This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
I spent most of my adult life away from my family, visiting only for the holidays, which is uncommon in Italy. For 13 years, staying at my parents’ felt like taking an emotional leap into the past. My relationship with them, fraught with conflict, froze when I left home at 19.
But in June of 2020, after spending lockdown in my small flat in Milan, I spontaneously decided to stay and work from my parents’ home for a while. Surprisingly, the physical proximity actually helped us.
It was as if lockdown had sped up a long-desired process of reconciliation. I credit this success partially to the fact that I’m now “settled” – I’m in my thirties and I’ve recently moved in with my boyfriend. But other people in different circumstances have also seen a change to the relationship with their parents during the pandemic.
“Before I left my parents' house, everyday life had become very toxic,” said Stefano Santangelo, 27, from Milan. Two years ago, he moved into his own place, not far from his parents’ home. He said moving out improved their relationship, but they would often rehash old arguments when he’d visit for Sunday lunch. “But since the pandemic, I’ve felt protective towards my parents for the first time,” he said. Santangelo’s parents are both in their seventies, so they are more at risk of a serious COVID-19 infection. “During the first lockdown, I used to bring them groceries so they wouldn’t have to leave the house,” he said. “When I found out they were sneaking out, I actually felt like I was the dad.”
He now involves his parents more in his daily life. “I often go on walks with my mum, and if I’m running errands I’ll ask my dad to come with me,” he said. “I went through a difficult time last summer and they were the only people I could stand to be with. We even had fun on New Year’s Eve."
Francesca Pia Iannamico, 23, grew up with her dad in a small town in the Abruzzo region. Her parents split up when she was young and her mum moved to a different city. “My father and I have always been similar, but during lockdown we developed an actual affinity for each other,” she said. They’d watch TV together and talk a lot. “We became confidants. With my mother, on the contrary – we’ve seen less of each other,” she said.
Ludovica De Santis, 30, from Rome, also decided to stay and work from her parents’ place after living abroad for years. “I was positively surprised by my parents’ ironic and irreverent attitude towards the pandemic,” she said. When their neighbours tested positive after spending Christmas with them, De Santis said her parents were incredibly chill about it. “Paradoxically, I was the one who worried,” she said. The whole family had to get an emergency swab, but tested negative.
"It surprised me in some ways, but I think they found the strength to laugh about the situation because I was there,” De Santis said. “Thanks to their easygoing attitude, we ended up actually having a good time.” She’s happy their cohabitation went so smoothly, but thinks things would have been different under less challenging circumstances.
Roberto Callina, a psychologist and psychotherapist based in Milan, confirmed that the pandemic seems to have brought many families closer together. “It was an opportunity to rediscover a familial closeness that many had lost,” he said over the phone. “One of the main reasons is that this pandemic has put us in touch with ourselves. In our everyday life, we are often wrapped up in trivial things – not necessarily in a negative way, but being confined to the walls of our homes pushed us to mend broken bonds."
In addition, thinking of our loved ones as potentially vulnerable to the virus made many people feel a sense of responsibility towards them. “It's an innate mechanism, but we don’t see it as long as our parents are healthy,” Callina said. "When you become aware of your parents’ fragility, the roles inside your family are reversed. It’s a step towards adulthood.” Of course, he stresses this only applies to adults – when kids are still in the developmental age, feeling responsible for the adults in their life can be harmful.
Familial conflict is not always unhealthy, Callina explained. For instance, it’s a key developmental step in the lives of teenagers and young adults. “But at 30, a healthy relationship with your parents should be of the adult-adult type,” he said. This type of dynamic can also exist with a few sore points. “But if you continue to be in strong conflict, the relationship can go back to the dynamics developed in older times, almost always in childhood.”
In any case, reconciliation often becomes easier as time passes. But not everyone has grown closer with their family in the past year – and that’s OK, too. For instance, many people decided not to go home for the holidays, for fear of infecting their parents, while others have used this as an excuse not to spend time with family, guilt-free.
Callina said feeling relieved about not seeing your family can also be valid and mature. “Of course, if you feel better, it means you’ve made a choice in line with your needs,” he said. “Reconciliation is not necessary, especially if the pre-conditions for it haven’t been met yet.”
“The important thing is to be confident in your decisions and not to lie to yourself,” Callina added. “That’s also part of growing up."