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You Can Go Home Again

What’s so awful about living with one’s parents?

Sep 2, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 48 • By EVE TUSHNET
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Two huge differences between the Depression era and today leap out from McArdle’s account. One is the sense that what her grandparents did was normal, not shameful. But the other is that they did it as young marrieds. This is perhaps the biggest negative effect of living at home these days: It postpones marriage and, in many cases, childbearing. Today, young adults believe that they can’t get married—that it’s wrong to get married—before they’ve achieved economic independence. For reasons that can be crudely summarized as “terror of divorce,” young adults believe that it’s only morally acceptable to get married once you’ve undergone an extensive period of finding yourself and attaining financial stability.

The belief that young adults must be able to live independently before they can marry is new, and it’s damaging. At the pregnancy center where I volunteer, about half of the women intend to marry their children’s father eventually. What are they waiting for? A steady job, an escape from welfare and charity, a sense of financial solid ground. But if a woman names one specific goal she must attain before she can marry, 9 times out of 10 that goal is an apartment of her own: moving out from under Mom’s roof. So she puts her name on the years-long waiting list for Section 8 subsidized housing, and she applies for yet another part-time job, and she goes back to community college, and she hopes that her relationship with her baby’s father will survive. Without marriage, it usually doesn’t.

Almost every form of dependence is stigmatized in America’s individualist culture. This particular form of dependence has also been redefined to be as individualist as possible (you can’t marry and you’re not expected to care for your parents) and then shamed both for its dependence and for its narcissism. But the stigma hasn’t worked. Everybody doing it feels it to be shameful, yet the shame has not made us do it less. Expecting and then honoring mutual dependence might be a better option.

Shortly after that awkward car ride, I finally left my fancified neighborhood. I was older than most “boomerang kids,” but like many of them I was single and dealing with personal problems—I’d gotten sober a few months earlier and desperately wanted a break from the surroundings in which I’d done my worst drinking—and I fled back home seeking both financial and emotional relief. I paid no rent and did exactly one chore, cleaning the catbox, so I am the problem. But I also exemplified “returning to the nest” as a useful adaptive strategy: Six months later I moved out, much improved in both spirit and bank account. This is one way the boomerang story ends well. But it would be an equally happy ending, although more radically challenging to American norms of independence, if I had remained at home and begun to make real household contributions of money and care.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.

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