July-August 2021 | Parenting

Back to the nest

Just when some parents had adjusted to their older kids being away, the pandemic brought them home

share this
The Sitrin family at home in Bethesda. Photo by Liz Lynch

When Karen Kearney and David Abramowitz bought their “city home” near Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg three years ago, it was the rooftop deck that won them over. The deck spans the entire third floor, and guests can be whisked up via a wood-paneled elevator. The soon-to-be empty nesters were looking forward to years of entertaining once the last of their five grown children—all from their previous marriages—left the house.

As soon as Kearney’s son, the younger of her two kids, headed to college in the fall of 2019, the couple began having dinner parties and cocktail hours on the roof. They installed a flat-panel television and held movie nights with friends. “We got these squishy chairs with ottomans, and just being out there was wonderful,” Kearney says. “What more do you need?”

Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly she and Abramowitz, both 55, were playing host to two of his three kids—an 18-year-old son and a 22-year-old daughter—and both of Kearney’s. (Abramowitz’s older daughter stayed in D.C.) All but one were college students who arrived lugging boxes and bags of clothes, shoes, books, bedding and sports equipment. Abramowitz’s youngest, a high school senior, already had a designated bedroom in their house, but before COVID-19 he spent half his time with his mom.

David Abramowitz and Karen Kearney on the rooftop deck of the “city home” they bought when they’d planned to be empty nesters. Photo by Liz Lynch

The pair’s four-bedroom home—perfect for their pre-pandemic lifestyle—was less than ideal for the six of them plus their Shih Tzu-poodle mix and two English shepherds. The kids’ stuff lined the hallways and covered the furniture for months until they had Costco install extra shelving in the garage. Abramowitz’s son would play video games late into the night with his friends online. Kearney and Abramowitz eventually had to lay down some ground rules. “They [would] put their headphones on and yell back and forth to each other, not realizing their volume or what time it is,” he says. “We had to say, hey, if you can’t keep it down, then maybe the PlayStation will no longer have internet access after 11 o’clock.”

Twice, Kearney and her daughter, now 22, fled to Kearney’s parents’ empty condo in Rockville (they had decamped to Florida) to avoid contracting COVID. The first time, last summer, her son, 20, caught the virus and passed it to Abramowitz. The second time, Abramowitz’s son got sick at college and came home to recover. Luckily all three cases were mild.

While all the kids were living there, Kearney spent more time at the boutique she owns—Karen’s Rocks & Rags in Gaithersburg—than at her house. She’d go there even when her shop was closed. “Even though you love to spend time with your kids, it’s the dishwasher twice a day, the grocery store every other day—sometimes twice a day. It’s like, ‘wait, I can’t do my laundry because so-and-so is doing it, and so-and-so is in the shower, so, Dad, can I use your shower?’ ” she says. “And when you go into your pantry to eat your chips, they’re gone.” Even the dogs were whining. “They’re like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ”

For Abramowitz, a cybersecurity professional who worked from home before the pandemic, the tricky part was navigating around the fact that the kids aren’t really “theirs,” but rather “his” or “hers.” In a blended family, he says, “you might not be as comfortable parenting or policing something with the kids that aren’t yours because it’s not your place, so to speak.”

Last fall, Kearney’s son, a sophomore at the University of Maryland, chose to stay in Gaithersburg and take classes virtually; the other three kids left. But soon she and Abramowitz will have a full house again. Two of the girls are graduating from college and don’t have jobs yet, so it will be a while before they get to rekindle their empty nest days. “We had thought they’d all be moving into apartments,” Kearney says.

David Abramowitz (in back) with a full house for dinner on Christmas Eve in 2020. Courtesy photo

According to the Pew Research Center’s analysis of monthly Census Bureau data, in July 2020, 52% of 18-to-29-year-olds in the U.S. were living with their parents. That figure tops that of 1940, just after the Great Depression, when census data showed that 48% of young adults had moved back home.

“When the teens are gone…there’s better sleep, there’s more time with each other, there’s more opportunities for sex, there’s more opportunities for intimacy,” says Jonah Green, a licensed clinical social worker in Kensington. With the return of their grown children, he says, many clients in their 50s and 60s are finding the relationship with their partner is even more strained than when their kids were in high school. Concerns over exposure to the virus, the kids’ unhappiness at home, and increased financial pressures have made it harder for some couples to function as a unit. Often, one parent thinks the other is either “coddling” or “being too harsh or always yelling,” Green says. He encourages couples to understand that their goals are the same—for their kids to be successful and happy—even though their approaches to a situation may be different.

