Parents of disabled children all express the same concern, hope, fond wish: “I hope, someday, my child can be independent with a home, a family and a life of their own.”
On the flip side of the coin are parents who forbid their adult children from growing up and launching as adults in their own right to enjoy a home, a family and a life of their own. Deeply ashamed adult children who may be mis-classified as a “Failure to Launch“…a “Deadbeat”…a “Basement Dweller”…when they’re actually forbidden from launching.
I know. I was there. And it hurt me more than three decades of cult abuse and narcissistic abuse…put together!
At the age of forty, I should be looking back with satisfaction and confidence on, oh, fifteen to twenty years of responsible adulthood and independence. Instead, I’m looking back on just nine years (but what busy years they were!)
The thirteen years from age 18-31 of being held against my will formed a scar in my brain that others, like myself, probably feel but find it hard, or shameful, to express. I want to be the voice for all of you who were also forbidden from launching normally into independent adulthood by parents who were cult-like, needy, selfish, emotionally incestuous, paranoid or all-of-the-above!
Maybe, finally, I can put this pain to rest for myself as well as for you.
I doubt that anyone is raised with the expectation of living their whole life in the bedroom where their crib once stood. It’s normal and natural to just assume that the whole point of growing up is to, well, Grow Up. After all, when you’re being immature and irresponsible as a kid, what do your parents yell? “Grow up!!!” Mine sure did.
Conversely, I wasn’t told that I wasn’t going to be allowed to Grow Up. In fact, quite the opposite. My parents were vocal and thorough about teaching me all the skills I’d need for adulthood. From electronics to changing a tire, from finances to infant care, there wasn’t one practical adult skill they forgot to teach. Naturally, I just assumed that Growing Up was the object, the goal, my definite future. Ah, silly me!
Now that I look back on it, moving out was never actually mentioned and the Age of Emancipation, well, I didn’t even know it existed until a few years ago. My twenty-first birthday was a non-event as, à la narcissism, “age is just a number.” I was almost twenty before I discovered that young people move out. Who knew!?!
Instead of being lovingly kicked out of the nest so I could find my wings, my parents made it clear that adulthood was in their gift. They would only dole it out if I earned it. My classmates apparently had earned it as they went off to college and met their future spouses while my adulthood was still on ice, being held in reserve. It was clear that I had failed to make the grade. I had failed to attain Adulthood despite my parents best efforts. Oh the shame!
When I mentioned the idea of moving out, Mom was glib with reasons why I shouldn’t and couldn’t. She said she’d thought about moving out as a young, single woman…but would’ve missed her Mommy’s love too much. She said I should feel grown up without moving out. But mostly she relied on that ol’ flippant standby, “You can’t afford it” regardless of how many promotions and raises I received at my “job” (never my “career”). Foolishly, I believed her.
But Dad took a different tack. He said it was too dangerous. I wasn’t allowed to move out without first snagging a husband for my protection (or was it to control me?).
Lip service was given to my rapidly ticking Biological Clock…but nothing more. As Mother once said, “I’m glad you’re not married. Pregnancy is so dangerous.”
Occasionally, no, make that constantly, I thought about making a run for it. But what if I lost my job? What if…what if…what if… Mom had made it very clear that there would be no parachute offered…no boomeranging…I swam or sank alone. Once I was out…I was out. I dreamed of “running away” …but I knew they’d have the police drag me back. I fantasized about moving out, but I feared they wouldn’t help me move my furniture nor allow anyone else to help me move. I was terrified of ending up homeless and on the street if I defied them and went against their wishes. Launching is scary enough when you have a support system. Imagine defying God and the only people who love you!?!
They had it so nice. I paid rent in cash to them, did all their shopping, took time off work to shuttle them to doctor and even dentist appointments, helped with all their household projects and emergencies and was their only friend. I knew not to make waves after getting in trouble for Googling “Smother Mother” when I was 23.
It was the perfect win-win for them and only them. I comfort ate to cope.
Whenever anyone asked about my living situation, I used my Dad’s cancer as the reason I still lived at home. No one blinked an eye.
Not a Man, Not a Woman
Another rarely mentioned facet of postponed adulthood is the inability to feel that you’ve fully transitioned into the adult version of your gender. Only recently have I begun to feel like a Woman in my own right.
Mom was always The Woman. I was just…female.
In my article How Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers Struggle to Become Adult Women In Their Own Right (Part 1 and 2) I wrote this:
No matter how experienced, how successful, how old, how wrinkled you become, she is The Woman. Mother Superior. She will never look you in the eye, grasp your hand and acknowledge you as an equal nor as an adult nor as an Equal Adult Woman.
My grandmother never acknowledged my mother as her equal. My mother never acknowledged me as her equal. They both demanded the role of superior female dominating the inferior female and succeeded….
