One of my friends recently moved into a new apartment—her first as a single adult, her first all by herself.
At 35, she’s going through a painful separation from her husband, a man she’s been with since she was a teenager. It’s been a tough transition, made all the more difficult by a lack of money and a sometimes overwhelming sense of loneliness. When she told me that her mother was coming to visit, I assumed this was good thing.
Sara, she said. I think I just sold my soul.
Her mother and stepfather drove up from Florida, ostensibly to support my friend in her newfound, awkward independence. Her mother took one look at the half-empty apartment and decided to take her daughter shopping for needed items: towels, silverware, and most importantly, art for the bare, white walls. Her mother is a compassionate woman who wants the best for her daughter.
They drove me absolutely crazy, my friend said.
It was clear that my friend appreciated her mother and stepfather’s help. She admitted that she never could have made this move on her own, that they were helping her find a new life. But this parental help came with a big price. She felt a little like she’d sold her adulthood for a sofa, a couple months rent and a framed Monet print.
Her parents had purchased the right to tell her how to live. Her stepfather even made sure that he had control over her thermostat, reminding her that she didn’t have the money to run up a bill that he and his wife would have to pay. They owned her right down to the filtered air she was breathing.
When she wanted to have a few friends over for a potluck-style housewarming party, she was told that was off the table too. You can’t afford to have people over, her stepfather informed her, as if someone showing up at your door with a six-pack and a plate of Rice Krispie treats is an especially expensive proposition.
It’s said the devil is in the details; in my friend’s case, those details were the bare necessities of starting a new life, courtesy of mom and dad.
I wish I could say that I had no experience with being an adult dependent. If I was to write a memoir, I think I’d leave out the part about living with my mother during my late 20’s—that horrendous year of sneaking cigarettes in the basement and sneaking sips of her boxed wine. (I swear it wasn’t me, Mom!) It was a rough year, one in which I didn’t dare date for fear of having to tell a potential suitor that we could go back to my place, but we’d have to extra quiet because my mother is a light sleeper. It was a transition phase, a second adolescence that was just as embarrassing for my mother as it was for me.
This situation is hardly unique. I’d say that almost everyone I know is receiving some kind of help from his or her parents.
There’s the fact that the economy has been at a standstill for years; there are fewer and fewer living wage jobs available. And if you’re one of the lucky few who have such a job, you probably racked up a lifetime’s worth of college loan debt to get it. So you’ll work and work and send off the bulk of your earnings to pay for that Sartre seminar from junior year. You’ll be paying off that biology textbook that you never read while putting your own children through school.
A stunted economy is leaving a lot of us with a stunted adulthood.
The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that 36 percent of adults ages 18-31 were still living at home. According to the Pew Research Center, more adult children are living back home today than at any time since the 1950’s—you know, right after that little dustup known as World War II. (Armchair Economists may also like to note that adult children living with their parents in the US hit an all-time low in 1980, right before Ronald Reagan took office; after climbing steadily throughout the 80’s, then nearly leveling in the 90’s, these numbers started rising rapidly in the early 2000’s and today show no sign of slowing.)
But it’s not only adults living at home. I’ve been out of my mother’s house for a while now, but I can’t call myself wholly independent. There are, from time to time, the financial clusterfucks I didn’t see coming. There is the injury that ran up over a thousand in medical bills and with it an increase in my insurance premiums. There is the growth on my dog’s eye, which my vet says needs to come off immediately—to the tune of $900. And there’s the set of new tires on my car, desperately needed after many trips home to see mom and to check out friends’ new places.
I’m not one of the 36 percent, but the Bank of Mom is certainly crucial to my survival.
It still pisses me off, though, when my mother asks how I spend my money. On a recent visit, I told her that I was going out to dinner with friends. You better pick somewhere cheap, she said. You really don’t have the money to do that right now.
I wanted to tell her that it was none of her damn business, that she had no idea what was in my bank account. I couldn’t do that, though, because it is and she does. My dog, who was at my feet, gave me a mournful look with her cystic eyelid, as if to say: wait until after the surgery there, kid. You don’t have a leg to stand on and I’ve only got one good eye.
I have a vivid memory from my childhood of my mother weeping on the front porch of a house she’d hoped to buy. It stands out because my mother, with her tight, waspy tear ducts, almost never cries. Her father had promised her that he would help her buy a house. It was a house that, on her college professor salary, she couldn’t afford. He took one look at this house and said that he wouldn’t help her pay for it; he believed she needed a home in the suburbs, something new with wall-to-wall carpet and a cheap electric bill.
She wanted a funky, fixer-upper; his help didn’t come free of charge. If he bought it, he got to pick it. This caused a fight and a few months of silence between them.
Even though they began speaking again, a fog of resentment loomed between them until his death.
Nevertheless, as he was dying, my mother drove eight hours every weekend to sit by his bed and fetch his pills and turn his television set up (even though he had a remote control). She became, as so many of us do, a parent to her elderly father. She could have held the house ordeal over his head. She could have taunted him with a low volume on his History Channel documentaries. Instead, she accepted this role reversal as part of the package.
I know that very few parents, when taking that first look at their newborns, think I love you so much I want you to live in my basement forever. I also doubt that the first time we get a look at our parents, still wet with afterbirth, we think I can’t wait to make sure you have your monthly supply of laxatives.
We are creatures who get deeply attached to our roles—but these roles are temporary at best.
At some point most of us will be a parent and a child. Then we’ll switch, and switch again, and the hard line of adulthood that we once imagined existed, will disappear entirely.
We don’t need to reincarnate to find ourselves as a kid again or to be a mother to our own mothers.
We just have to live this one life.
Do it with compassion and try to be thankful.
A good therapist helps, too.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise