Parenthood has always been a lifelong commitment. "Retired" is not a word that describes maternal and paternal roles.
Even so, for increasing numbers of parents, the day-in, day-out connection to grown children is lasting longer than they expected. Nearly 19 million adults between the ages of 18 and 34 still live at home, the US Census reports - a 48 percent increase since 1970. That includes nearly 11 million sons and almost 8 million daughters.
No wonder Hollywood is seizing on youthful nesters as a topic ripe for laughs. A new movie, "Failure to Launch," features a 35-year-old boat broker named Tripp. Although he can afford to drive a Porsche, he loves the service-with-a-smile he gets by living with his parents. Why move when Mom serves bountiful breakfasts, packs lunches, and does laundry?
This month, FOX TV has also launched a sitcom on the subject, called "Free Ride." Nate, a recent college grad, has moved from California back to his small hometown in Missouri to take up residence with his parents while he struggles to find direction in his life.
But the laugh tracks mask the serious side of the subject. For every slacker like Tripp and Nate mooching off parents, there are many more returning offspring struggling to get a toehold on the future. Ironically, the dramatic run-up in real estate prices that enables parents to brag about the skyrocketing value of their homes also prevents some of their children from being able to afford a place of their own.
In another sign of delayed independence, New Jersey has just passed a law allowing unmarried adult children to be covered under their parents' health insurance until they're 30. They must live in state and have no children. Six states - Illinois, New Mexico, Colorado, South Dakota, Utah, and Texas - now extend coverage to offspring in their mid-20s.
In Joanna Trollope's new novel, "Second Honeymoon," a couple's 20-something daughter and son return home to sort out their lives. Ms. Trollope understands the ambivalence of parents who want their children to be self-sufficient but who also enjoy their company. As the mother says after one son leaves, "I want him back to make me laugh and infuriate me and make me feel necessary."
Not all parents share her feelings. As these artful lodgers and their generous-spirited parents share space, many families must negotiate rules to avoid petty annoyances - dishes in the sink, laundry in the dryer, cars in the driveway. At the same time, their generally peaceful co-existence reflects a growing affection between generations. As one indicator, trend-watchers at Hallmark find that friendship between parents and children - especially between mothers and daughters - is becoming a prevalent theme in greeting cards, with messages such as "To my mother, my best friend."
When I was in my mid-20s, I moved back in with my parents for a year while my husband was in Vietnam. By day, I wrote TV commercials. Evenings and weekends, we shared meals, conversation, and occasional activities. I still look back on that time as special for all of us.
Even a KFC commercial is trading on the boomerang theme. When a daughter boasts about the low cost of a takeout dinner, her mother cheerfully replies, "If you're saving so much money, how come you haven't moved out yet?"
Someday all these nesters will move out, of course. Perhaps several decades from now, Hollywood producers will find new fodder for laughs as they explore what could be the next phase of family relationships. Call it "payback time" - a chance for offspring to return their parents' hospitality. It's the moment when Mom and Dad, by then long retired and shocked at the high cost of assisted living, will show up at Junior's door, suitcases in hand, and say, "Surprise! We need a place to live."
In the meantime, will the last adult child to leave the nest please turn out the lights, or at least pay the electric bill?