Dear Margo: Five's a Crowd

My three grown sons won’t move out. Margo Howard’s advice

Five’s a Crowd

Dear Margo: I read the letter from the empty nesters who were happy on their own. My situation is exactly the opposite. I am not happy, and I am not alone. My three adult sons are all still living at home. The middle one is a college graduate and will be moving out in the near future, but the other two don’t seem able to fend for themselves. They both have mental health issues and do not work, and their constant need for money is draining our bank account. This situation is very frustrating for my husband and me. We would love to be empty nesters, but I don’t think it will happen anytime soon.

In addition, the letter I read mentioned the freedom he and his wife enjoy by having sex on the couch. That would never happen in my house because my husband and I haven’t had any physical contact for four years. When I try to talk to him, he shuts down the conversation. (He is early 60s, and I am late 50s.) I feel lonely, neglected and fearful about the future. How can I deal with all this? — Full Nest Mom

Dear Full: The three adult sons at home may be contributing to the lack of intimacy, but they are clearly two separate problems. Regarding the two young men with mental health issues, I would check around for group homes. I do believe that mentally challenged adults, at all levels, can work. I think this change would be therapeutic for them — and certainly for you. Until you get this worked out, I would tell them the bank is closed except for necessities.

As for your husband closing down the subject of the bedroom, you need to tell him you are in this difficult situation together, and that reclaiming your former intimacy would be tonic for you both. Do not accept his refusal to talk about it. Tell him whether it’s a physical problem or an emotional one, there is help, and you are insisting that he pursue the options. Tell him you are going to improve your life … one way or another. — Margo, definitively

Restless Girl Syndrome

Dear Margo: I am a 23-year-old female living in the Midwest. At first glance, it seems like everything is fine: great friends, wonderful boyfriend, a job that pays the bills and puts food on the table. But no matter how well it seems things are going, all I can think about is how much I want to jump on a bus and get out of here! It’s not my friends or my boyfriend; I am just so restless. I can’t afford to take multiple trips to satisfy my wanderlust, so if I left, it would have to be for good. I have family more than willing to help me leave, but I don’t really know where I would go. — Itchy for Change

Dear Itch: I would say you are an excitement junkie. This is usually something to be outgrown. If you had a city in mind where you’d always wanted to live, that would be one thing, but you say you don’t even know where you’d go. Perhaps you are dissatisfied with something about your life or the way things are going that you are unaware of. Because your family is willing to help you leave, I would instead ask for the get-away money and use it to see a therapist. If you don’t get a handle on this now, nothing will ever feel right. — Margo, reparatively

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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73 Responses so far.

  1. avatar David Bolton says:

    LW1: Too vague about the real important issues here (type of mental illness, functional abilities of the sons, etc) to make any kind of real assessment. About the only thing I can say is it’s unlikely you’re ever going to be empty nesters—so perhaps you should build a guest house or buy a trailer to have some physical space for you and your sons.

    LW2: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to move and experience the world—especially when you are young. See places and meet different people. The world is a huge place and it goes quite further than your own back yard. I’ve done it and continue to do it every 3-5 years. In fact, I wish I’d done it more when I was your age. Take your scattered thoughts, come up with a workable plan, and put it into action. Just make this RULE #1: do not move because you’re on the run from a problem—fix any problems you have first, so they don’t follow you.

  2. avatar Dan Bingham says:

    LW2- 23 is EXACTLY the time you should be wander-lusting! When I was 23 I moved to Taiwan for a year to teach English, and have never regretted the experience. You don’t know where you want to go? Do some research! Learn a language! Or just put up a map and throw a dart at it! If you don’t go now, then when?
    Where would you get the money? You can get a job in your new country (the market for English teachers exists just about everywhere). Or you can do what I did/do: not spend it on other things. Traveling is my big thing (still). I don’t gamble, I don’t keep up with fashion, I haven’t seen a first-run movie in years, I don’t go out to eat or party or drink. I save. And then I travel. It’s all a matter of what you want most.

    • avatar Lisa Cornell says:

      LW#2 I echo the comments of the reader above. I suggest the 23 year old check out the opportunities of teaching abroad. My son who is 25 was in exactly the same position three years ago, a fresh graduate with no career ambitions. He found a job teaching ESL in Korea and has been there ever since. Next year he is off to Japan and then he thinks he may go to Spain.
      He travels on his vacations. He is going to Beijing next week and he is planning his next vacation in Thailand. He has met so many fabulous people and his ex-pat friends come from all walks of life and all across the globe.

      • avatar Amy says:

        Lisa, there’s something you should know about those ESL programs: boys get treated way better. Almost every guy I’ve known that went to Japan to teach English wound up in a good school, in an amazing city like Osaka or Tokyo. But the girls were always sent to places like Sapporo to teach low-income classes of horribly rowdy kids. My point is she shouldn’t just leap into something like that without understanding the consequences, both good and bad.

        • avatar wendykh says:

          I’m a girl and I taught in Osaka and I had an absolute blast. I taught adults via video conferencing, made ridiculous money, and partied like a demon. It was fantastic. I wish I had stayed.

    • avatar D C says:

      What he said!

    • avatar A R says:

      Oh, gosh. Please don’t suggest “English teaching” as a way of traveling cheaply. As an ESL teacher, I can tell you that unless you know what you are doing, you’ve got NO business claiming to be able to instruct in English or getting paid for it. Really, it’s tantamount to linguistic malpractice. :) Mind, I’m not talking about you necessarily, Dan, as for all I know you may have been qualified; I’m speaking about those who think just because they can speak it, they can teach it.

      • avatar wendykh says:

        Oh hush. There’s plenty of work out there for college graduates to “teach” english by conversing with non-native speakers. They want this service and enjoy it.

        • avatar rachie205 says:

          Actually, I agree with AR. Had a friend who *tried* to teach English to kids in France, but was just not so good with children (or most people in general), made the kids cry, etc. Perhaps they should at least be given some training?

          • avatar Allison Grant says:

            Unfortunately, that’s par for the course in France. Probably not his fault. I taught in France for two years (still live here) with 5 year of elementary teaching under my belt. The kids were great, but in terms of teaching, not so much. No materials, no supplies, no training, no support, active sabotage from other teachers in the schools during my second year.

            A few thousand English teachers apply through TAPIF (Teaching Assistant Program in France) and come to spend a year teaching. With elementary, you’re in charge, so it’s not the best for anyone who hasn’t had previous teaching experience. But you can also do middle and high school, where you do conversation groups and mini-lessons rather than full-blown classes. There are a few articles about the program on my blog, if anyone wants to check it out.

        • avatar A R says:

          Hush, yourself. The quality of your logic is proof that you haven’t a clue what you are talking about. “‘Teach'” by conversing with non-natives.” Geez. Go take a TESOL course.

  3. avatar Katharine Gray says:

    LW#1:  I agree with David that the letter is too vague about the mental health *issues* of the two non-working sons and is glaringly silent on what treatment those sons are recieving for same.  I wouldn’t give up on getting them out on their own until I had explored treatment for those issues and group home options and I certainly would  be limiting the money allotted to them for more than food, shelter, and medical care.  If they are truly unable to work because of mental illness, they may qualify for social security disability which would add some funds to your household income or enable them to live independently.  I have a cousin with mental health issues who has been on SS for years and manages to keep his own household afloat without needing money from family members.  Admittedly, he lives in a very small rural community where the cost of living is not high and his dwelling is very modest…but then so those of the rest of his family.  As for the lack of intimacy, I think you need to force your husband to deal with this.  Maybe take a weekend away from the *kids*…not with sex in mind but with re-establishing your communication in mind…and raise the subject and potential solutions like a good physical and exploring whether your family situation or other factors are depressing your husband to the point that he has lost interest in sex.  I don’t think there is a magic bullet to solve either problem.

    As for LW#2, I am with those who say you are young and now is the time to wander if that is what you want to do but you need a plan and the first step is deciding where you want to go.  Expect it to be a life changing experience as most likely your boyfriend will move on in your absence and your friendships may be stretched (but not necessarily lost forever).  I would hesitate to take significant funds from your family to finance this adventure but as others have pointed out there are ways to make your own way in foreign countries and certainly in a different US city.   If you don’t want to turn your whole life upside down (and there is nothing wrong with that if it is what you want), then do what one commenter suggested and focus on saving money to finance short trips to satisfy your wanderlust. 

