Meet France's Boomerang Kids, Moving Back In With Parents At Middle Age

The financial crisis has seen middle-aged French increasingly returning to their family nests. For many, it can be a special kind of shame to move back in with elderly parents.

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Catherine Rollot

PARIS — Her work colleagues think she lives with a partner in a suburban house outside Paris. In reality, Catherine is staying in a small bedroom in her 72-year-old father’s apartment. At 47, this company nurse returned to the family nest six months after a breakup. “Nobody knows because I’m ashamed of living here at my age,” she says.

It’s common for young adults who are struggling post-education to find jobs in a weak economy, and we knew that some among this demographic tend to return to their family homes. But we are now discovering those aged 40 or more who go back to their parents’ after having gone through hard times.

The skyrocketing prices in real estate, the frequency of professional or personal crises, and frequent layoffs all have led to more common inter-generational households in French cities. Traditionally, this sort of thing has been mostly limited to rural areas. Far from the image of the adult sons or daughters who stayed with their parents to help with farming, more and more of these grey-haired “boomerang kids” are making their way back to the family nest, after years of independence.

Only a few fragmented pieces of data provide a slightly better understanding of this phenomenon. That’s because middle-aged people who live with their parents are often ashamed. Certainly, the ones we spoke were willing to talk only if they remained anonymous.

According to initial results of ongoing research, the French National Institute of Population Studies (INED) estimates that 4.4% of 40-year-old men and 3.2% of 50-year-old men live with their parents. For women, the numbers are 2.4% 40-years-olds and 1.9% of 50-year-olds.

“For the first time, these figures provide information about who lives with whom,” explains Catherine Bonvalet, INED’s head of research. “Even though we can’t isolate the number of people going back and forth to their parents’, we can think that they are an important part of the percentage.”

The Fondation Abbé Pierre, a French organization for the housing of disadvantaged people, estimates that 280,000 people over age 25 who are no longer students or recent graduates are forced to return to their parents’ or grandparents’ because they cannot afford to live on their own.

The need for support has shifted

Sociologist Serge Guérin, who has written several books on solidarity and senior citizens, says this growing phenomenon is very real and here to stay. “The crisis, but also fewer cultural differences between generations, have led to a situation where, if people are having problems, they will turn more easily to their relatives,” he explains. “Also, the age where we need material and/or psychological support has shifted. An entire age group, one in which we used to be considered ‘safe,’ has now become vulnerable.”

Philippe, now 60, returned to his family home five years ago. He is a former company manager whose life hit the skids after a series of health problems, a bankruptcy and a separation. Going back to his parents just happened naturally. He was financially ruined and without an alternate solution. The former senior executive says would have ended up “on the streets” otherwise.

He has since found a subsidized job, but Philippe realizes how lucky he was to have “these parents,” who, thanks to their comfortable financial situation and their love, “cocooned him when he hit rock bottom.” Though he cannot afford to leave their home, he says he wouldn’t leave now even if he could. His mother and father, now in their eighties, have become accustomed to his presence “and are reassured by it.” As a gesture of thanks, he says he will stay as long as they need him.

“It’s harder than we thought”

Beyond finances, returning to aging parents is often a way to relieve the pressure. “Family will usually judge you less, reassure you and spontaneously welcome you without asking too many questions,” Guérin says.

Nathalie, 64, a retired social worker who lives in Brittany, in northwestern France, welcomed back her 40-year-old son last year after he was laid off. In debt, separated from his wife and the father of three dependent children, her son needed help. It was “obvious,” Nathalie says, that he should live with her.

But the new living situation was uncomfortable for Nathalie and her new romantic partner, she says, adding that she was prepared to pay for a small apartment for her son if the situation continued too long.

“It’s harder than we thought,” says Jean-Bernard, who has sheltered his 35-year-old unemployed son in his house near the town of Laval since November 2013. His son has returned to his childhood bedroom. A former metalworking technician, this retired 64-year-old and his wife, a nursing aide, are happy to help but fear their son could lose his ambition.

“We are both reassured to see him with us at home because he wouldn’t be able to live in a dignified way with his benefits, but at the same time we are scared he might lose the habit of sorting things out alone,” Jean-Bernard admits.

Beyond the additional expenses that come with the presence of an extra person, retired parents often have trouble living with the loss of the autonomy they gain when a child leaves home. Many of these parents are still relatively young and active, and want to enjoy everyday life unencumbered.

The situation is equally difficult for the children, who suffer from loss of pride and confidence. “Since I came back to my mother’s, I’ve been finding it more and more difficult to hear her asking about my schedule, insisting that I wrap up warm, have another serving of food,” says Agnès, a 53-year-old part-time singing teacher. “My 82-year-old mother has trouble understanding I’m not a little girl anymore. At the same time, I’m grateful to her for letting me live here.”

Catherine, the 47-year-old nurse, has found herself in an equally regressive circumstance. “The normal situation is to live at your own place and visit your parents from time to time,” she says, “not to have dinner every evening with your 72-year-old father.”

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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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