Feature

The Boomerang Effect

How did the forever young generation turn into perpetual parents?

by
Illustration by Leeay Aikawa

• 5,126 words

Illustration by Leeay Aikawa

Oh, for the uncomplicated melancholy of the empty nest! These days, aging boomers may feel they are shouldering a greater burden: parenting their adult children. There is much hand-wringing over the lack of direction among these twenty- and thirtysomethings. Will they ever be fully independent? Counterintuitively, perhaps, parents are driven to help. To further complicate matters, their kids—who are no longer kids—are choosy about the help they will accept. This push-pull could well be the trickiest stage of parenthood, something those who invented the generation gap weren’t prepared for. Perhaps that explains why they tend to blame their progeny. Take a step back, however, and it becomes clear that this isn’t necessarily about “kids today,” but rather how the culture of family is changing.

We watched him disappear into airport security. He walked with his usual bounce, even though he wore a towering backpack, with a pair of sneakers and a water bottle tied to the top. As the opaque glass doors slid shut behind him, he didn’t turn around, but I waved anyway. Maybe it was the kind of glass he could see through on his side but we couldn’t on ours.

Then we drove home in an undefinable state, without saying much. There didn’t seem to be anything left to say. I had already had all my feelings about our twenty-year-old son dropping out of university to hit the road—or “taking a semester off to travel,” as I preferred to call it. I had already been sad, annoyed, alarmed, and finally excited, because that’s how he felt about this adventure. He was taking a cheap flight to Las Vegas to “ramble around” the southwestern desert. Hitchhiking, alone. Then he thought he’d head down to Mexico for a while.

Mexico is very big, I pointed out.

I reminded him that the era of hitchhiking was long over, and that in 2003 only serial killers and hookers would want to stand around on some ramp in Nevada. But for Casey there was a romance going on. He had Woody Guthrie’s hoboing, and probably Chuck Berry’s “Route 66” on his mind: Well if you ever plan to motor west / Just take my way, that’s the highway, that’s the best.

On the way back from the Toronto airport, I gazed out the car window at the floral sculptures along the highway, advertising insurance and pharmaceutical companies. Not the Wild West by a long shot. I told myself it was perfectly normal for a twenty-year-old to test himself. Boys are going to put themselves in harm’s way, one way or another, and getting a degree in history is only dangerous if you plan on making lots of money. A couple of footloose months, I thought, and he’d be back at McGill, grinding out essays on medieval concepts of time, and post-colonialism in Africa.

I knew how useless a B.A. had become. But I was a mother, evidently a chronic condition. The parent part of my brain had swollen to such unseemly proportions that I still believed university was the last good daycare, the safest channel to a secure future in our unravelling, unforgiving world.

Promise you’ll come back and finish your degree, Brian and I argued, in our mild way.

He didn’t say no. But he’d wait till he got back to make up his mind.

I did what I could; I went down to Mountain Equipment Co-op and bought him a small, shiny camp stove. A shard of home. He reassured us that he would stay in touch, although not by cellphone. Historically, hoboes didn’t carry cellphones. He would email us regularly from Internet cafés. Every village in Mexico has one, he said.

There were no fights about this, either, but then conflict has never been our forte. Brian’s family is British, and his mother’s mantra, to which I aspire, is “Never mind!” Casey has always been civil and tactful with us, but firm, as if negotiating with slightly impaired part-time employees.

So off he went, holding his brown cowboy hat with the curled-up brim, a gift from his gently departing university girlfriend. Lindsay was taking an exchange semester abroad, in Hong Kong. Sensible girl!

I shouldn’t have been surprised by this turn of events. After all, Brian and I had both spent most of our twenties kicking around the world, ignoring the future. But in those days, the generation gap worked like email in reverse: the point was not to stay in touch. The technology of the day reinforced the gap, since long-distance phone calls were expensive and the connections were poor; on a call from Burlington, Ontario, to Greece, my father’s voice sounded like it was coming from the bottom of the ocean (which it was). Airmail letters took forever. They sat scattered around Europe in American Express offices, waiting weeks for us to show up and claim them, if we didn’t change our itinerary. And back home, nobody opened the front door to check the mailbox twenty times a day.

Once we left, we were gone. And what our parents didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.

Back in 1969, my family accepted the notion of a postgrad European trek, preferably with a Eurail Pass in hand. It counted as continuing education; we were “broadening” ourselves. My mother and father came from hard-working, poorish prairie families, where they were the first generation to graduate from university. An education meant everything. That was what travel signified, too: marble statues and historical ruins, not hitchhiking in strange cars and smoking dope in Amsterdam cafés.

