By Esther Mann, LCSW
My son, “Chaim,” is 26 years old. He followed the typical pattern that many of his friends followed. After high school, he went to Israel for a year, came back, went to Yeshiva University, received a degree, got a job, etc. He’s been dating for quite a few years already but is still single. After YU, though a number of his friends took apartments in Washington Heights, he decided he wanted to come back home and live with us.
At the time, we still had our now 24-year-old daughter living with us, and my husband and I felt flattered that our son loved us so much that he preferred to come back home rather than live in his own apartment near his friends. We were so sure we did everything right to encourage such behavior.
We’ve been blessed with wonderful children whom we adore. They are fun to be around, respectful, and grateful for everything we do. And we do a lot. I’ve never worked and have always been a hands-on mother. I love to cook, organize, and be a caretaker. Though I don’t consider my children spoiled, they always knew growing up that their wish was my command. If they mentioned that their knapsack for school tore, there would be a new one left on their bed the next day. If they mentioned that they just tasted a terrific new recipe at a friend’s house, I would track down the recipe and prepare it for them. Whatever they needed, ran out of, or even considered, I prided myself on being such a caring and efficient mother that, almost like magic, everything appeared and was taken care of.
So I guess it’s no surprise that my son wanted to come back home to live. True, we all get along beautifully and enjoy our time together, but he has a really good deal going on here. His room is cleaned, his clothing washed, and his meals prepared. It’s like he’s living in a 5-star hotel without having to pay a bill.
Last year our daughter got married, and now it’s just the three of us–me, my husband, and our son. It’s still peaceful and nice, but I feel like I’ve suddenly woken up from a coma and want something different from my life. I suddenly want to hang up my apron, stop being a homemaker, and stop getting my satisfaction from serving everyone. I want to be free!
My husband is not a demanding man. He doesn’t care if I cook dinner or we eat out. He doesn’t care if the house is a little messy or I forget to pick up his clothing from the cleaners. And I suddenly realize that my life could now start looking different. I could do anything I want, when and how I want. I could busy myself with volunteer work, take little trips with my girlfriends, or take big trips with my husband. I could let the laundry go for more than a week, forget to buy the milk, and take up painting.
What’s holding me back is that Chaim is still living in my house and I feel I have to keep up a certain level of household responsibility for his sake.
I’m also realizing that I want to be alone with my husband. I want to get to know him better. It’s been many years since the two of us were just alone together. I no longer want to censor what I say or how I say it. Again, I just want to feel free.
So how do I get rid of Chaim? He’s such a sweet young man. I was hoping he’d be married by now and I wouldn’t have to kick him out. Maybe he’ll find someone in three months, but who knows. Maybe it could be three years. I suddenly don’t want to wait another minute to get my house back, free and clear.
Chaim is constantly telling us how lucky he is to have such wonderful parents who are so good to him. He also constantly says how happy he is to be living with us. It’s great to hear these compliments, but it also make it so much harder to pull the plug.
Dear Feeling Trapped,
Life is all about cycles. As time marches on, so too do our needs and desires. You had an incredibly long run as an outstanding mother and homemaker. No one can ever take that away. Even if you hang up your apron today, your many years of devotion to your family will always be something you can be proud of. Your children will always fondly remember and appreciate everything you’ve done for them.
Congratulations on finally recognizing that it’s time to shift gears and reconstruct your lifestyle. For a lot of women, this awakening happened long before they started feeling as trapped as you are presently feeling. I suppose it was easy for you to keep up your routine because the praise that was lavished on you felt good. We all like to be praised. Also, this is something that you are good at. You have the ability to anticipate everyone’s needs, coupled with the energy to act on everyone’s desires. Not everyone is so capable.
But there are two downsides to what you’ve been doing. The first one is the core of your question. How do you gently steer your son out of your home so that you and your husband can enjoy this exciting stage of life? A stage filled with possibilities of enjoying one another as never before. The second is the fact that you are possibly enabling and even encouraging Chaim to remain single. Not overtly, but while creating such a lovely and loving environment for him, where not only are all of his creature comforts met, but he also enjoys great company with you and your husband. He could be feeling a little too content and happy, and be willing to leave things just the way they are.
Therefore, for your sake and for his sake, life is about to change. And you have my permission to change it. (I sense you seem to need some sort of permission.) There is no easy way to do it. You and your husband need to sit Chaim down and be straightforward about what you believe to be the next stage for all of you. You can reiterate how much you love having him around and that this decision has nothing to do with your feelings toward him, but that you believe it’s healthier and more appropriate for everyone involved that he find himself a place of his own.
I think it’s probably a good idea to include some kind of timeframe. Maybe something like, “Of course we’re hoping you’ll be here for the yomim tovim, but we thought mid to late October should give you sufficient time to find a place.”
If you’re feeling guilty (which you shouldn’t be), or are so inclined, you can offer to help him find a place or help him get settled. But once he’s on his own–and I suspect this will be a struggle for you–you have to let Chaim be. He’ll be fine. In fact, he’ll be more than fine.
Could it be that you’re concerned that Chaim will be angry at you or stop loving you as intensely as he presently does? If so, you need to know that there is no reason for you to go there. He may be surprised and perhaps even a little disappointed, but on some level he had to suspect that this day would come. And he might even be somewhat relieved that you took the initiative, so that he didn’t have to. He will always remember and be grateful for everything that you and your husband have done for him over the years. But all good things must come to an end, and so too must this present arrangement.
It’s time for, you, your husband, and your son to spread your wings and fly! Enjoy your freedom.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.