage for parents. As Linda Connors puts it: “On the one hand, they’re still your child. But on the other hand, they’ve been living independently for four years.” For her, it comes down to being respectful, and expecting respect in return. “I don’t mind making dinner, but I don’t want to be the one that’s making dinner and cleaning up after everybody, too, like I did when they were 5.”
Hillery Keith, a counseling psychologist in Houston, has seen this parenting challenge play out in her clients’ lives and in her own. Her son Thomas just graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, where his final baseball season came to an abrupt end.
When Thomas moved home to Houston in April, he brought his favorite sponge cleaner. It soon found its way under the sink, cast aside in favor of the family’s preferred cleaning supplies.
“You benched it!” he said.
It’s a “small and funny” example, Keith says, of how disruptive this time can be. Recent graduates are used to a certain way of living, and they now have to integrate into what feels like someone else’s home. For many of her clients, the changes brought about by the coronavirus created an “interruption to that smooth flow of who you see yourself as being.”
Lily Maslia, a 2020 graduate of Ohio State University, lived in an off-campus house with seven friends, and they decided to stick around until graduation. Afterward she went home to Atlanta to live with family before starting work at Mercedes-Benz and getting her own place. “I just got really sad at school, not being with my family. I just felt really isolated, and my parents really missed me,” she says.
That six weeks was the longest time she had spent living with family since high school. The first half passed smoothly. Her brother celebrated his 17th birthday; she got to pick the takeout spots.
But she soon began missing college friends and college freedom, and she found it difficult to navigate quarantining between her divorced parents’ respective houses. At 22 years old, the cadence of switching homes sometimes felt like a regression. “How old am I, 8?” Maslia jokes. Keith adds that for an adult returning to a childhood home, “it’s easy to revert to your childhood self—whatever role that was.”
Students graduate and move home every year, and they navigate similar transitions with their parents. But the pandemic can compound these stressors. Communicating expectations around social distancing is key. “You’re kind of in it together,” Keith says. And isolation can heighten feelings of anxiety and loneliness. Galanti’s advice, both for parents and emerging adults, is to “be honest with yourself about your needs.”
“There’s still the grief, and some people feel it more than others,” Keith echoes. For Maslia, who missed an in-person graduation, senior festivities and her final improv show, she hopes that parents can be “sensitive to the fact that their recent grads missed out on a lot.”
Maslia felt pressure, sometimes, to “be this source of energy.” But, she says, “I’m pretty drained.”
One of the most crucial parts of this time, Keith says, is looking at the pandemic in terms of “how much does it defer your dream, cut off what you had planned for yourself?”
As recent grads process their grief, parents can work to contextualize it. Linda Connors has been trying to balance gentle reminders and open communication. She wants to let her children know that “it’s not easy for any of us.”
“Erin has lost a lot of opportunities. . . . She was supposed to be traveling the world this year, and instead she got to come home to Florida, which she doesn’t like. But she’s not the only one that’s lost a lot,” she says. “And if that’s all she lost, then she’s pretty lucky in the big scheme of things.”
Despite the adjustment, Linda Connors sees these months as “bonus time” with her kids.
“We’ve had a good extra five months to spend together,” she says. “It’s not always been easy, but it’s five months that I never would have had.”
Before Erin leaves for D.C. in August, Linda hopes the family can watch all of director John Hughes’s films, just as they did with their Marvel marathon. It’ll be a “blast from my past,” she says.
And it may be a way to turn this disconcerting time into a good moment—for them all.
Annabelle Williams, a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate, was due to be an intern at The Washington Post this summer. Instead she’s living at home with her parents.