Or living in caves.

That winter, I was travelling in Europe with my boyfriend, a tall, poetry-writing lad from another nice family who would clearly protect me from being drugged in a bar and bundled off to the white slave trade. In those days, the hippie trail led east from London to India; south to Ibiza; or to Greece and the caves of Matala, which a feature in Life magazine had already made semi-famous. (Joni Mitchell was apparently there around the same time and wrote the song “Carey.” I also read somewhere that several years later, the bubonic plague broke out and the idyll was over.)

After moving into a spacious cave with a view of the sea, I updated my family on our itinerary.

“The three of us are living in a small fishing village on the southern coast of Crete,” I wrote to them, having invented a chaperone-ish third party to offset the unavoidable domestic overtones of living with my boyfriend in a cave. “This is a Greek archaeological site,” I added (educational). “The cliffs have rows of man-made caves that date back to the neolithic period, where travellers can stay for free” (frugality and budgeting). “We are staying in one of the larger caves. It’s very nice, and has a door” (a tarpaulin). “The ocean is clean and perfect for swimming. The local fishermen sell fresh fish on the beach” (nutrition). “We’re getting a tan and enjoying a rest after being on the road all winter.”

Ah, the daughterly wiles of the young suburban hippie.

I just assumed the gap between my mother’s life and mine was unbridgeable. She had met my father when they were thirteen and fourteen, and by their mid-twenties they had married and had their first child. She dated a few others along the way, and had the odd crush on other men. I recall some stories about a dashing fighter pilot—is there any other kind?—named Ernie McNab who once flew low over the university campus in his plane and waggled his wing tips at her. But the concept of sleeping with different guys just because you were attracted to them, for fun, was new to her. And yet she struggled to approve; it made sense to her, to try them out before you settled for one. As she used to mildly, somewhat admiringly muse to me, as I pursued the single life into my thirties, “Yes, you’ve had a lot of boyfriends.”

She never criticized me for not marrying. (I capitulated anyway, at fifty.) But she worried that I would get hurt. Which, of course, I did. It became a bit of a pattern, in fact. I had talked myself out of wanting anything resembling commitment, but that turned out to eliminate too much.

Her reply to my letter describing our cave life was tactful and carefully upbeat. She caught me up on the family news—all good, in the style of the Christmas form letter, in which no doubt or heartache intrudes. Then she gave me a recipe for Irish soda bread, easily cooked in an iron frying pan, on an open fire.

“Enjoy!” she gallantly signed off.

When we got back home from seeing off our son, Brian settled back in at the computer, his mind already on other things. I drifted around, picking up odds and ends Casey had left behind in his old room. The McGill calendar, with tick marks beside strange courses—soil sciences or the physics of music—he was hoping would be more “real” than history. I shoved the wooden case of crumpled tubes of oil paint back under his bed. He had the painter gene, all right (from his grandfather), but he probably wasn’t going to take that route. Music was more his thing, writing and playing it. But it wasn’t at all clear what route he would take. Which is normal, I thought, at twenty.

I stowed the emergency-orange rain jacket I had bought him because he was always riding his bike home at 2 a.m., and wondered if I should hang on to his old address book, slightly curved from being carried in his back jeans pocket. You never know when I might need to track down his friends, I catastrophized. Downstairs, his guitar amp (built decades earlier by my brother) was still set up in the dining room. I wound the power cable around the handle and lugged the TV-sized amp down into the basement. No more home recordings for now.

A few days later, we got our first message, a group email to family and friends:

Date: Tue, 17 Feb 2003 12:46:32

Subject: New Mexico

Hi there,

I am in Santa Fe and alive and well. Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico are beautiful! I spent my first night sleeping behind the airport Welcome to Las Vegas sign. Planes are loud. Vegas is bright all the time. I spent the whole next day trying to get out—hitchhiking to Zion National Park was not successful. Word to the wise, do not try to hitch out of Vegas and into Utah—bad combination.

“Sounds like he’s doing all right,” Brian remarked.

“What are you saying? ” I yelped, face in my hands. “Our son just spent the night sleeping on the ground, behind the welcome to las vegas sign!”

“He’ll survive. Casey’s resourceful.”

