IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

The ups and downs of spending coronavirus quarantine with your parents

Americans in their 20s and 30s are navigating a new normal of cohabitation with her parents during quarantine.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

After spending 12 years in New York living on her own, Lindsey Washington thought quarantining with her parents for a few weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic would be a great idea.

The 30-year-old Washington normally only gets to squeeze in visits for holidays and long weekends, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to spend time at her parents’ home in the Orlando, Florida, area.

“I originally thought we were just going to be down here for two weeks,” Washington said. “I packed my bags, bought a one-way flight because they were so cheap. I was like, 'this is great. I'll get to spend time with my family.”

Washington, a self-described homebody, said she enjoyed the first month of quarantine with her parents — staying inside, sleeping in, eating good food and saving money — but as the first month rolled into the second, she started to feel like she was “on a hamster wheel” and longed for “normal” life.

Washington, like some other Americans in their 20s and 30s, has started to navigate a new normal of cohabitation with her parents during quarantine. Washington and her parents — mom Theodra and dad Terry, both 57 — have fallen into a new routine while learning more about each other as adults in broad ways and through smaller daily habits.

“My mom has shamed me for wearing the same pajama bottoms two days in a row,” Washington said. “When I make a plate of food, she's like, ‘You need some vegetables on that.’ I'm like, ‘I have been surviving on my own for many years — I'm good.’”

Despite these “little things,” Washington said that a lot of good has come out of their shared living experience.

“It's not even the house I grew up in, but I used to always feel like a visitor when I came home,” Washington said. “And now I actually feel like it's my home.”

Beth Smith, 38, sold her Cincinnati house in late March, around the time a stay-at-home order was issued in Ohio. She has been quarantining for the past month with her parents in Cincinnati before she moves into her new condo.

To keep her friends comically informed of her time with her parents, she posts updates on Twitter about their daily activities and gives each day a starred rating, from 1 to 5.

However, her mom, Peggy, found out she was doing this and decided to set up a Twitter account to give similar updates about life with her daughter.

“I thought that it would be funny to respond to Beth’s tweets, like, you know, there's two sides to the story,” Peggy Smith said.

‘Nobody is the same person that they were when you left'

There are also two sides to the cohabitation experience. Harvard University psychology professor Jill Hooley said it is a challenge for parents who have adjusted to life at home without children as well as the young adults who are not living in their own, independent spaces for the time being.

“It requires profound accommodation on everybody's part,” Hooley said. “Because nobody is the same person that they were when you left.”

Hooley said this situation is difficult for several reasons, including feelings of sadness and some grief for a loss of “social contact with friends, loss of routine, loss of expected plans,” as well as anxiety from an array of different factors.

“This is an anxious time: financial anxiety, health anxiety, just anxiety generally about the future,” Hooley said. “So anybody who isn't feeling some degree of anxiety probably isn't paying a whole lot of attention.”

She also noted the independence and agency that young people have now is limited, which could cause anxiety, especially as they are looking to start their careers.

“One of the things that helps us psychologically is to have a sense of control in our lives. Even if it's just a perception that we have a sense of control, that's really important for our well-being,” Hooley said.

New expectations

Theodra Washington, Lindsey’s mother, said that after her daughter quarantined following her return home, they resumed doing all of their normal holiday routines like staying up late to watch movies and ordering takeout.

“Once we realized it's going be for the long haul, we did kind of slow down on those fun things because the fun things were like, ‘Oh, she's still here,’ so we can't stay at this level any longer,” she said. “Now, we have to adjust to reality.”

Part of this new reality included Theodra having a conversation with her daughter about helping out around the house more: asking her to clean up and help with cooking meals for the entire family from time to time.

“Her being here for this length of time, you know, I can't kick into mom mode in the sense where I'm taking care of her that way,” Theodra Washington said.

Peggy Smith also said that when she thought about her daughter, Beth, being home for a longer period of time, she considered having a conversation with her about how household logistics like laundry, cooking food for three instead of two and sharing a shower were going to work.

“But when it happened, it happened so fast that we never really sat down and talked about those things,” Peggy Smith said. “When she came in, it was a very easy routine.”

