The author of this Op-Ed article, Sara Barbour, blogs at girlfarmkitchen.com. (Photo courtesy of Sara Barbour )
It was the week before my 23rd birthday when it hit me. "You know," I said casually to my mom as we drove into town to get pedicures, "I don't think I've hung out with anyone my age in over a month."
It was true. Almost a year out of college and here I was, living at home and socializing decades above my age group. I shopped for groceries and made dinner every night. I watched "The Daily Show"with my mom and went to a Wilco concert with my dad. I took my grandma to movies nominated for best picture and, for the first (and hopefully only) time in my life, when the Academy Awards rolled around, I'd seen them all.
Strangest of all, I was happy. After six months on a biodynamic farm with a rampant mouse problem and a refrigerator that didn't close, my baby blue room felt like a luxury. After four years of dorm living in New York City, with fire alarms that wrenched us from bed at 2:30 a.m., cursing whatever drunk sophomore had pulled the emergency lever "for fun," I appreciated the quiet. I loved having a house to myself, 9 to 5. I loved hosting elaborate meals for my parents' friends, the overworked adults sighing with relief into their glasses of wine. I loved my parents, come to that, and the long conversations we had on world events prompted by my hours in the kitchen listening to NPR.
Is it so wrong, I wondered guiltily to myself, to actually like living at home?
At the carwash on a weekday morning waiting for my parents' Volvo to emerge, the answer seemed especially dire. As I admired his adorable toddler, a Mercedes-owning father turned to me with a smile. "Do you have kids?"
It wasn't that I'd given up on starting my own life. Every morning at 7 I dutifully staked out my spot at the kitchen table, sifting through job postings and honing my resume. The optimism with which I began my job search was — to my now appropriately jaded self — staggering. My applications ran the gamut from Green For All to Google. I prided myself on cover letters that used neat little turns of phrase like "excellent and intuitive" and "positive and professional." I checked my Gmail constantly, confident in my ability to make an impression.
I heard back from no one.
Slowly it began to dawn on me that living at home was, perhaps, going to be a long-term thing. The "quick stopover" fantasy I'd indulged over the holidays was harder to maintain when my sister went back to school. Instead of brightly telling people I'd be home for "maybe a couple more weeks," I mumbled incoherently and changed the subject. I got a gym membership. The neighbors recognized me. I stopped buying shoes with money from "the job I'd have soon."
And then, strangely, I started to like living at home. I kept up the applications, but I also began working part time for a local filmmaker. I started volunteering at KCRW, the public radio station that had become my closest companion. I cooked, I flossed daily, I organized my parents' CDs. And when no one else was home (on average, six to eight hours a day) I cranked up the stereo and listened to a song called "Happiness" on repeat.
After a vibrant college life, it's hard to move home without feeling at least a twinge of failure. It's demoralizing to offer yourself up — all the college prep, the hours of internships, the years spent working for free — and come away not just rejected but unacknowledged. Under my parents' roof once again, the benefits were obvious (food, rent-free housing, a washing machine that worked), but so were the difficulties.
Miles from the nearest big city and car-less, I didn't just feel stranded, I often actually was. The stigma of joblessness greeted me everywhere, from newly employed peers to a local J. Crew clerk ("Shouldn't you be in school?" she asked, eyeing the outdated student ID that I proffered for a discount). And then there were the moments when I felt like a teenager all over again: Arriving home late from my first dinner out on a date in weeks, I was summoned to my parents' room and greeted with reproachful looks.
But there's a reason most of the world lives in extended family units. They provide the kind of community that carries the depth and perspective of many generations. I may have grown up primed for immediate employment, but the last time my grandma had a job was in the 1960s. My mom lived with her parents until she was married. My generation was seared with the terrorizing ultimatum that come graduation we'd better be hired — think of the college loans! the American dream! — because financial independence was the ultimate predictor of success. Unfortunately, that's not an automatic option, but my sense of self-worth is deepened through providing for my family in the ways I can — cooking, cleaning, heck, even getting the car washed — while gratefully acknowledging their willingness to provide for me.
So here's my advice to those in the class of 2012 who fear the great Move Home: Be thankful you have one. Don't stop your search for the job or opportunity that will get you into that first apartment, but appreciate your family and the ways you can help them. There are worse (if less embarrassing) things than having to lean on a social structure that is meant to provide support. And it wouldn't hurt to start being nice to Mom and Dad.
Sara Barbour is a writer (and job seeker) who blogs about food and family at girlfarmkitchen.com.