But take motherhood out of the equation. View the quagmire in which you’re mired as just two unrelated women. When you take the Cult of Motherhood out of scenario, woman-on-woman abuse will make your stomach churn.
You wouldn’t let a female friend treat you that way. You wouldn’t tolerate it from a lesbian partner. So why are we letting our mothers violate us like this!?!
But we did allow it because we were so downtrodden, so brainwashed, so discouraged.
And we loved our needy mothers so very much.
Some say that illness or the loss of a loved one are the greatest griefs that can befall a person. I often think that it’s actually Discouragement. The loss of all hope.
“Deadbeat” adult children forbidden from thriving are bone-deep discouraged.
Day after day you wake in your childhood bedroom and go to work, night after night you leave work and return to your childhood bedroom. Your dreams are on hold. Your hopes dashed. Your spirits deeply discouraged.
As year follows year, it eats at your soul, your self-esteem. As you watch your old classmates announcing their engagements, their marriages, the birth of their children, moves to a new house, you sink lower and lower in your own estimation.
You begin to wonder if it truly is your destiny or perhaps God’s Will that you remain in the Purgatory of not-quite-a-child-but-definitely-not-an-adult for your entire life. If you were born to take care of your parents. If caregiving and elder care is your life’s mission. If “rebelling” by insisting on freedom would actually be a sin and not honoring your parents.
As my twenties segued without fanfair into my thirties and nothing ever changed, I suddenly realized, “Oh my goodness, it doesn’t matter how old I get. I may be forty-four or eight-four and they will never let me go. I’ll be post-menopausal, wrinkled and arthritic, still living in this same room, sleeping in this same bed. I will live and I will die here. There is no hope.”
But your parent(s) are perfectly happy with the arrangement while all the sweetness and joys of life pass you by.
You feel like such a “failure.” So you compensate.
I compensated for never feeling like an adult by over-working. “Real adults must work terribly hard,” I thought, ” so I will work terribly hard too to prove to myself that ‘there’s nothing wrong with me’.”
There was no task I wouldn’t shoulder. No household calamity I didn’t help fix. No project at the office I wouldn’t dive into. I was perpetually tired, unable to fall asleep and so exhausted that some days that I could barely push the grocery cart…undiagnosed hypothyroidism certainly didn’t help.
But compensation gave me a faux sense of being worthy.
To this day, I’ll never quite understand why I was suddenly allowed to move out in 2011. Maybe my deep sadness and losing my will to live in 2011 made me more trouble than I was worth. Maybe my new interest in cooking made me underfoot in the kitchen. I bless whatever it was that made Dad say, “Well, maybe it’s time…”
But oh! the drama! Oh, the number of times they waffled and kinda-sorta reneged! But oh frabjous day! I finally had a home of my own, a life of my own, a puppy of my own…and a year later, Mr. Right suddenly showed up too with a ready-made family in tow.
Suddenly, I wasn’t merely a female. I was a wife, a step-mother, a homeowner, A Woman. That’s when all the discouragement, the low self-esteem and the compensation were debunked. There wasn’t…and had never been…anything wrong with me. I hadn’t failed to launch. I’d been held against my will, used, exploited, brainwashed, shamed and infantilized when every fiber of my being was actually mature and adult.
They, on the other hand, were needy, broken people and I, daft sod, had facilitated their weakness by doing way too much for them.
I was never the problem. They were.
Debunking bad beliefs is one thing. Erasing that wound from your brain is quite another. It’s like a path you’ve trudged so many times that, like the Oregon Trail, it’s carved deeply into the soil of your mind.
One of my biggest fears after moving out was that my parents could renege, cancel my Adult Card and force me to move back in with them. You see, they were big on rescuing. If they thought, projected or imagined that I was setting one toenail out of line, they’d swoop in to “rescue” me. As a kid, being “rescued” meant being ordered to utterly ignore my best friends at school. As an adult, it meant being forced to dump guys and quit jobs. It doesn’t have to happen more than once or twice to make you freakin’ paranoid…and have nightmares.
So you may be sure that when I was finally allowed to move out, I was fastidious to live impeccably. To be above reproof. I was terrified that if I made one false step, I’d lose my Adult Card, have to sell my townhome and live with them again.
Yes! I realize just how foolish and paranoid that sounds, but oh! they kept a sharp eye on me! There were always searching examinations of my face and those infantilizing questions. “Are you sleeping enough?” “Are you eating enough?” And, my favorite one, “Why do you always wear 3/4 length sleeves? Is there something wrong with your arms?” (True Story. Actually, by wearing 3/4 sleeves, I could wear the same wardrobe Summer and Winter to save $$$.)
