Soon you’ll be home for Christmas, sleeping in your childhood bed for a few days, or camping on some relative’s basement sofa. Millions of Americans caught in the Great Recession, however, have been experiencing a visit home that never ends. They are living like the Waltons, the fictional Depression-era family that had three generations under one roof, and which frequently took in lost, flat-broke souls.
We asked Slate readers who have had to return home or who have taken in friends or relatives to tell us what it’s like to live in a multi-generational household. We heard from people who are now staying with grandparents, parents, in-laws, siblings, and friends. These impromptu arrangements can mean the difference between a warm bed and living in the car, but the experience is emotionally roiling. People described alternating surges of shame and gratitude, their relief at having a safe place to land tempered by worry about ever being able to get out. Many people wrote of unexpected, sweet moments of connection they never would have experienced in better times. But just as often, they hoped for those better times to return, so that they can get their stuff out of boxes and kiss their loved ones farewell.
“Hey, Baby, I’m Unemployed and I Live with My Parents.”
One effect of the recession not captured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is what living with your parents does to your eligibility as a romantic partner. A few years back, a reader who calls himself Rajni put his administrative career in higher education on hold to follow his successful girlfriend as her career took her around the country. They broke up, and he moved in with his parents for what he thought would be a few months until he landed a job. Then the recession landed, and now he is heading toward year three of living at home. He writes, “I never imagined I’d be unmarried at 37. When I hear the slurs we use for adults living at home, like ‘man-child’ or ‘mama’s boy,’ they sting, even though I don’t think they apply to me. Still, I know most women want an established man with a great career. Even if I’m emotionally mature with great life experiences, my unemployment makes me a work-in-progress. I used to think I was a catch; every passing month makes me less of one. Should I try to make my case on Match.com with brazen, unemployed honesty? With a profile picture that’s got my folks in the background, holding a sign that says ‘It’s not as bad as it looks’?”
Grandpa, His Lady Friend, and Me
The downturn has been particularly brutal for young people entering the job market. Those who went to graduate school knew they’d be taking on huge debt, but they saw it as in investment: Their degrees were supposed to allow them to choose among the most alluring jobs. Laura Sankey graduated from law school in 2009, but after a fruitless 18 months attempting to start her legal career, she is now looking for jobs unrelated to the law, and her hard-earned degree now feels like “$100K of gambling debt.” She is being kept afloat by the fact that her grandfather has a big, mostly empty house. Her belongings are stacked in his garage, and she lives in his basement.
“Most nights, he goes over to his lady friend’s house for dinner and a movie or TV program—they both are big fans of Jon Stewart and The Office. I often get invited, and I usually tag along about one night a week,” she writes. Grandpa pays for the utilities and keeps the kitchen stocked, and Sankey, a vegetarian, does her part by cooking him occasional dinners. “He’s of a meat-and-potatoes generation, so when I cook for us both, his first impression is always, ‘This looks … interesting,’ with a bit of a raised eyebrow. He’s always game to eat what I make, though he’s vetoed any tofu recipes.”
She feels indebted to her grandfather and despairs about how to get on with her life. “I hate that I turned 29 a couple weeks ago and I’m once again dependent on my family for my survival. I know that I’m lucky to have family to fall back on, and that there are plenty of people who are much worse off than I am. It’s hard not to feel like I’m taking advantage, though, no matter how much my grandpa claims there’s no problems with me being there.”
One of Sankey’s biggest fears is that the rest of her relatives, struggling to keep a family business afloat, might also find themselves in need of her grandfather’s largesse, “I’m crossing my fingers that my grandpa’s house doesn’t fill up with my parents, brother, aunts, uncles or cousins, since we’re all just barely holding it together.”
“Any Plans for Dinner?”
It’s easy to understand the anguish of people who are forced to move back in with their family. But one letter from a middle-aged father who wishes to remain anonymous tells how draining this life-sustaining hospitality can be for the hosts. Two years ago, Mr. X’s daughter and son-in-law moved into his house, where he and his wife work out of home offices. Even though the son-in-law has finally landed a job, long-term unemployment has left the young couple’s finances in such shambles that they can’t afford a deposit for an apartment of their own. So their elliptical trainer continues to dominate the family room, and their stuff spreads through the house. Mr. X writes, “My work day is punctuated with one or both of the young relatives appearing to ask, ‘What are we doing for dinner?’ which means, ‘What are you providing for us today?’ “
He worries about how long it will be before the economy will be strong enough for his children to live on their own and pay off their student debt. And he contemplates what could be a great real estate idea for aging parents and their underemployed adult children: “Maybe the new fad will be the construction of ‘children’s apartments’ in retirement homes.”
