Pop quiz: On any given day, what phrase do you say the most? I wish my answer was “Isn’t life grand?” or “No thanks, you can eat the rest.”

But the phrase I most say is, “Whose is this?!?” while holding up a lone sock or a bowl encrusted with stubborn clusters of cereal that someone abandoned next to the mail. Because, even though they are self-funded and vaccinated, the grown children who moved back home during the pandemic seem unwilling to leave, and their adult-size detritus overwhelms my world.

This unexpected phenomenon is present in the lives of many of the 50-somethings I know: either the 20-something children live at home, or the parents are paying for them to live someplace else. For some families, of course, everybody living together is an economic necessity, and I know there are cultures in which multiple generations are expected to live under the same roof. So, what’s my problem? Why did I have children in the first place if I just want them to go away?

“You should be proud,” a friend recently cooed when I was complaining about my grown sons-turned-housemates and their stuff. “You’ve created a welcoming home and your kids want to stay there.”

As with pumpkin cheesecake and “Love Actually, I’m not sure how I feel about this. I am certainly grateful that we all get along. I’m well aware that, in the past year and a half, many people left and will never, ever come back. Still, there must be a line between Nice of You to Stop By and Guess You Are Staying Forever, and I have yet to find it.

Our eldest son recently started law school nearby. Some months ago, he rented an apartment (with his own money) and transferred a large number of socks and cereal bowls into it. But when people ask me whether he has moved out, I find the question hard to answer. The other night, I came downstairs and found him nestled in one of the big chairs that humans and canines use to watch TV in our house, our dog Jill snoring beside him. “Oh!” I said. “I thought you were at your apartment.”

“This is just so much more comfortable,” he said. “And I miss Jill.” So, if my chairs were smaller and my dogs less cuddly, perhaps the kids would move out.

When I was my eldest son’s age (cue Gen Z eyeroll), I lived in a fourth-floor walk-up across from an apartment with so many cats that the entire hallway smelled like a dirty litter box. I had a teeny TV and a flimsy Ikea sofa on which to watch it. And life was grand.

But life was also different; it seemed easy to be in your 20s and assume that the future was going to be better than the present. Now, as the U.S. birthrate continues to fall, increasing numbers of childless people are saying they intend to stay that way. Maybe my sons would rather focus on remaining my children than bringing their own into an uncertain world.

A friend recently shared one of his favorite lines from John le Carré’s “Smiley’s People,” when Smiley is in hot pursuit of the evil spymaster Karla and a colleague advises him to give up the chase. “Go home, George,” she tells him. “Get yourself a bit of love and wait for Armageddon.”

Perhaps that is what my sons are doing, when Armageddon feels like it’s just around the corner. Despite the fact that I am constantly nagging them to pick up after themselves, I hope they feel the love that undergirds even the complaints. And know they can cling to it, in a pandemic more than ever. They are grown men, yes, but they are still children.

At the foot of our bed there is a long, upholstered bench that’s been there for more than a decade. At various times over the years, my husband and I would awaken to find a boy on the bench who wasn’t there when we went to sleep. Maybe he had a bad dream, or heard a noise, or had a problem with school or friends that he didn’t care to discuss. But the bench was a middle-ground refuge when the nights were long. Each boy-on-bench phase would last a while, and then eventually we’d wake up to find the bench empty. The child knew when he didn’t need it any more.

I cannot, and will not, ask anybody to move out. That feels like crossing a dangerous motherhood line. But just like with the nights on the bench, our boys will know when it’s time to leave. And when they do, I’ll miss them.