One Gaithersburg mom says she was more lenient than her husband in dealing with their grown daughter, who graduated from college virtually in the spring of 2020 and was having a hard time getting motivated to find a job. “[She] does very well with a schedule and a routine, and when that gets taken away from you it’s, like, very tough,” the woman says. “There’s a fine line—you don’t want to nag, but you can’t just let them sleep all day.” Her husband kept trying to give their daughter projects, such as reorganizing the pantry, to keep her busy. “[She] would say to me, ‘He’s driving me crazy,’ and I would say, ‘I know.’ ”

Bethesda psychologist Amanda Rahimi’s patients include several college graduates who returned home for financial reasons or to avoid feeling isolated. Some weren’t comfortable with the COVID-related choices their roommates were making. She says dating has been one of the biggest sources of angst for twentysomethings living with their parents. Trying to maintain a social life during the pandemic often forces young people to pare down to a single dating partner earlier than they might in typical times. And being at home means confronting parents’ questions about their choices sooner than they want. For those dating outside their race or expected gender preference, that’s been particularly challenging, Rahimi says. “Many [young adults] are selective and deliberate with what they are sharing, with the understanding that they are testing the waters.”

Aliza Sitrin (left) with her mom. Courtesy photo

For some empty nesters, it’s not the return of their adult children but the realization that those kids will be leaving again that causes stress, says Cheryl D. Taylor, a licensed clinical social worker in Bethesda. For the past year, she’s been working with a patient whose two grown sons moved into her one-bedroom apartment. One of them moved out after about six months, but the other has stayed. She’s been driving him to and from work because he doesn’t have a driver’s license and she doesn’t want him taking public transportation. “Despite COVID being really…isolating and challenging, there was a comfort with her sons,” Taylor says. Her patient is working on “radical acceptance”—learning to face the situation as it is and not lamenting what can’t be controlled. “Focusing on the past or the unknown future means we aren’t…focused on enjoying the present moment.”

Margaret Cohen and Anthony Clayman were happy to have their 18-year-old son back from college at the start of the pandemic—Cohen thought of it as “found time” with him. When her son started school in the fall of 2019, she was surprised at how much she missed him. “It’s so acute when you have an only child [and] all of a sudden…you don’t have that person,” she says. “The house felt empty for me without him there.” When he returned home to Bethesda, Cohen says she was much more intentional about having family dinners and movie nights, and sitting down for scheduled games of Rummikub—even though she had just started a demanding new job as the managing director of philanthropy for a New York-based nonprofit. “I was a lot more present and really appreciated that he was going to be gone again and I knew what that felt like.”

The Sitrin family, from left: Wynne, Chloe, Ron, Aliza and Gabriella. Photo by Liz Lynch

In March 2020, Wynne and Ron Sitrin welcomed home their three adult daughters, along with the youngest daughter’s boyfriend. He’s a teacher at a local school and had no family nearby. “I said to them, ‘You are either in or you’re out,’ ” Wynne says, “and they all picked in.” During the spring and summer, the six lived and worked under one roof. Every day they’d have breakfast together, gather for coffee in the afternoon, and eat a big family dinner. Wynne, 60, who loves to cook, was happy to have a big brood around the dining table. Ron, 58, says he enjoyed the “natural laughter” of a houseful of people after the quiet of an empty nest.

It wasn’t always easy: Their middle daughter, who’d left in January 2020 for a two-year Peace Corps assignment in Ecuador, was forced to return a few weeks into the pandemic. It was “her dream job,” Wynne says. The open floor plan at their Bethesda home meant that they all had to be mindful of the “safe sound zones” so that no one’s Zoom calls could be overheard on another computer. None of the girls wanted to hold virtual meetings from their bedrooms, where the walls are still painted in their childhood shades of purple, green and blue. “We [each] claimed our space and we claimed our time,” Ron says. It worked out fine, he says. “It was more just comical.”

By late last summer, their two older daughters were renting an apartment together in D.C. Their youngest returned to the University of Michigan, and her boyfriend headed back to his own place. As each left, the meals got simpler—which was bittersweet for Wynne. “We went from these large multicourse meals to my husband and I having maybe a rice bowl with roasted vegetables,” she says.

They still don’t feel like empty nesters, though, because with two kids now living nearby and the girls’ social lives still on hold, there’s almost always someone home for a meal or a long weekend. Ron is happy to have them, but he feels bad that their young adult years have been so “radically altered” by the pandemic. “It’s a story of conflicting emotions,” he says.