  4. avatar CatA says:

    Sorry, Margo, I thoroughly disagree with your advice to the second letter.  Your first sentence is a phenomenally broad generalization about the writer.  She identifies herself as a SINGLE 23-year-old from the Midwest, who has a nice life but a case of WANDERLUST and you’re accusing her of being “an excitement junkie”?  Then you proceed to instruct her as to how she can cure herself of this?  Really?  Talk about overkill.  For Pete’s sake, it is NORMAL for a single 23-year-old to be a little restless.  Would you say this to a 23-year-old single male?  No, of course not.  You’d likely tell him to follow his heart and sow his wild oats.  If LW2 were a MARRIED 23-year-old (male OR female) with a child or two, your this-too-shall-pass advice might be applicable.  However, given that young Dorothy would like to get out Kansas and live a little — and is in the perfect position to do this — here’s my advice:  LW2, you should give some serious thought about what you want to do and places you want to see.  Plan financially for at least a temporary change (and take advantage of a generous relative’s offer, but pay him/her back later, okay?).  But remember that you ARE  23 and SINGLE and it is important that you do these things NOW before you marry and have children, as your chances to do so later will be dwindle.  Do you want to see Paris from atop the Eiffel Tower?  Do you want to hike across New Zealand’s mountain ranges?  Allow yourself  the chance to do at least one wild-crazy thing before you settle down in Topeka — or in New York, or in Berlin, Germany, for that matter.   And Margo, a 23-year-old single person with Wanderlust does NOT need a therapist, okay?   Geejus… 

    • avatar htimsr40 says:

      Could not agree more. A single 23-year old with no discernible responsibilities who wants to travel and see the world is not only NOT in need of a therapist, but this may be a sign of mental health strength. The desire to travel and grow is a POSITIVE sign … one that shows an active mind, an active imagination, an active engagement with the world. She will be a stronger, better person for following her heart. Go. Go now.

    • avatar Messy ONE says:

      Sorry, I disagree. Read the letter again. Travel is not what the kid wants. So she has no destination, no plan, no job, no plans to look for a job and then go, no plans to return (not a big thing if she has a JOB), and nothing but a vague bored feeling.

      She sounds like a toddler who wants to join the circus. If she left now, she’d be back in six months only to find that her friends and boyfriend have moved an. She’d also be unemployed. All she’s doing is setting up a pattern of creating a social setting for herself, then flaking when she gets bored.

      I knew a woman like this once. She dumped two husbands by just leaving when they went to work – leaving them with the children she chose to have with them. Why? “I was so bored!”

      • avatar Donna Sampson says:

        Read it again. She says she has “a job that pays the bills and puts food on the table”, so she DOES have a job.

        • avatar A R says:

          I think she meant that she has no job to move TO. Like, no job that she can relocate FOR, no job calling her away, etc. I don’t think Messy was saying that she is currently unemployed. Otherwise the statement that when she returned she’d be out of the loop and unemployed wouldn’t make sense. Just my take.

          • avatar Koka Miri says:

            To add to this – I doubt she’d pick up and move without applying for jobs first. I mean, come on, people.

            So that would be real advice to the letter writer – follow your heart, but have a plan first and a destination.

        • avatar Koka Miri says:

          Exactly. She does not sound like a toddler. She has a job, a boyfriend and a stable life.
          What part of that sounds irresponsible?

          I don’t know what’s made our culture so accepting of the status quo, but she could be a big fish in a tiny bowl where she’s at.

          You say you knew a woman “like that” – you should probably stop thinking they’re the same person.

          • avatar Messy ONE says:

            The childish part is that she DOES have a life/job/boyfriend/friends and all she can think about is jumping on a bus and running away. She DOES sound exactly like a spoiled toddler who wants to join the circus and if she acts the way she sounds, then she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer now, is she?

            Maybe she’ll grow up one day, but that day is not today.

          • avatar rachie205 says:

            You think wanderlust is being a spoiled toddler? I’m 23 as well, feeling a bit restless myself. My fiance and I moved to Texas from Missouri four years ago so I could go to school for a degree in marine science, and now we’re planning a move to Florida in August.

            We travel a lot…in the last six years, we’ve been to Steamboat & Breckenridge, Colorado; Whistler, Canada; Park City, Utah; Key Largo & Key West, Florida; Cozumel, the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, and many random trips closer to home (Texas wine country, San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and when we lived in Missouri: KC and STL were high on the list of places we went). We’re also getting married in June and heading off for a two-week European trip: London, the English countryside, Paris and Munich.

            What’s so wrong with wanting to see the world? Just because you may be content with staying home and watching TV doesn’t mean everyone is. She may not have a plan, but that restless wandering itch to get out and go somewhere different isn’t a bad thing. Give her a break, maybe she hasn’t traveled much and doesn’t know exactly where she wants to go.

  5. avatar Donna Sampson says:

    LW2…How about finding a job that includes travel? Peace Corp, military, civilian support job, traveling nursing, airline stewardess, etc…there are lots of jobs that include traveling that can help to satisfy your wanderlust.

