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(Even Older) Boomerang Children Weigh On Parents' Well-Being

More and more young and not-so-young people are returning home to live with their parents. A phenomenon which is hard on their aging parents.

Youths tend to stay in their parents’ homes for longer.
Youths tend to stay in their parents’ homes for longer.
Julie Rambal

GENEVA — Françoise, 71, couldn't have dreamt of a more complicated relationship with her 39-year-old daughter Sandra. They used to speak every day, and not a week would pass without them seeing one another. But their relationship changed last September when Sandra arrived and unpacked her suitcases after a break-up. "She stayed seven months. Hell!" sighs Françoise. "She never ceased to remind me that I am old and decrepit and that she can't stand my retired life. Worse, she didn't do anything around the house, despite the fact that she acted very autonomously. I found myself stuck with a 40-year-old teenager."

Françoise says her grown daughter, who wanted a child of her own, had been stung badly by her boyfriend who changed his mind at the last minute. "She took her anger out on me," the aging mother said. "I didn't dare to invite friends over for lunch if she so much as seemed to be in a bad mood. I felt obliged to constantly be at her disposal."

Sandra was not the first daughter to come back to the nest. Six years ago, she housed her youngest daughter and her boyfriend. The couple was situated in the house for two years, enough time to have a baby and find an apartment. "The atmosphere was better, but they weren't much help either. This generation is bizarre," said Françoise. "In my youth, it was necessary for everyone to leave their parents' house as soon as possible. But now it seems they'll come back under any circumstances."

They've been named the Boomerang Generation: a new set of offspring thought to have been given every possible tool needed to ensure their success, until they return home, key in hand, years later. According to sociologist François Höpflinger at Zurich University, who specializes in family, aging and intergenerational relations, the phenomenon is growing in Switzerland. "Already youths tend to stay in their parents' homes longer, sometimes until 25 or 28 years of age, but now that number is currently rising so that 40-50-year-old adults are returning home in the aftermath of divorce or loss of a job," Höpflinger explains. "This is especially prevalent in wealthier cities like Geneva, Lausanne, and Zurich, where often parents have lived in the same place for more than 20 years, with below-market rent and spare bedrooms."

The London School of Economics did a study that measured the quality of life for parents aged 50-75 in 17 countries who were forced to live again with their grown children. The impact of these returns was calculated by looking at "feelings of control, autonomy, and every-day pleasure and self-realization." The results: These parents showed an average loss of 0.8 points on their measurement of quality of life, equivalent to that of a handicapped old woman who has trouble dressing herself and moving around.

The return of their children is seen not just as a sacrifice for parents, but also a failure of the child's transition into adulthood. The usual contract remains: I will pay for your studies for however long they take, but after that, you're on your own," confirms Caroline Henchoz, a sociologist who specializes in finance for couples and families at the Fribourg University. "In the modes of familial solidarity, parents provide economic aid as much as they can as an investment, in order to conserve the independence of both themselves and their children. Most of these returns happen in modest families." This can be seen through the 615,000 Swiss now affected by poverty. "These returns offer a way to get back on your feet, but they remain a last resort," continues Henchoz. In our interviews with young people aged 18 to 30, it was clear their aim was not to return home. Even when faced with enormous debt, they try to get by on their own.

When will you be home? Who are you seeing?

At 29 years old, Alice had to move back into her childhood room after living in the United States for six years. Questions like: "When will you be home? Who are you seeing? Are you eating dinner with us? are insufferable when you have already tasted independence. My relationship with my dad was so strained and tense that I escaped home as soon as I could."

But often parents of this generation allow their children to stay as long as they please as François Höpflinger notes, "Sociologically we are staying young longer, in Switzerland, the average age that people have their first child is 32. So living with parents or returning to them until then is easily tolerated. The boomerang effect has almost become a phase of life, it's only at 40 that the feeling of failure is felt on both sides."

Behind closed doors, even the parents of twenty-year-old boomerangs suffer. "At first I was depressed when our son found his first job and apartment, but then I rediscovered the freedom I had had in my 20s," says Sabine, 54. "But then he crashed and came back. Since then, he has found a job but has also discovered that he likes saving a piece of his salary to party and travel. He'll empty the fridge without buying anything and brings girls back to the house. Watching him has taught us great life lessons, considering that he considers himself an adult. Maybe to encourage him to move out, I will start to ask for rent."

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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