Thanks to Michael, I now know about the Age of Emancipation and that no one can “steal my Adult Card”!
But what surprised me the most about living alone is that it required much less work and money than expected. I’d been wildly over-compensating and over-working in my twenties and forced to live against my circadian rhythms instead of with them. How shocking to realize my monthly mortgage was almost exactly the same amount I had paid to them in monthly rent. How nice to put my feet up after a long day at the office and have the energy for cooking, cleaning, my puppies…and hobbies as well.
The only semi-positive thing about extended childhood is that your parents give you a (false) sense of security. They buffer you, somewhat, against the terrifying insecurity of independent life with all its rawness. But it’s a piecrust security. Not real. Easily shattered
The shock of realizing just how raw and terrifying life is with absolutely no guarantees is harder the older you are when you have that realization. Yes, life is an enjoyable journey but one that culminates, inexorably, in death. Being sheltered from the harsh facts of life was not a blessing. The shock of Real Life triggered the old guilt, the old, “When things go wrong, is it a divine punishment for becoming independent against my parents’ wishes? Was Mom right all along? Is God punishing me for stepping outside of His Will???”
Oh, I know that’s stinkin’ thinkin’ but it’s hard not to trudge that old, well-worn path from time to time. I still over-compensate, over-organize, over-clean and am zealous to cross every “T” and dot every “I,” terrified of dropping just one ball in the great Juggle of Life. But I’m also rabidly independent and passionate about freedom. Very American, indeed.
Before you hang the “Failure to Launch” label on a “deadbeat” gamer holed up in his mother’s basement, hold up a moment! Are they actually the problem…or is there someone holding them back from adulthood?? They may want to grow up…but they’re silently taking the rap for their Smothering Mother or Doting Daddy.
Like me, they may be much too ashamed to tell anyone what’s really going on…if they even know. I swallowed the brainwashing hook-line-and-sinker and blamed myself for Failing to Launch. My shame was so profound, even my nearest and dearest didn’t know what was going on. No one asked any searching questions. No one offered to help me. Thanks a lot, Relatives.
Long after my escape when I finally told my story, it turns out there were people who could and would have helped me…but they simply didn’t know I needed help. I was too ashamed to tell anyone how I had failed to become an adult.
If you suspect that a young adulthood is being prevented from achieving independent adulthood, here’s some steps you can take to help them:
- Ask probing questions:
- Are you happy?
- What would you rather be doing than this?
- Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?
- What does your dream life look like?
- Is it your choice to live at home?
- Where would you rather live?
- Is there someone special in your life?
- Was there ever someone special? What happened to that relationship?
- Do you want to have children?
- Challenge unspoken beliefs:
- Is your current life your choice?
- Do you have the freedom to make your own choices without undue pressure and shame?
- Do you know about the Age of Emancipation?
- How much are you paying to live in a place you dislike?
- Are you enabling your parent to be needy and helpless?
- Is that truly loving?
- Offer Tangible Help
- If you want to move out, I’ll help you do the following:
- Cancel your parents’ Power of Attorney.
- Remove your parents’ name from your bank account.
- Find an apartment and/or a realtor.
- Select a house or apartment.
- Get insurance.
- Hire a moving truck / movers.
- Rent a U-Haul.
- Gather friends to help.
- Provide a buffer to calm your parents and/or call the police if they behave badly and try to physically prevent you from moving out with all your possessions.
- If you want to move out, I’ll help you do the following:
Most importantly, give the adult child backbone when they weaken and seem in danger of coming under their parents’ Mind Control again. They’ve basically been in a cult. Your job is to help them see the brainwashing and not give way to it again.
While the scars remain, the nightmare for me is over. I can hardly believe it!!! How I wish that all the men and women miserably living at home, especially those in cults like the Amish communities and Quiverful, would find their way to freedom. If only I could find a way to help but how do you reach those in utter isolation!?!
As I write this, I look around me at our beautiful little cottage with the sun dappling the chartreuse oak leaves outside. Husband ensconced in his chair. Puppies dreaming and twitching in their chair. Snuggles the Kitten snoozing in the dog crate and Cuddles the Kitten snoring squeakily under my ottoman. This happy family and this cozy home…all these blessings…none of it…would exist if my narcissists hadn’t inexplicably loosened their choke hold nine years ago. What an unthinkable thought.
There’s nothing quite like the first carton of eggs you buy just for yourself. Arranging your own kitchen your way. Keeping the house at a temperature that’s comfortable for you. Showering as often as you want. Sleeping and eating and following your own circadian rhythms without interruption or accusations or shame or being controlled. Glory Hallelujah!
Before we sling around terms like “Basement Dweller” or “Deadbeat” or “Mamma’s Boy” or..or…or…look a little deeper. That adult child may just need a little help not just to launch…but to fly!