Moms, Quit Worrying About Your Grown-Ass Sons Finding Love

Mothers are fretting that their adult sons aren’t married yet. But the kids are alright.

Take my son. Please.  / Illustration by Beth Walrond

I have a son I love dearly. Jake is tall, athletic, a college grad, great sense of humor, good dancer (really!), making tons of money at a job he likes, living on his own. He’s also 30 years old, and in those 30 years, he’s brought exactly one girl home to meet me and his father, and she didn’t last long.

I’m not alone.

We find each other, we worried moms of men, seemingly everywhere, sharing our tales of offspring woe in doctors’ waiting rooms, in the dentist’s chair, in grocery-store lines, at lunch with old friends. We probe a little, gently: How is Thomas doing? Any dates for Kenny lately? Is Damien seeing anyone? We commiserate: He spends all his time online. …

I want for Jake what any parent wants for a child: a happy future. One that’s got, you know, what I’ve got: a loving partner, a house, kids and grandkids of my own. And as the birthdays tick steadily onward, I grow increasingly frantic about his prospects. Shouldn’t he be settled down by now?

Uh, no. So says Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University who just happens to have a new book out, You and Your Adult Child: How to Grow Together in Challenging Times, that addresses this very question. Steinberg’s message to me — and to all the other anxious moms out there — is to chill the hell out. He tells the story of recording the audio version of his book with the help of two 20-somethings, an engineer and a producer, each of whom said to him separately, “I’ve got to get a copy of this for my parents. They don’t understand me at all.” He’s since heard the same thing from other young people: “They really wish their parents would read it,” Steinberg says. “Neither generation gets what the other is going through.”

I and my fellow moms see our sons wallowing in a world of loneliness and isolation, courtesy of three years of COVID, tech jobs worked from home, those discouraging dating apps, online shopping, the pernicious pull of Netflix and Disney+ and all their kin. The ways we met our mates back in the day — after-work drinks at bars, random elevator encounters, spontaneous pickup lines at the movies or Home Depot — are gone with the wind. In their place? Alienating apps rife with trickery — deepfakes, AI, off-putting names like Tinder and Grindr and Hinge. Again, Steinberg says: Chill. For the young, that’s their natural environment. “Your son knows more than you do about meeting people these days,” he assures me.

Yes, it’s true the pandemic has reduced social contact. Yes, it’s also true that parents worry their kids “aren’t doing the things we expect them to,” Steinberg says. They’re not in relationships; many still live with us instead of in their own households. But that’s because their generation is mired in financial insufficiency. He ticks the factors off: Student debt — what was once a four-year college degree now usually takes six years or more to complete. And you need even more ongoing education to get and hold a good job today. “Housing costs have risen more than five times as fast as salaries,” he points out. “In popular urban areas, it’s really hard to afford rent, much less to buy a house.” America is the land of the hardy pioneer and has always fetishized independence. Yet all the milestones we once considered markers of maturity — a house, marriage, kids — keep getting pushed further and further back.

But! But! Jake just seems to be treading water, I say. He isn’t even dating, so far as I know. He told his sister once that dating apps remind him of applying for jobs when he got out of college, when he sent out hundreds and hundreds of résumés and never heard anything back. I just don’t see him progressing. What we parents view as progress, Steinberg explains, was easier when people found mates early in life: “Nobody marries their high-school sweetheart anymore. And the data shows only about 25 percent of couples now meet in college.” The average age at which young people meet their spouses today is a geriatric 27.

Steinberg admits it was unsettling to teach classes via Zoom during the pandemic and see his grad students perched on their childhood beds, surrounded by their “stuffies.” But with their social lives curtailed and so many of them still stuck under their parents’ roofs, our sons could do with a bit more compassion. “I get involved in a lot of debates about social media leading to depression,” the professor notes. “But if you look at our world, the list of things to be depressed about is so long. Young people are concerned about climate change, about political divisions, the economy, whether the pandemic will be with us forever. This is a really hard time for them.”

Is there anything I can do, I ask, to help my kid get happily hitched? “Probably not,” Steinberg says, and laughs. I laugh, too, ruefully. His book does note that if I know a nice young lady, it wouldn’t hurt to introduce them. Of course, I’m working from home just like Jake, which has severely diminished the pool of young ladies in my life.

And anyway, Jake and I don’t talk about any of this — ever. Most of the other moms of men I commiserate with say the same thing. We can talk with our daughters about anything under the sun — bowel movements, Real Housewives, recipes for chicken parmigiana. It’s different, somehow, with sons, and I can’t quite pin down why. Is it because we grew up in an era that taught us men were untrustworthy and only out for one thing? That “real men” don’t talk about their feelings? Or do we fear these borderlines we don’t dare cross are the only things that allow our boys and us to co-exist?

Both the professor and his book offer some consolation. “In Jake’s social class, at his age, being unmarried is very common,” Steinberg stresses. “The chances of him meeting someone and getting married are still very good. It just occurs later in life.” What I should be asking myself, he suggests, is this: Is he happy? “Make sure you distinguish between what you feel and what he feels.” At least Jake’s a guy, he points out, and doesn’t have a ticking biological clock.

He mentions a recent New York Times article in which writer Jessica Grose described the dispiriting state of being a millennial in the midst of a midlife crisis. “It isn’t like it was in prior generations,” he says gently. “We’ve been talking for a long time about how millennials’ lives aren’t going to be as nice or comfortable as their parents’ lives were. And yet they grew up thinking they would be. That’s hard.”

His final caution: “Don’t judge your child’s timetable against your own path.”

Okay then, Dr. Steinberg. I’ll do my best. But if anybody out there happens to know a nice girl …

>> Click here to return to How Philly Dates Now

Published as “Take My Son. Please.” in the June 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.