    • avatar David Bolton says:

      The flight attendant suggestion is spot on.

      • avatar Amy says:

        No, it isn’t. Flight attendants never get to leave their respective airports, it’s low-pay, high-stress work, with long hours and I reiterate, no real way to experience the joys of travel. What’s the point of going to France if you never even get to step off the damn airplane?

        • avatar David Bolton says:

          No it’s not. I know several and they love their jobs and get to travel all the time. Hello—travel benefit.

  6. avatar Davina Wolf says:

    LW2: This woman doesn’t need therapy–she needs to make a change. 

    It’s hard to know where you want to go when you’ve been in one place for a long time.  I wish I’d taken off for Alaska or Europe when I was her age instead of playing house. 

    This person is perfectly normal and does not need therapy. 

    Wake up, Margo.     

  7. avatar staili says:

    I thought “mentally challenged” usually refers to mental retardation, not mental illness.

    In any event, Margo may believe that “mentally challenged adults, at all levels, can work,” but believing something doesn’t make it so. There are many people for whom that is not true.

    Margo would have helped the LW more by suggesting that a determination of the sons’ functional status be made. If they are truly unable to work, as said previously, they may qualify for disability.

    • avatar Amy says:

      I think Margo just didn’t care about either of the letter writers. Mental health? Please. It’s probably ADD or Manic Depression or any of the myriad of things that are easily treatable yet are used as excuses by the current generation to never do anything with themselves. Time to kick their butts out; she’s done her job, time to be big boys and learn what the real world is like! The longer she enables them by handing over her wallet, the more damage she is doing to them in the long-run.

      • avatar fallinginplace says:

        Wow, Amy, that’s an awfully harsh assessment when you don’t know any more than the rest of us about the issues these kids are facing. Manic depression is easily treatable and an excuse not to do anything? Seriously? Sounds like someone needs a little life experience and a whole lotta compassion.

  8. avatar Karin Smith says:

    @LW2: as others have suggested, there are many jobs that give the opportunity for travel.
    However, if you don’t want to switch jobs, (and since you don’t have sufficient funds for multiple trips) there are many charitable organizations that do “service projects” in different places around the country and the world; these projects help people in the area by building schools/hospitals/houses, distributing aid, donating medical services, etc. These trips can vary in length from one to several weeks, thus making it easier to fit into your schedule than a long-term trip. Also, friends and family are often willing to donate money to help offset travel expenses for a trip that will help others.

    If this is something you’d be interested in, I’d suggest contacting different organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, and other places that specialize in medical, educational, or other community services and see what kind of travel opportunities are available with them.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Karin, my aunt is a nurse who goes on several of these medical charity trips every year, to different countries. Some things our Restless Girl should ask about, and know before signing up for one of these: My aunt does get some time to see some sights in some places, BUT she has to pay her own airfare and board, and for a visa if the country has a visa fee; often, the accommodations and food are far below western standards, so one must be prepared to put up with that or pack your own food; AND some of the places she goes have security problems and the medical team is pretty much locked down for the week or two that they are working, then it’s right back to the airport. Still interesting and satisfying if you are there to learn something and do some good, but it’s certainly not for “tourists!”

  9. avatar May Voirrey says:

    LW#2, When I was your age, I felt the same way and I was also living a “good” life. Part of the problem was that although I had a job that paid my rent and kept me fed, it was simply boring. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew I wasn’t emotionally satisfied by the life I had.

    I made a long list of things that appealed to me, from lifestyle to geography, and then prioritized to create a picture of what would be my “realistic ideal” at that time. I narrowed down a couple of places I thought might work for me, and did as much research about them as I could. I even subscribed to the Sunday newspaper (which you can now do online). After a few months, I was ready to go to a new place, sight unseen, and see what life had in store for me. I was already applying for jobs from a distance.

    As fate would have it, I got a job offer in New York, seemingly out of the blue, and I ended up moving there and having a completely different kind of adventure. I was fortunate in that my job also required me to travel quite a bit, and I was able to tack weekends onto my trips to new places.

    Around the same time, my cousin, who was about the same age, had just enough money to move to Hawaii. She stayed for three years and lived a somewhat Bohemian life during that time, but she never regretted taking that leap.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with you for feeling restless. You need to find the situation that feeds your soul and your curiosity. Be it moving abroad, joining the Peace Corps, or setting yourself up in a new place, just do your research first, make that list of things that you might not even realize you crave, and go for it. It only becomes a less likely possibility as you get older and more settled.