“I learned a new word,” Mom calls from the other room. “Bauchle,” she says. “It’s Scottish.” It sounds like an herbal remedy, something like ginkgo biloba. I peek into the living room, where she’s sitting in a dark green recliner, cocked halfway back, reading the newspaper.
“What’s it mean?” I ask, approaching the chair. I lean my head over her shoulder, infringing on her personal space as I did in the womb.
“A shabby or worn-out shoe,” she says. “It can also be applied to people.” Mom eyes my outfit. I want to protest, but instead I laugh. I am wearing a faded hoodie sweatshirt, fleece pajama pants, and a pair of old sneakers. My hair is pulled up in a messy fan, strands falling in every direction. I am 28 years old, and I live with my parents.
This is the third time since I graduated from college that my parents have welcomed me back home. The first was when I returned to Minneapolis after two years in New York City; the second, after my roommates went off to graduate school; and now, well, I’m telling people I gave up my apartment because I wanted to save money for an extended trip abroad, though I’m not really sure if that’s true.
I have to have a reason, though. I can’t just say, “I live with my parents,” and leave it hanging in the air as if the sentence had ended with “my boyfriend” or “my friend.” It’s the raised eyebrows and quizzical looks that make me quickly follow up with a because when news of my domestic situation slips out. Usually, I avoid the question, making only general statements about where I reside. When pressed, I answer, almost too casually, “Yeah, I have a couple of roommates.”
When confronted with the thought of moving home, most of my peers wouldn’t consider it. Having last night’s hot hookup run into Mom and Dad at the breakfast table? And where would I keep my “stash”? For some, the deal breaker is the loss of independence, which can feel like outright suffocation. (One of my friends says that when he visits his parents for the holidays, they follow him from room to room.) Regressing to your old self—the one with the oversized glasses and feathered hair, the one staring back from the frame on your parents’ bureau—seems too much to bear.
But let’s be honest—even when I had my own apartment, the last three guys I brought home were all on the covers of magazines. And the last time I smoked weed was…never. (In college, I dreamed of working for the FBI.)
Of course, there is that nagging sense of defeat, of having struck out on your own, only to have, well, struck out. Do others think I’m the prim spinster, doting on her ailing mother, cross-stitching the evening away? Or am I like the guy who’s been holed up in the basement since high school, lying on his back listening to Pink Floyd, working a pizza delivery job, trying to “find himself”?
In reality, I am neither. A couple of times, I picked up and moved halfway across the country. First San Francisco, then New York. Each time starting over: navigating unknown cities, getting jobs, finding apartments, making new friends, and, yes, inevitably “finding myself.” So by choosing to return to the past, to live with people who have been known to drive “ugly” cars (the brown station wagon) or wear “weird” clothes (a grungy Old Style beer T-shirt) or say embarrassing things in front of my friends (oh, there are so many), I risk dropping to the bottom of the social ladder.
Here’s the real reason I moved back in with my parents: despite the relative un-hipness of the situation, the remoteness of their home’s suburban location, and my frustrations with chicken knickknacks and a quarter-century’s worth of accumulation in the basement, if I could pick any roommates in town—Prince, Josh Hartnett, Garrison Keillor—I would choose my parents. I don’t mean to insult my friends, but look who they’re competing with. What kind of roommate offers to drive you to the airport at 4 a.m.? Or stays by your side if you have the flu? Who else, frankly, would let you room rent-free?
Still, we have our separate lives. Sometimes we are close strangers, spending hours and hours traversing the same space, each with our own agenda. I come home late from work, microwave a plate of leftovers, and sit down to read a magazine; Mom talks on the phone with her sister; Dad watches the 10 o’clock news. It’s like sitting in a freeway traffic jam and looking through the glass at all the neatly packaged drivers. But then, out of the mundane puttering of everyday life, as my mother swallows her evening regimen of pills before shuffling off to bed, she will say something about my character or my dreams. Something offhanded, yet prescient, and I will remember: of course, you know—I am half you.
My mom doesn’t think I’ve overstayed my welcome. In fact, when she tells other people I live with her and my dad, she lets them know it’s not a chore. “It’s like we have our own personal chef,” she adds, generously, though at home she’ll mock-whine, “You’re always trying to feed us tofu.”
When I was a child, I didn’t see my parents as anything beyond their roles as Mom and Dad. It was like the way I viewed my grade-school teachers until the first time I saw Ms. Jensen at the grocery store and realized (gasp) she had a life outside of school. Now, as an adult, I’m gaining a better understanding of my parents’ other selves: as husband, wife, sibling, son, employee, employer, and friend. I watch my dad open a stack of mail, hoping the checks exceed the bills. My mom picks out a card for him, and I wonder about the message she’ll write.
Amid the daily routine, I hear more stories from their pasts: Dad growing up in rural Minnesota, driving a tractor as a 6-year-old, working his way through law school; Mom teaching kindergarten, sharing a tiny apartment with her friend, being rescued from a knife-wielding attacker by a college boyfriend.
If I had visited my parents only sporadically over the past decade, they’d probably still be the caricatures of my youth, those same security guards preventing me from exploring life’s more interesting fringes. Because I am spending time with them, day in and day out, their lives take on more nuance and shape. My brother, in California, knows only the outline of what’s happening, bullet points over a phone line. But in a facial expression or a catch in the voice, I see their vulnerability, and their pride.
I watch my parents cycle through their lives, some arcs high, others low. Some of the moments are weighty and wide: crying beside my great-aunt’s casket, yelling until the other leaves the house. Others are the tiny details of human days: ironing shirts; standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open; falling asleep by the TV, mouth open, remote clenched.
As the three of us get older, the social gap between us narrows to a slit. We’ll go on a bike ride, or out to brunch, or pop a batch of popcorn and watch Desperate Housewives (though I pretend not to understand some of the jokes, so I don’t have to explain the innuendoes). I take my mom to a film opening, and she sashays around in gold slippers, blending in with the hipster crowd. Soon I’m tagging along to a sixtysomething dinner party, knocking back a few Manhattans. I lift my glass as if to toast: some say friends are the new family; I say parents are the new friends.
My dad has suggested that he and my mother go to a movie, so he stands at the kitchen table, helplessly riffling through a pile of newspapers, as if he has just arrived in this country and doesn’t understand the movie-going procedure.
“Which section am I supposed to look in?” he asks, frustrated.
“Variety,” my mom calls from the living room. I grab Variety and open it to the movie listings page. My dad reaches for his pocket and puts on his glasses.
“You’re 60 years old and you don’t know how to find a movie?” I say.
“That’s what I have a wife for,” he responds, mostly—but not completely—joking.
“You need to set a better example,” I say, pointing a finger. “Because if this is what husbands are like, I don’t want one—and then I’ll be living with you guys forever.”
As much as I love living with my parents, my stay with them will be temporary. The problem with us getting along so well is that there’s less incentive for me to seek out others my age. In the short term, my de facto dating hiatus is not a big deal (yes, an ex-boyfriend, visiting from out of town, stayed overnight with the three of us), but ultimately, it’s the crux of the matter. What I want—although maybe I’ll never get it, and maybe I risk losing face by admitting it—is the same companionship that I see in my parents’ partnership. And if I want my own such relationship someday, I know I first must take leave of theirs. MM