Making room for the unexpected, in more ways than one
I have a confession to make.
I am a 25-year-old living with his mother, the walking stereotype of a millennial. Raised on unearned parental affirmation, equipped with elevated self-esteem, we graduated from college only to face the most dismal economy since the Great Depression. One result, according to a 2012 Pew study, was that 36% of the nation’s 18- to 31-year-olds were bunking in their parents’ homes.
They call us basement kids and nest dwellers.
But it doesn’t always happen that way.
My millennial story began about a year and a half ago, when I landed a reporting job in Los Angeles. My parents — back in Tennessee, where I grew up — decided to buy a condo in California. The plan was to have me rent from them so the income, plus any eventual sale proceeds, could help them retire.
I put up a quick but hopeless fight, then steered them toward a property in Silver Lake. I helped oversee the renovations, arranged for needed repairs and reveled in being out on my own.
Four months later, I was hosting my first Christmas. A few hours after dinner, my parents dropped the bomb: My mother’s job search had ended in Los Angeles. She’d be moving in with me.
Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but I immediately fell ill. Bedridden for a week, battling a 102-degree fever, I desperately tried to think of a way out.
But I knew my parents needed help with the loan payments, and I couldn’t bring myself to move out and leave my mom to navigate Los Angeles alone. (A lifelong resident of suburbs, she once had shown me a parking ticket and asked if she needed to pay it.)
This past February, my mother moved in. We share a place next door to a pair of gospel singers and within earshot of a weekly mariachi dance party.
For the past year, my independence has been in dignified retreat.
First I took down some decorative paper lanterns, because apparently they trigger Taiwanese superstitions about death. Then I turned to using the air conditioning only in secret, fearing my mother’s reaction to the energy bill. I started tiptoeing around the creaky parts of the stairs at night.
Eventually, when I could no longer find anything in the cupboards, I gave up control of the kitchen entirely. Our dishwasher was converted into a dish rack. Avocados once left to ripen on the counter now are mercilessly refrigerated. I miss guacamole.
Living with my mother, of course, also means listening to her opinions. She doesn’t like that I work long hours, and I have become well-versed in the seemingly vast array of better-paying careers that I could have. I’m also intimately familiar with the careers of her friends’ children, at least those with jobs at Apple or Google.
But there are benefits to the arrangement — even beyond having my laundry done and my meals prepared. My mother is a positive presence in my life, and I try to be the same for her.
When there’s friction at the hospital where she works, I help her rehearse English phrases that convey professionalism and demand respect. She reads Chinese newspapers, suggests articles for my beat, and tells me stories about our distant family in Taiwan.
Our living situation is the byproduct of sweeping economic change. My parents’ retirement savings were erased by the stock market nose-dive. Companies once thought to be too big to fail have declared bankruptcy in droves. Job stability has been elusive for more than the millennials.
I have come to view college graduates moving home with their families — or the other way around — as an economic alliance, not a narrative of generational failure. This is the modern version of circling the wagons against danger and uncertainty. And it brings far-flung families closer.
My bedroom door is once again two steps away from my mother’s. But living with her as an adult has given me new perspective.
Holes in my clothes are patched without my asking. I’ve never had to wake up to let her out of our tandem parking spot because she made an extra key to my car. And sometimes, after a day of getting doors slammed in my face, there’s a plate of homemade pan-fried dumplings waiting at home.
As a child, I took little gestures like these for granted. As an adult, I can translate her actions into words — she’s telling me, every day, “I love you.”
My dad recently lost his job in Tennessee and is applying for positions in Los Angeles. Later this year he’s planning to move in with us.
Our two-bedroom condo is not especially large, and living habits are sure to collide. But we’ll move some things around. That’s what a family does, even a millennial’s.
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