The details came later. He had gotten off the plane thinking he could find a hostel, or perhaps somewhere to pitch his tent. But Vegas is not a town of grassy ditches. He took buses all over town, looking for the university (“Students, they live cheaply”), then a hostel, then a budget motel. But even the Super 8 cost an exorbitant $90. So, still wearing his overstuffed pack and cowboy hat, carrying his guitar, he made his way back to the airport, where he found a semi-secluded patch of gravel behind the welcome sign. He brushed his teeth and unrolled his sleeping bag. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, he decided against putting up his tent.

Desert nights, he discovered, can be cold. In the morning, he made his way to the outskirts of the city, where he stood by the side of the road for five hours without getting a ride. Then he went back into town and bought a bus ticket to Santa Fe.

And just when you think your job as a mother is winding down, the circuits all light up again.

Iwas thirty-seven when Casey was born: a late entry into motherhood, but not unusual for my generation. Many of us postponed parenthood until the last possible minute, and I think that has been a factor in our tendency to, shall we say, over-invest in our kids. Just as they enter their twenties and begin adult life (or get down to postponing it), we are finally forced to contemplate the end of ours.

As we move through our fifties and edge into our sixties, my peers can’t help but notice, despite hours at the gym, that some doors are closing; we probably won’t enter a triathlon, or win the Man Booker Prize, or invent a water purifier for Nigeria that costs two cents. But it’s still possible that our kids will! Our grip on youth and achievement finally starts to relax—only to fasten instead on our grown-up kids. “Whatever makes you happy,” we say about their chosen path. But they know what we really mean: “We’ll chip in for grad school, but not for the motorcycle.”

Although I knew my parents would always bail me out financially, I never had to ask them; a benign economy shone down on the young, and life was easy—perhaps easier than it ever will be again. In 1971, I could get by (and travel for months at a time) on the money I earned writing a freelance book review column for a newspaper. Quaint skills—roughly the equivalent of working as a blacksmith today. Or … being a narwhal impersonator. I can’t think of anything sufficiently arcane to convey just how obsolete my first job has become.

Astutely, my parents saw writing as a perilous pursuit. But what did they know? Our parents didn’t share our music, or our values. Many of us mistrusted the very concept of family, a bourgeois institution (we said) created to oppress women and shore up the patriarchy. They fuck you up, your mum and dad, begins the famous 1971 poem by Philip Larkin.

Hmmm. There’s still a smidgen of truth in this, but nobody seems to have come up with a better arrangement than family—regardless of the genders or sexual persuasions involved—for raising children, tolerating our fellow human beings, and helping one another through life. Family is a jalopy, not a Porsche, but it takes us down the road.

While casey was travelling, I hovered over my inbox, awaiting fresh bulletins. One morning, I logged in and found another group email:

Date: Mon, 15 Mar 2003 17:11:24

Subject: Hello from Chiapas

Yesterday, I played soccer with a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who referred to me as Canada. “Hey, Canada, aqui, aqui!” And not one word about Jesus.

I am considering buying this Brooklyn dude’s bike and touring gear to bike around Guatemala and Chiapas, but we’ll see. I am in the mountain city of San Cristóbal de las Casas now, which is full of tourists, but also is still great and old.

I have been asked to “say hi to Comandante Marcos” from a guy in Salina Cruz, but I don’t plan on taking up arms. In any case, people love the revolution here. Next stop is either Guatemala or back up the Caribbean coast. Coconuts are excellent.

Great—Comandante Casey. What could be more appealing to a boy fed up with middle-class Toronto? I reviewed the available options for my son: either he would join the Zapatistas, or he would bicycle alone through Guatemala, where the Canadian Embassy was now posting warnings for tourists, especially those who ventured outside the main cities.

In his next email, he informed us that he’d decided to meet up with the cycle dude in a few weeks, in Guatemala, in Panajachel, near Lake Atitlan.

Panajachel. This time, I knew exactly what was in store for my son, and at last I had a legitimate reason to worry. As it happened—I don’t think Casey even knew or remembered this about his mother—in my twenties, I had ridden a bicycle through Guatemala, including the climb from Panajachel up to the highway, one of the steepest grades in the country. Out of the five months I spent cycling through Central and South America, it was the road leading up from Panajachel, a vertical climb of 1,000 metres over 16 kilometres, that almost did me in. It’s stupid.

This was another boyfriend-related venture. Tom had joined a bona fide expedition of cyclists, sponsored by National Geographic, who were making their way down the spine of the Americas, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. When he was in year two of this mad undertaking, he got lonely. He wrote a letter from southern Mexico to persuade me to join him on the road, for the Guatemala-to-Bolivia leg.

Why not? I thought. I liked to bike. I would have to cut back on my smoking, but it could be fun. I’d been working for the past two years, organizing a film festival with a group of women, and I was ready for more adventure. I said yes, and Tom flew back to help me get organized.

I remember the day I took the commuter train home to Burlington to announce my plans for this expedition. It was late November, just as the first flakes of snow were whirling around in a dither, as if to say, “Where the hell are we—isn’t there someplace nicer we can land? ” The air had that stony cold that arrives just in time for the Santa Claus Parade.

I stepped off the train to my father’s waiting car. The front seat of the big Buick was covered in a beige, woolly sheepskin, and so was the steering wheel; the circulation in his fingers was poor, and his hands got cold. We drove home, where my mother was still in her blue bathrobe, sitting in the den. This was unheard of in the middle of the afternoon. She didn’t get up to greet me; she just swivelled in my direction, looking filmy eyed and distant—the Valium look. She was sitting in her usual spot, an upholstered chair (everything in our house was upholstered, including the placemats) that rocked and pivoted. She liked to sit there and watch the kids walk home from my old school, a few blocks away.

Earlier that fall, after several days of feeling flu-ish and weak, she had slowly walked the two blocks to Dr. Bodkin’s office.

“I think I’ve had a heart attack,” she politely informed the receptionist.

She spent about a week in the hospital and then came home to recover. I’m not even sure my father informed me of the details, and I know I didn’t visit. In those days, a woman’s heart attack didn’t have the drama of a masculine cardiac event. Years later, I wondered if it might not have been an episode of depression, or a bit of both; my sister had just married at twenty, had a baby, and moved out from under our mother’s wing, to Toronto. Now I was heading off, too, on some cockamamie trip with boyfriend C or D, when I should have been signing up for teachers’ college.

None of the usual dips and zero-fat snacks awaited me in the kitchen. I made a pot of tea and gave them both a spirited pitch about the value and legitimacy of this new adventure of mine. They could maybe read about me in National Geographic, copies of which lined our den. Using my mother’s sewing machine, I had already made some flare-orange bike panniers, from a mail-order kit. I demonstrated to them how smartly my little rear-view mirror snapped onto my glasses. And look, I said, we cut up our map and glued it to a big piece of cloth, so it can be folded and refolded without ripping.

They glanced at the huge map, with our route inked in black, and said nothing. To my Saskatoon-raised parents, South America was unimaginable, a lawless continent of anacondas and piranhas. (We did in fact encounter a very, very, very long anaconda, as thick as a telephone pole, sunbathing in a culvert under a bridge. Parents are not always wrong.)

I wasn’t ready to think about my mother as being frail or needing my care. And was it my fault that her kids were not thriving in the ways she had hoped they would?

“I better go, or I’ll miss my train,” I said, as I stood at the front door with my backpack on, trying not to bump into the door chimes. My mother didn’t get up. I leaned over to kiss her, but she seemed to want the moment to pass quickly, so I let it.

My ninety-eight-year-old mother has been in long-term care for almost three years now, most of that time immobilized in a wheelchair, after breaking her hip shortly after she moved in. Macular degeneration has left her almost blind (although somehow she can still detect, and let me know, when my bangs need cutting). Her great intelligence remains, but the focus of it often wavers and blurs. Sometimes she is confused and calls me her sister; sometimes she tells us that her long-dead father came to visit and hung the painting of flowers above her bed. Other times, she is on the ball, caustic and more searingly honest than anyone else in the room.

I visit her in the new home, a pink and grey institution with many windows and “therapy cats.”

When her eyes open, they stare straight ahead, far away, until I step into the path of her vision and she finds me.

“Is that you? ”

“Yes. It’s Marni.”

“I was just sleeping.”

“Yes. You don’t have to wake up. I can just sit here and keep you company.”

She draws in a sigh. Even that is too much work.

“You’ll be bored here.” A mutter.

“No, I won’t. I like seeing you. I can just sit here and read while you sleep.”

She is talking again, but the words are too soft and garbled. I move closer and lean over her.

“Do you have a good book? ” she asks.

“It’s okay. It’s about divorce.”

“Oh, that’s terrible.”

“Well, you don’t need to read it. Not after sixty-eight years of marriage.”

“And nothing to show for it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Once again, I enumerate all her accomplishments, her paintings and artistic talent, her beautiful house, her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandson. Then I say, “And they all have a great love for you.”

She says something I can’t hear. I lean over her again.

“I can’t imagine,” she says, “having a ‘great love’ for anyone.”

Well, that’s consoling, I think. But I know it’s just her radar picking up on my slightly phony “deathbed” vocabulary.