Bethesda Realtor Ilene Gordon and her partner, real estate agent and developer Marc Bassin, hosted her two grown sons and her pregnant daughter-in-law for five months during the pandemic. Her 32-year-old son and his wife had been living in Manhattan when COVID arrived. The couple packed up their apartment and their 2-year-old English bulldog and moved in with Gordon and Bassin. Gordon’s 29-year-old son had lived in London and Chicago for several years, but rented an apartment in D.C. six months before the pandemic. He pretty much moved in with them, too, so that he’d have company when everything around him closed down.

Nine years earlier, Gordon and her ex-husband sold their sprawling house with a pool on an acre and a half in Potomac. Her new home near downtown Bethesda is smaller, she says, but with five bedrooms there was room for everyone. She has no complaints about their time together, but she knows her kids were sometimes frustrated with the close quarters. One would occasionally set up a workstation in the kitchen, and Gordon couldn’t help starting up a conversation when she went in to grab a snack. Her kids were always polite about it, she says, but she’s pretty sure her small talk occasionally grated on them. “What was helpful was [the kids] could take a walk on the [Capital] Crescent Trail or go for a drive whenever they found me too annoying,” she says. “And they did find me annoying at times—it’s hard to go back as adults and live with your mom.”

For Gordon, the “silver lining” of the pandemic is that her older son and his wife decided to make the move permanent, buying a home just a few blocks away from hers. She spotted the house as soon as it hit the market at midnight and had the couple in to see it by 10 the next morning. They moved in last July, and Gordon’s first grandchild was born two months later. “I’m over there all the time,” she says. “They’ve got free babysitting whenever they want.”

Alec and Jen (pictured in their newly renovated Bethesda home) had been empty nesters for more than a year when their sons’ colleges closed for COVID in March 2020. Photo by Liz Lynch

Jen and Alec powers, both 53, had been happy empty nesters for more than a year when they started renovating their 1955 split-level in Bethesda in January 2020. It seemed like the perfect time for a home makeover to reflect their new grown-up lifestyle. But just as the flooring was being installed, both of their sons’ colleges closed for COVID. The couple had booked a two-week stay for mid-March at a downtown Bethesda hotel, and the identical twins, then 20, had to tag along. “We moved into the hotel on a Sunday, then all the restaurants closed on that Monday, and then the hotel [closed] on Thursday,” Jen says. “We had to move into another hotel and spent the whole next week eating takeout from our hotel room with the kids taking classes on Zoom.” At the second hotel, they managed to get a two-bedroom suite instead of the single room they’d crammed into at the first property.

When they moved back to their house, the contractor added a plastic barrier between the workers and the family, and most of the house was off-limits for months. They were confined to a few rooms for sleeping, working and studying, and they all shared one bathroom. “The bathroom we could use changed every week, depending on what the contractors were working on,” Jen says. The family got up every day at 6 a.m., ate a quick breakfast, took turns showering, and scattered to their work corners to give the contractors run of the house.

Alec Powers with identical twin sons Sam (left) and Max. Courtesy photo

An intellectual property attorney with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Alec had worked from home for years. Before the pandemic, his workday began after he dropped his wife at the Metro for her daily commute to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. With Jen at home, the boys juggling classes, the internet constantly glitching, and the renovation, things got stressful. “All of a sudden, my office space became everybody’s space,” Alec says.

For the boys, the new living arrangement gave them time to get to know each other as adults. “In high school, he was doing his own thing and I was doing mine,” says Sam, a theater and business administration major at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. While they were stuck at home, he and his brother, Max, would walk around the neighborhood every day to talk and get fresh air. Jen says she’d get texts from friends who were impressed seeing the boys outside while their own grown kids were still asleep. “I was like, ‘Don’t be impressed. They have no place to go—our house is literally torn upside down,’ ” she says.

Today, their sons are back at school and the couple has the newly renovated house to themselves. The second-time-around empty nesters love sitting together in front of the new gas fireplace in their living room and cooking in their new kitchen. They’re still adjusting to grocery shopping for two instead of four. For months, Jen says, “we were throwing out a lot of produce.” But the pandemic brought the family closer. Before, all she’d get from her kids was a periodic “proof of life”—usually a quick phone call or a text. Now they Zoom every weekend. These days, Jen says, “we can decide at 7 o’clock what we want to have for dinner, and we’re not finding single socks on the floor of the laundry room—or at least not as often.”

Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news, and as the associate producer of an Emmy award-winning documentary. She lives in Potomac.