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Rise of the 'artful lodger': what really happened when my adult son moved back home?

Helen Kirwan-Taylor 
Ivan moved back to the UK after studying in the US for four years. Now, mother and son are living together for the first time in years  Credit:  Paul Grover

Adult children returning to the family nest costs beleaguered parents some £1,780 a year in additional household expenses, according to the new Fidelity International Modern Life Report. Yet while these ‘artful lodgers’ may do little for our bank accounts (or upkeep of the house...) many – myself included – relish the chance to have their not-so-little ones back.

When my younger son, Ivan, a writer, moved back to the UK after studying in the U.S. for four years, I worried that we would get on top of each other. When he was away at boarding school and then in college, coming home was a treat but living at home day to day is something else. We offered him a gap year on us to write, travel, explore his career options and to catch his breath, which we had also done with his older brother (who claims to have trained us up). And when he returned, my friends insisted that I “set down some rules” and threaten to “throw him out” if he so much as left a curry-coated dish in the sink.

But my 23-year-old’s years of communal living at college have made him (whisper it) considerate – so much so that I’m now scolded for not filling up the kettle after I use it. I was brought up mostly in Europe where parents continue to look after their children well into middle-age. The last thing I want is for my son to bring his laundry home at age 50, but in America parents cut their kids off at 18, which seems harsh. I had a peripatetic upbringing – my parents were diplomats – so I was determined to create a place my children would want to come back to. 

When we gave him an old fashioned record player for his birthday, he installed it in the middle of the kitchen along with his burgeoning vinyl collection. We did worry he was making himself a bit too much at home – what next, lava lamps? But our concerns were unwarranted. He now DJs while we make food together; it almost makes me enjoy cooking.

Millennials have extremely high standards. Whereas I can eat almost any amount of bland chicken, he considers it an insult to the taste buds. No dinner is now complete without the sampling of at least four exotic marinades and a clutch of side dishes from Singapore and Peru, all of which he has carefully prepared. My husband and I used to settle into a Netflix series after dinner: now we all watch indie or foreign films with the lights turned out and my phone confiscated.   

'Millennials have extremely high standards'

Selfishly, I like the company. I work from home which can be solitary. Now on almost any given morning, we might nip out for coffee or sneak in a lunch (he never refuses free food). If my husband is travelling, we might go to a film or book a last minute theatre trip. We always eat together – one of the few rules we did set down. It’s critical to happy family life, I think (though I don’t know that he shares this view).  

My friends whose children are at home outwardly complain about the late-night returns and messy kitchens, but secretly they’re grateful that they get to stretch the time they have together.  Living with a young adult who happens to also be your blood has a way of putting a mirror to your face. Every second (third) glass of wine or over indulgence on the chocolate department gets us both the hairy eyeball. (We now wait until he goes out then go for it). He literally scolds me whenever I check my Instagram (I hide my phone if he’s walking past my office).  I do get annoyed at being told off in my own house but I zip it – except at our occasional ‘get things off your chest’ talks, that only millennials who spent four years in America know how to do. 

He pays his keep in kind: cooking and walking the dog, and I look into his room every so often and it doesn’t smell, so I assume he cleans it. His friends are now at the very useful stages of their career where they can offer legal or financial or better yet, technical advice, so we love having them around too. 

My husband and I got very used to having our own space but I think change is healthy. I know I’ll never have this time with him again, so I’m not complaining. Though ask me again this time next year and I may have changed my mind.   

Ivan Kirwan-Taylor, 23

Living at homeafter graduating from university has been a much less harrowing experience than I’d anticipated. I graduated last summer from a liberal arts college in America, with a degree in creative writing, so I knew it would be a while before I saw any paycheque whatsoever, let alone the kind that would allow me to pay rent in London. The second I came back across the pond, I was already making peace with a return to earlier modes of habitation.  

The home I’ve come back to is a nice one: middle-class family in Notting Hill; an inter-continental cookbook library; a poorly trained but well-meaning terrier. The fridge is stocked with produce that I certainly haven’t paid for, the wine rack is carefully curated by my father’s well-honed palate, and I have never once looked at the electricity bill. I suspect I never will, so long as I continue to reside in the comfort of my family home. It’s safe and easy, but like Odysseus on the Island of the Lotus Eaters, I dream of distant shores.

Would I opt for paying upwards of 500 quid for a dilapidated subterranean grotto in Dalston or its like, dining only on canned lentils and Warburton’s medium-sliced, if it meant I could live among a community of like-minded artists and writers? Yes, I cry from my childhood bedroom. Alas, even this is an impossibility: I am making literally zero pounds. So I stroll downstairs, ask my mother how her day was, and wonder what fragrant fruits might adorn the fruit basket this pious morn.  

'My 23-year-old’s years of communal living at college have made him (whisper it) considerate'

There’s the usual tension, I suppose. If I had a girlfriend, I’d feel weird bringing her back. When I’m out, my mum texts me frantically, assuming if I do not reply past 1am I’ve been trafficked. If I had hobbies, I might not have the space to pursue them. The crux of living at home is whether the parent/child relationship is like any other: two people existing in a shared space, compromising, negotiating with each other – humankind’s induction to the body politic. I do not see it like this. As long as my father funds my existence, I feel a total and feudal fealty to him. My father is lord of the manor, and I am a peasant who bears his lowly rank with grace, safe in the knowledge that within the castle walls he will not die of plague.

The greater challenge is getting on with my mother, who regularly interrupts my half-hearted job searching to thrust upon me yet more quotidian labour. My browsing of vacancies online will be interrupted with anything from ‘fixing the printer,’ and ‘cleaning up after myself,’ to ‘spending time with her.’ This continues to be a Herculean struggle.  

Realistically, I’ll move out when I can afford to. Who knows when that will be? As I continue to search for money and work, in increasingly diverse and desperate avenues, I might as well enjoy getting to know my parents better. So far, my dad and I still converse in the Victorian father-son mode, with as little emotional voltage as possible. But I ask him about his day maybe five per cent more frequently than I did six months ago. Through meditation (guided; app-based) I have reduced the cortisol in my bloodstream when hanging out with my mum. I’d say everything’s coming along fine.