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Family Ties

 
After college is prime time for getting to know your parents

They’re the people who knew you first. For years, they were probably the people who knew you best. But once you’re in college, and for a while beyond, your parents may seem like strangers.

That’s not surprising, considering that the first decade after graduation is a time of transition for everything, including family relationships. Of course, some people have always gotten along with their parents and always will. Some never did and never will. But in nearly every case, it’s reasonable to expect a major transformation in how the two generations view and treat each other.

The good news: It’s a manageable metamorphosis.

That’s manageable, not necessarily easy. After all, the post-college period can involve complicated emotional issues. You’re technically an adult, yet you may be back under your parents’ roof, perhaps even on their payroll. If you’ve got a significant other, it may be someone they can’t stand. If you don’t have a partner, they may push you to find one. They may well worry frequently and out loud about your lifestyle, your choices, your finances, your future.

Career advice, lifestyle choices, work/life balance. Harvard Magazine presents "Up Next," an occasional section written for our younger alumni. Look for "Up Next" again in the September-October 2004 issue. In the meantime, the editors welcome your comments at yourturn[at]harvard [dot] edu.

"Traditionally, parents are your biggest fans and your harshest critics," says Susan Newman, author of Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father. Those roles probably won’t vanish just because you’ve made it through college, Newman says: "They still see you as the child you were."

Updating that view takes time. "It’s a slow process of recognition on both sides," says Newman, a social psychologist in Metuchen, New Jersey. Ultimately, "There is recognition from the parents: ‘I don’t have a baby anymore, I have a full-fledged adult now.’ There’s recognition on the part of adult children that there’s more to their parents than being a parent."

Fear is typically the biggest barrier to reaching such recognition (see "Forging a New Bond"). "Often, adult children are afraid to change these patterns because they fear their parents won’t love them," says Newman, herself the parent of a grown son and stepchildren. "What actually happens in most cases is that parents want to be with their grown children more than anything and they will adjust to the changes that you initiate."

 

Every generation differs from the one before it. But researchers say that, as a group, today’s 20- and 30-somethings are particularly unlike their parents in several ways.

They live in the family home much longer. "It’s taking them up to 10 years to shift from being under their parents’ roofs to being under their own roofs," says Jane Adams, a social psychologist in Seattle and author of several books on family life. Living at home well into one’s twenties was, of course, the norm in the United States before World War II, and the practice remains common in many other countries. In Italy, 70 percent of people aged 25 to 29 still lived with their parents in 1998, according to research by Paola Giuliano, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley.

But that trend is the polar opposite of the dominant standard of the 1960s and 1970s, which was to "get out of the house" as fast as possible — if not right after graduation, certainly within a year or two. Young baby boomers craved their own living space, with the freedom to come and go and entertain as they pleased, even if it meant cramming into a small apartment with several friends. Today, the boomers’ grown offspring have far more free rein from their parents, so there’s far less incentive for them to leave the comfort of the family homestead, especially given the high cost of housing in many cities. Says Adams: "They’re simply not as enamored of independence as the previous generation was."

They marry later. In 1970, the average age for young Americans to wed was 21 for women, 23 for men, says Alexandra Robbins, coauthor of Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenge of Life in Your Twenties, a bestselling book that examines trends in the decade following college graduation. Today, says Robbins, a 1998 graduate of Yale and former New Yorker writer, those averages are 25 and 27 respectively, and they’re still rising.

Conversely, they want everything else to happen sooner. Thanks to ubiquitous technologies such as the Web, instant messaging, e-mail, and cell phones, recent graduates are used to life in the fast lane. "That broadens into a general sense that things are going to happen in our lives quickly," Robbins says. Where past generations expected to "pay their dues" by working in low-paying jobs with little prestige, she continues, today’s 20-somethings get discouraged if they don’t reach the top five years after leaving campus.

At the same time, there’s a widespread sense among sociologists and the general public that American adolescence now lasts well into one’s twenties. Jeffrey Arnett, a professor at the University of Maryland, has coined a name for the life stage from about 18 to 25: "emerging adulthood." Others set the bar even higher, designating 30 as "the new 21." A July 2003 New York Times article about thirtieth birthday parties noted that the "once apocalyptic" milestone now "feels to many the way 21 once did, as the gateway to a more serious adulthood."

