The first time you bring a new partner home to your parents can be a bit daunting. The first time you bring a new partner home to your adult kids is absolutely terrifying.
Dating when you have little kids presents its own difficulties but at least they go to bed early and are (moderately) easier to hoodwink: “this is Mammy’s new friend, no he did not sleep over!”. But adult kids don’t fall for such tricks, and no matter how enlightened we all think we are, a parent’s new romance is difficult.
Apparently I went about this milestone the wrong way – there wasn’t enough warning or introduction – but if there is a right way, there is certainly no easy way.
In the 2016 census there were some 3.5 million people over the age of 18 in Ireland. Of those, almost 460,000 were living with their parents. It is a sizeable proportion, a story to which there is another side – think of all the parents living with adult children. In short, of the 3.5 million adults in Ireland, substantially more than a million are parent-and-adult-children combinations.
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There are all kinds of repercussions to this, in the short, medium and long term, social and financial, which affect both the children and the parents, albeit in different ways. It’s difficult when expected life stages or goals are being missed or seem impossible. It’s not easy if you grow up assuming that one day you will buy your own house, live great romances, maybe have kids… then discover that actually, that might prove very difficult.
It’s also difficult if you expect that one day in middle age the kids will be grown and gone, you’ll be financially stable and able to get back to having noisy sex. It’s a bit disappointing when you’re too worried about remortgaging to get frisky, and anyway there is the 35-year-old son binge-watching Bates Motel on his laptop in the bedroom next door.
When flatmates live together it is reasonably easy to set ground rules. The rent is this much, the bills this much, there is a rota for cleaning the bathroom and you have a shelf in the fridge. Fail to comply and you’re out.
In a family that dynamic is more difficult. I live with two adults but those adults used to be my babies for whom I did everything. Over the years I have been bad at getting them to do chores; their workload has not evolved with their capabilities.
I don’t want to get mad at them the way I might a flatmate who has half the cups in their room conducting experiments on the rate of development of fungus on old tea. Maybe they are out and I don’t want to wait until they come back, so I do whatever it is that needs doing, whether that be chainsawing logs (surprisingly difficult) or laundry (unsurprisingly boring). If they’re around or if they’re asked, they help but all in all my ex and I pay 95pc of the way and I do 95pc of the work. And that is 95pc my own fault. But it doesn’t mean there is not sometimes roaring resentment.
I never say “my house, my rules”; I have never said “not under my roof”. It’s their home and I have tried to respect their adulthood as it has evolved. That has included their private lives. It is relatively common now for young adults to have their romantic partners sleep over. And unless you are of a religious persuasion that says premarital sex is wrong – and that has not been a practised belief in anyone I have known of my age or younger – I can’t really see why adult children would not be afforded that respect.
Most people can agree that sex is a normal, healthy activity; few things are nicer than cuddles in the dark, whispers and chats and private time. So, unless clear harm is being done, your adult children’s sex life is really none of your business.
In a shared home, ‘no randomers’ seems to be a common rule; so in homes where the kids are allowed in-house romance, the rule tends to be that boy/girlfriends are welcome, one-nighters are not.
Children of still-together parents carry their childhood notion that parents-are-asexual into adulthood. It’s probably a self-preservation thing. Maybe the parents don’t mind. Maybe they do. Chances are no one is going to say “would you ever feck off for a weekend, I have a new spanking paddle and there is no way to use it quietly”. But just because it is unspoken doesn’t mean it is untrue.
However, a romantic life can be a minefield when the parent living with adult children is single, whether through relationship breakdown or bereavement.
If that parent does not permit the children to have guests stay over, then perhaps those kids might be within their rights to get bolshy about a “don’t do as I do” rule.
However, even where kids are allowed to have partners stay over, there can be a reciprocity issue. Where romance is concerned adult children can expect different standards for their parents. Apparently they can have partners stay over, but when a parent does IT IS NOT THE SAME.
It’s a clash of perspectives. The parent feels they have been dancing around everyone else’s needs for decades; the children are adults now, at what point can you just live your own life? If you lived alone you could do what you wanted, have whoever you wanted over, whenever you wanted, to do whatever you wanted.
Instead – although you have just done the week’s eighth pile of laundry, shopped, gone back for the toilet paper that someone finished but no one mentioned, are entirely responsible for finding someone to fix the heating and the leak in the ceiling – your sex life is dictated by your kids.
From casual encounters to moving in with a new partner, you are not a free agent as long as you share a home with your children. You weren’t when you lived with your parents, and you’re not now you live with your kids.
From the kids’ perspective the presence of a parent’s partner blows the parents-are-asexual belief right out of the water. But that is I think the least of it. They get over it, same as you did with them. For them the issues are more rooted in the parent-child relationship. Adult children can understand that the parents’ relationship has ended, but being confronted with proof of that is sometimes difficult. The same happens in the case of bereavement: there is a certain finality to a parent moving on, and feelings of loyalty to the other parent arise.
According to Wednesday Martin, a parenting, sexuality and socio-cultural commentator, the single biggest predictor that a new relationship will fail is the presence of children from a previous relationship, regardless of the children’s age.
She collated studies of the impact of adult children on remarriages and found that adult stepchildren resent stepmothers the most, even one who appears long after the end of the first marriage.
The research found that adult children can still have unresolved anger and grief over their parents’ divorce and anxiety that the new relationship will impact their relationship with their parent.
It is never going to be easy, but it is both doable and worth doing. My children weren’t happy with me, but we discussed it and it seems I am, more or less, forgiven.
Which is good because I love them, and celibate martyrdom is totally over-rated.
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