I heard the names you called me. Boomerang. Mooch. Freeloader. What you said about them wasn’t any better. Enabler. Helicopter. Coddler. In the much-discussed phenomenon of millennials living at home, I thought I would finally add a word to the conversation that is seldom mentioned. Tradition.
I lived at home until the night before my wedding. I had just turned 27 years old. I hope you weren’t eating when I said that. I’m not sure how to perform the Heimlich maneuver virtually. When you’re done coughing, I’ll continue.
That face you’re making right now is the same face that all of my friends made. How could I possibly live at home for as long as I did? I had a full-time career since graduating college. I had a boyfriend who finally proposed after five long years. I had a life. How could I do that?
That’s the wrong question in a lot of respects. There wasn’t really ever a question of whether or not I would live at home after college. There were only a few variables. If I landed a teaching gig in a city that didn’t make the commute practical. Or if I got married really young. Those were it.
While all my friends were asking, “How could you?”, a long lineage of familial freeloaders was asking, “How could you not?” My mom lived with my nana until she married my dad. Ditto for many of my cousins. And my ancestors.
In fact, when I realized the incredible privilege that was afforded to me by living at home, I also realized how easy it would have been for me to move out. Sure, I paid bills the entire time I lived at home, but I didn’t pay rent. My savings account climbed steadily to the point where I mentioned putting a down payment on a townhouse towards the end of my first year of work.
I will never forget that look of betrayal. Of course, my parents would have let me go, and they would have supported me just like they always have. But the logic never made sense to my mom. Why deviate from the script? And don’t even get me started on the guilt. The only thing my mom’s family has perfected more than serving saturated fats is to make your heart explode with guilt with a single look or utterance.
And the script we followed is well-preserved in many communities. There are economic factors to consider and there are jokes to be made, but nearly a third of all Italians live at home. Multigenerational living might be frowned upon in many circles, but it is a way of life in others. While I can’t argue that it’s better or worse than moving out at 18 and never looking back since I’ve only lived my life one way, I can tell you that living at home or returning home isn’t just about little birds who refuse to fly or a new generation of humans who cannot land jobs.
I would be lying if I said it was all daffodils and sunshine at home. I can be stubborn, and I learned it best from my mother. But given the storms we weathered (sorry, Mom!) when I was growing up, this was much simpler.
Friends often ask if I would do anything differently. The answer is no. Right after I contemplated purchasing a townhouse near my work, I was fired out of the blue for budgetary reasons. After being recalled, it happened again the following year. Had I gone through with my plan, I would have been shackled to a home in a city opposite where I later found work, and for what reason? The expectation of my peers. The coming-of-age narrative where people can’t foresee an ending in which someone returns home. The desire to prove myself beyond college in which I worked four jobs and graduated summa cum laude to the two people in my life who have never once needed an ounce of proof.
I suspect what some of my friends seem to fear the most is what I committed to in returning home. In addition to a heaping dose of privilege–the same privilege that I plan to extend to my child if he or she so chooses–I also affirmed an unspoken obligation to my parents now and when they age.
And it doesn’t always remain unspoken. Sometimes my dad tells me his only hope is to live long enough to be a burden on me. To which I reply that my only dream is to make enough money so I can send him to a home. We both say this in jest, and I know the reality. There’s a longstanding tradition in my family of young adults living at home, and there’s an equally time-honored tradition for those young adults to care for their parents when the day comes.
To other people, my path was a sheltered existence that will eventually mutate into a promise that cannot be unmade. My growth has been irreparably stunted. My bank account and my emotions have an unrepayable IOU attached to them.
And maybe that’s all true. But to me, this is simply a matter of what families do.
So Tell Me…Is multigenerational living a strange concept to you? A tradition? Or something in between?
Note: If you recall the fact that I actually bought our first house, you should also know that we paid the mortgage on a home we didn’t live in for months. Friends and coworkers thought this was insanely wasteful. What it was, though, was an opportunity to take the house basically down to the baseboards and studs without sleeping in sawdust. Like we sometimes do now.