“We just had him home for spring break, and that was so relaxing, nice and casual,” McCarthy said. But now? “Now I’m like, ‘What do we do?’ This isn’t a break.”
Like thousands of parents of college students across the country, McCarthy isn’t sure what comes next. Her son is suddenly home, but he’s also still a student. He’s missing his friends and his freedom. He doesn’t know what to expect from online courses or when he’ll return. His things are still sitting in a dorm in Nashville. And maybe worst of all: He’s here, in his old house. With rules and boundaries.
So what’s a parent to do? Does his mom make sure he’s out of bed before 11:30 in the morning, his typical spring-break rising time? Does she enforce a study rule or class time, since online classes started the Monday after he returned? And that social distancing we’re all supposed to be practicing — well, have you ever tried to demand that a 19-year-old college student, suddenly thrust back under their parents’ roof after so much time on their own, stay away from their high school friends? “They don’t really want to be told what to do by their parents,” McCarthy said. “But there have to be some rules. This is a very uncertain time.”
It’s uncertain, it’s unsettling. And for many parents, this sudden return isn’t just shaking up their young adult’s life; it’s changing theirs. Vacation money may have been spent on sudden plane tickets to get a child back home. The quiet routine they had gotten used to is back to chaos. The fridge needs to be filled again — and again. And for people like McCarthy, whose 83-year-old father lives with them, this virus comes with new rules, rules that will be hard for a college freshman to adhere to or even fully comprehend. “Kids are going to want to get together, go to the gym, have parties,” McCarthy said. “What do you do?”
When Helene Wingens found out that both her 27-year-old at Harvard Law School and his younger brother, a freshman at Tufts University, were coming home to Livingston, N.J., she sent the older one to get the younger one and then commenced worrying. “First of all, I’m buying out the grocery store because I don’t have nearly enough food,” said the managing editor of Grown and Flown. “And I’m worried that actually this may sound selfish, but what are they bringing back to us?”
Sayali Amarapurkar was excited when her son, Om, an 18-year-old freshman at Stanford, returned home days ago. There’s no reason to believe he has the coronavirus. But she and her husband, an oncologist, sent him to the basement guest room for a few days of quarantine. “He sleeps there and just comes up for food,” she said. “We’re just trying that for a week to make sure he’s okay and no one else gets it.”
Then after that, she’s picturing a lot of sweet family time with Netflix and board games, both of her sons together again. But at the same time, she knows her college kid will be aching for that new life he had started to create, with new friends, independence. “Being cooped up at home, I think it’s going to be stressful for everybody.”
It will help everyone if parents take a moment and figure out how they’re feeling about everything right now, says Mercedes Samudio, a parent coach with Shame-Proof Parenting. “So when your child comes home, you don’t just jump in. ... You have to let them come home and give them time to get readjusted."
And then, Samudio, who also teaches at Pepperdine University and Chapman University, says parents need to remind those returning kids, gently, that they are still in school. “I think it’s going to be tough,” she said. “Really giving that space of readjustment to them is important. They may have had their own schedule and autonomy, and coming home where there’s all that restriction again ...”
And that’s where many parents’ conversations fade off, too.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to put restrictions on him for his own good, which is tough for a 19-year-old,” says Maureen Stiles, whose son, Drew, came home from Salisbury University. “He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and I know plenty.”
For this mother of three boys, the idea of his sudden return is daunting for many reasons. “I’m thinking I’m basically going to be home-schooling a college freshman,” she says of her son, who has an Individualized Education Program for attention and executive functioning issues. He’s already reached out to professors to see how it would be handled, but he’s still not sure. “Getting professors to enact a plan for accommodations is a challenge under the best of circumstances. My stomach is in knots.”
On top of that, he will be taking courses online, right alongside his 16-year-old brother, who may not love the fact he has to share a car again. At least, she said, her oldest son isn’t coming home: “If all three were home, I’d leave. It would be a free-for-all with food; trips to Top Golf would be replaced by some sport in my basement. They’d go to bed at 3 a.m. and I’m up at 5. There’d be no productivity for anyone.”
The college shutdowns come with many issues: What of the students who are off-campus and don’t want to come home? Are they safer there? Is it just leading to more parental worry? What about the seniors who may never have a graduation ceremony? The learning that will be lost? And, of course, how about the many, many students who have nowhere to go, or no money to get themselves to a safe place?
For Kara Skorupa, that last issue just meant she’d be opening the house she and her husband were about to sell not just to her own two young adults, but also to her daughter’s friend, who had nowhere to go.
“We were lucky we had the resources to get our daughter home,” Skorupa said. “A lot aren’t, and that’s concerning.”
So for Skorupa and her husband, who had settled into empty-nest life very nicely, thank you very much (their daughter had been away at boarding school before college, so they had a head start), life has been completely upended. Their daughter, Chloe, returned home from UC Berkeley the same day they were to have their first showing to sell their too-big house. Skorupa and her husband were due to move into a two-bedroom condo, and they’d already sold their extra car that their children used. “We realized no one was coming home in any real way, except for holidays,” she said.
But then Chloe’s summer internship in Australia was canceled, Berkeley shut down, and she headed home. Their son, Chase, a first-year law student at George Washington University, is on his way. And Chloe’s friend, who is at Notre Dame, is all set to settle into the guest room.
“We’ve kind of gone about our business as a couple, and living a very different life that you work towards,” Skorupa said. “Of course you miss your children every single minute they’re not with you. But everyone is independent and happy, as they should be. This is a strange turn of events.”
This isn’t the natural order of things. Babies are born, they grow into children who are taught how to be independent. With luck, they move out and on and it’s back to a quiet house. There is nothing normal about this time we’re living in.
So for many parents, they are welcoming their children home and hoping for the best. There will be bumps — curfews to be broken, germs to wash away, empty milk cartons left in the fridge and anxious, sad teenagers who wish they were somewhere else — as families learn to live together again. There will be more changes of plans, graduation ceremonies canceled and dreams deferred.
But deferred is the key here: If everyone stays healthy, this is all temporary, just like that duvet cover left in the dorm room. Just like that contract on the two-bedroom condo. Just like those habits that formed when parents stayed home and kids settled into a dorm.
“I used to say having children saved us from being selfish. Your whole world changes and you’re not the middle of the universe anymore,” Skorupa said. “You had all those years of diaper bags and snacks and being the homeroom mom. But when that phase ends, how easy it is to slide back to ‘I like to sleep in.' ”