“Maybe you do, though. You love your children greatly, don’t you? ”

“Oh, yes,” she says ardently, remembering.

“Well, that’s how we feel about you.”

Her eyes close. Her skin is papery white, and her face is riveting. Like a totem, Casey will say on his final visit with her. A week ago, her cheek felt too warm, but now it feels too cool, deserted by the blood. She falls back into sleep, her diaphragm working to pull in air. I sit in my chair and read my book, a review assignment. Every few pages, I look over to make sure the blankets still rise and fall.

How close should families be? I am still confused about that.

The generation gap made it easier for us to stay selfish, confused, and adrift in the embrace of youth culture, which helped us believe that our world was more interesting than any other world. Of course, everyone in their early twenties enters a self-involved orbit; it’s the decade when you give birth to your adult self. But my lack of trust in my parents’ ability to handle my real life only increased the emotional gap between us. We loved each other, and they were unusually tolerant of our eccentric paths. Classic post-war liberal optimists, the bunch of us. But I think we settled for too much distance.

Now the pendulum has swung to the other side, to the “fused family,” where parents enter into a sort of friendship with their adult kids—a tendency that is even more inevitable in families with only children, or in single-parent households. It’s easy for the single parent to fall into a quasi-marital relationship with their school-age kids. The thing is, kids are often better company than the departed spouse. And sometimes the power struggles aren’t as daunting as in adult relationships, because in the end they are the parent, in charge of the child. There is also no anxiety about the relationship ending, because it will never end; they will always be the mother, or the father. The role is permanent, a tattoo—unlike other kinds of love, alas.

But as I think my son knows, it can be hard work being an only child, and having to take the full weight of your parents’ love, hopes, and fears—especially the fear that kids will “lose their place” if they take too long figuring things out. They don’t need more nervousness; Casey looks over his shoulder, too. In any family this close, leaving home isn’t a simple matter of heading off to college, or graduating, or even moving out. Parents have to let go, too.

We dearly want to see our kids on a foolproof, well-lit path, but that safe path no longer exists. It’s a wraparound frontier now.

Casey flew home from Las Vegas, with his bike in a box. His hair was wild, and his eyes were very blue. Whiffs of the ocean and the desert came off him. Somewhere on the road, at a pay phone, he had been interviewed and accepted for a job at a summer camp in Maine, leading canoe trips. More outside. More adventure.

And he thought he might go back to university in the fall after all. Maybe change his minor to environmental studies, cut back his course load a little.

That sounds good to us, we said.

Over the next few years and after he graduated, he stayed on in Montreal—working in the rigging department of a stage production company, archiving for a film company, hosting a late-night music show on the college station—but he would come home for visits, or stay with us for a few weeks here and there. Sometimes he’d be out with friends till 3 or 4 a.m., keeping Montreal hours. Whenever this happened, I would fall back into my old vigilant routines.

We go to bed shortly after midnight, as usual. Then, around two, my eyes pop open. I can tell by the slant of the light in the hall that his bedroom door is still open. Not home yet. Never mind! Think of all the nights he’s been somewhere else, in Tucson or Tijuana, and you’re not around to worry about him. He’s in his twenties now, I remind myself, not a little boy lost in the mall; he could be driving a tank in Afghanistan. God, imagine that. (I do.)

Brian sleeps on, unperturbed, beside me. I think about a friend of ours, a level-headed psychotherapist with a son Casey’s age; she told me that she can’t help it; she stays awake till he gets home, too. It’s like we’re soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder who get triggered by harmless but familiar situations.

Three a.m. Was he wearing his helmet? I feel ridiculous, mothering away in the dark for no good reason. Should I avail myself of the little blue crumbs of Ativan in the drawer by the bed? No, let’s wait a bit. Maybe the paperman will drive by earlier than usual—his muffler is shot, so I know that sound, too—and I can read the Globe.

Why don’t I have the telephone numbers of any of his Toronto friends? Alex, Tom, and Rhys. Rhys who?

Then I hear the chunnng of the wrought iron fence closing, and the front door unclasping. The delicate tick of the road bike being wheeled in, followed by his cautious steps on the stairs, adult and thoughtful.

The click of his bedroom door.

Now I can sleep.

“The Boomerang Effect” is adapted from Home Free: The Myth of the Empty Nest, published by Thomas Allen.

This appeared in the September 2010 issue.

Author and journalist Marni Jackson is a former Walrus editor.

Leeay Aikawa has done artwork for the New York Times and The Atlantic, as well as The Walrus.