Christina Ribbens, 22, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan but has been quarantining with her family in Blacksburg Virginia. She said that she’s thankful that they have good relationships, a house with a yard and that they are able to share normal responsibilities that she would have had to do herself while living alone.

“The first few weeks just felt sort of like an extended spring break,” Ribbens said. “You know, a few less responsibilities because we're all sharing a home. I don’t have to go out and buy groceries by myself every time. Little things like that were easier.”

Personal space

Other expectations have included establishing personal space and creating work-from-home environments. For Lindsey Washington, taking calls in her bedroom or outside is her way of establishing boundaries, a situation that isn’t without hiccups.

“I don't know what it is. It's like, as soon as I get on the phone, my parents have like a sixth sense, and if I'm away for more than 45 minutes, they'll literally knock on my door and peek their heads in," Washington said. "I'm like, 'can I get two seconds?'"

Washington said she’ll walk to the mailbox or find a place to sit -- from the porch and backyard or even her parents' room, "because that’s the last place they’ll suspect that I’m hiding.”

Manny Walton, 24, lives in San Francisco and is currently quarantining with his parents in Union City, California. Taking drives helps him unwind.

“My sister and I are really good at just going on a drive whenever we need just, like, a change of scenery,” Walton said. “Drive up to Hayward or Oakland and literally just drive back down without getting out of the car.”

Anne Michal Carter, 22, is an intern for a campus ministry in Starkville, Mississippi and is quarantining with her husband Grant, 24, and his parents in College Station, Texas.

A large part of her job is talking to students about their personal and spiritual lives, which she said is “not something that you just want to be sitting around the dining room table chatting with everyone else in the house in and out listening.”

Carter said that their solution for finding privacy for these conversations has been going on walks around the neighborhood while she talks to students.

My kids are adults

Notably, this time has been a chance for parents to learn who their children are as adults: watching them in their corporate roles as they work from home, hearing them on the occasional video call with friends and seeing them tackle grown-up responsibilities.

Peggy Smith said watching her daughter work from home has given her a better understanding of Beth’s job at a behavioral health agency. “So that really raised up my impression of her work and made me understand a lot more of the stress that she is under and what she undergoes every single day,” she said.

Theodra Washington said she’s proud to see that her daughter is still the “go-getter” that she was at 4 years old. The mother has watched Lindsey decide on a new career path and apply to graduate schools after she was laid off from her job as a customer experience manager at Compass. She’s been accepted to four of the six programs to which she applied.

“I realized that this whole crisis has really taught me what is disposable and what's not disposable,” Lindsey Washington said. “And I think, with that being said, I want to go back to grad school and pursue my master's in social work, so that I can become a therapist or a psychotherapist.”

Kathy Walton, Manny Walton’s mother, said she has enjoyed learning more about who her children are as adults.

“I think watching both of them now as adults — their friends and, you know, the things that they value — it really does give me hope, as an elder, that the world's going to be OK,” Kathy Walton said. “It's going to be different, but I'm proud of the issues that they find important to themselves — to them, justice. Both of them are really kind people, and I get to see that in action now, and I’m just really proud of both of them.”

A not-so-empty nest

Several of these sets of parents have already adjusted to life as “empty nesters.” Beth Smith’s parents, Peggy and Glenn, have not lived with their children in over a decade. Lindsey Washington’s parents, Theodra and Terry, have not lived with either of their children full time in nearly eight years.

Life for them looks different now — more simple, in ways — as they have formed new routines for just two people. They cook for two people. The Washingtons align their work travel schedules with just the two of them in mind. The Smiths watch their evening television shows together.

Bringing now-adult children back into what has long been a two-person household has given them all a chance to learn who they are all over again.

“I'm just realizing that your parents are also people who had lives long before, you know, you as a child showed up,” Manny Walton said. “And so, kind of just seeing how they even react to being locked in the house, it's like, 'OK, parents aren't always those people you thought had it together. They can also still struggle.'”

Manny Walton, a Facebook client solutions manager, said his time quarantining with his family has given him deeper appreciation for the more mundane moments of family life.

“Prior to this moment, I would only really come home if it was someone's birthday or someone's anniversary, but now that I'm actually in the house, I just think there's a lot more that I might have been missing.”