There is, Robbins acknowledges, "a conflict between how we want things to happen fast and how we’re delaying our adulthood."

 

Although individual parent-child relationships remain as unique and complex as the people in them, it’s safe to categorize the most common generational stress points as housing, finances, and partners. For many people, those issues will never be more intense than in the decade following college graduation.

Richard Chang ’98 lived on his own for four years while teaching at private schools in Virginia and central Massachusetts. But after deciding to get a master’s degree in education at Boston University, he found he could afford his school loans only if he moved back into his family’s home in a nearby suburb. That prompted a serious dispute with his parents.

Richard Chang ’98
Photograph by Stu Rosner

"They thought it was their duty to pay for my education, but I told them I wanted to pay for every cent of my graduate degree," recalls Chang, now a math teacher at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols Middle School in Cambridge. "They were hurt because to them, it felt like I was rejecting their help. I felt frustrated because they just couldn’t seem to understand how important it was to my sense of adulthood to pay everything myself." He paid off the loan last year, but expects to keep living in his childhood home for two or three more years, until he can save enough to afford his own place. The only drawback? "When you’re back in the same bedroom you had in high school, it’s hard to feel like a grown-up."

As a youngster, Joseph Soler II ’98 always got along with his parents. But in high school, he found himself frequently arguing with them about homework, curfews, and other issues. When he left for Harvard, "I was thrilled to be out of the house," he recalls. "I had seen people go live with their parents after college, and I said, ‘That’s not going to happen. I’m going to be free, and that’s it.’"

In fact, he spent the summer before his sophomore year working in Russia. "For 73 days, my parents didn’t hear my voice and I didn’t hear theirs," he says. That gave him plenty of opportunity to reflect on the relationship. When he returned from Russia, the family vacationed together in Puerto Rico. "We had a wonderful time. Ever since then, I’ve had the relationship in perspective. I haven’t had a fight with my parents in years. I even started to become friends with them."

That friendship came in handy after graduation when Soler found himself doing exactly what he’d sworn would never happen: moving back into the family home. "I hadn’t found a job, and I was stressed out and sick," he says. He stayed for four months, not working, not job-hunting, not applying to law or graduate school. "Mostly I just slept," he recalls.

Soler’s parents left him alone for several weeks, then told him to get moving. Not because they wanted him to leave — "My mom even said, ‘We love having you here. You know we do,’" he recalls — but simply because it was time. With their urging, he joined the AmeriCorps public-service program, working in urban schools in Philadelphia for two years. He enjoyed the experience so much that he stayed in that city, where he now works in a nonprofit education program while pursuing a Ph.D. at Temple University.

The other stumbling block involves parental opinions about the people their grown children date, live with, or marry. This is a touchy subject for every generation: bringing home a same-sex partner, perhaps the most publicized recent variation, is just part of the continuum (see "Coming Home, Coming Out").

Of course, the significant-other question works both ways: Grown children often need to forge new relationships with their parents’ new partners. That’s how it worked for Molly Hennessy-Fiske ’99, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist whose parents divorced when she was 12.

Her mother then began a lengthy relationship with another woman, which ended just before Hennessy-Fiske’s freshman year at Harvard. Although she had been close to both women, Hennessy-Fiske refused to speak to her mother’s expartner after the breakup. When her father remarried a year later, Hennessy-Fiske skipped the wedding.

Since then, she’s reconciled with all of them. She spent a recent birthday with her mother’s former partner, and she grew to accept her father’s second marriage after he and her stepmother, who have four foster children, brought the whole family to visit her. "I could see that they really do love each other and are good for each other in a lot of ways," she says.

Such stories suggest that, no matter how rocky parent-child relationships may seem during and right after college, there’s reason to hope. "Over time, the relationship will, ideally, change to a more balanced give-and-take," Newman says. "You’ll see your parents as people rather than as parents. You’ll relate on an equal level and find things you can share."

 

Anne Stuart is assistant editor of this magazine.