He adds, “Please say something on behalf of the millions of people who are doing this proudly, if not always completely happily, for their kids. And when those kids say, as Peggy Lee did, ‘Is that all there is?’ when they get their inheritance, hopefully it will come with a note reading, ‘You spent it all in the Great Recession.’”
Three years ago, Autumn and her husband were newly discharged from the military and trying to figure out their transition to civilian life. So they took up her divorced mother-in-law’s invitation to move into an existing multigenerational household. The mother-in-law lived in an apartment attached to her parents’ house; the young couple was offered the upper floors of the home. Two children later, there are now four generations under one roof.
“While I felt defensive at first, I no longer do when I explain why we live like this. It was refreshing to hear from a foreign coworker that living any other way would be abnormal in his culture,” she writes. Yes, there have been adjustments. In deference to the sleeping habits of their older relatives, the young couple no longer hosts late night parties. Then there was the time she had to let out a sick dog in the middle of the night: “That was the same time Grandpa decided to walk to bathroom in his birthday suit because, hey, that’s how he slept in his own house and why would anyone be up?” She says such living situations are not for controlling personality types, but adds: “With patience, humor, and extra bathrobes it can be a blessing.”
The blessings are charmingly quotidian: “Once in a while, the laundry fairy visits and my clothes have magically moved from the dryer and are folded in a basket at the bottom of the stairs.” Most important is the relationship her children have with their grandmother and great-grandparents. “My 2-year-old enjoys going downstairs in the morning in her footie pajamas to sneak a piece of bacon from the early risers. They entertain her, or, more accurately, she entertains them until I’ve had a coffee fix.” Autumn knows this arrangement is not permanent. But, she says, “This time is a gift that I wouldn’t trade for any McMansion.”
A Friend Indeed
Having a single woman friend move in with a married couple is a premise well-suited to farce. But Leslie realized there was nothing farcical about the financial situation of a friend who lost her job 18 months ago. The friend qualified for a worker-retraining program, but there was no way she could afford both tuition and rent. Leslie and her husband had an empty guest room, so they offered her a place to stay rent-free while she completed her studies and looked for work.
Before the move, Leslie and her husband worried that a strange power dynamic might develop with a friend who would be living on their largesse. Other questions also loomed: “Would we resent her presence? Would we feel like we couldn’t make noise during sex? What if she met a guy we didn’t like and started having him sleep over all the time?”
Instead, Leslie has found, “We are simply all adults who try to be considerate of each other. We keep the common areas clean, have a Saturday morning brunch ritual which includes NPR’s Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!. We had a good time integrating her belongings with ours and rearranging the house so that it reflects all of us.”
Occasionally Leslie and her husband treat themselves to a hotel for some private time, and her friend’s been too busy with school work to do much dating. Leslie says of the experience, “We’ve become more than friends—we’ve become a second family. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Our Ceramic Toothbrush Holder
When people move in with friends or family, they must often say goodbye to their possessions, if only temporarily. The first night after Caitlin Seidler and her boyfriend moved into his parents’ place, she tried to imagine all the belongings she had boxed up and put in storage: “Our ceramic toothbrush holder, our rubber spatula, our set of juice glasses with red roosters painted on them. I genuinely missed these things.”
Seidler and her boyfriend had two years of graduate school ahead of them and his parents had offered to host them so they could pay for their studies without going broke. It all made sense, but Seidler soon got tired of her fellow students’ reaction to her living arrangements: “It was usually accompanied by a facial expression that indicated the person would rather dive into a pool of glass shards then find herself in my situation. And then there was the frequent follow-up question: ‘Do they let you sleep in the same room?’ ” (Yes.)
The couple got engaged and later married, all the while still living with his parents. Over the years, Seidler came to appreciate the financial wisdom of their offer, realizing that she and her husband had saved about $40,000 in living expenses. Seidler and her husband are a success story. They completed their studies, both found good jobs in their field (education), and today they have their own place in another city. As they contemplate eventually having a family of their own, Seidler says her in-laws are “a model for the type of parents we’d like to be.” Oh, and when Seidler finally reopened her boxes two years later, she realized, “Most of the items, I had forgotten about completely.”
In late 2007, Shannon Mitchell and her husband could no longer afford the rent on their apartment. Mitchell, who works in public relations, and her husband, who is a contractor, were expecting their first child. They moved in with Mitchell’s grandmother-in-law, an Armenian émigré who had lived under Soviet rule and who ruled her house Soviet-style, too. “She owned a dishwasher, but used it to store her tinfoil and wax paper; owned an oven, but kept her pots and pans in it, preferring to use the stove top alone for cooking; and owned a dryer, but used a clothesline religiously. Consequently, hubby and I were not allowed to use these items, either. So I had to wash dishes and baby bottles by hand, learn to make food on a gas range, and ended up needing surgery on my knee after stepping in a hole in the lawn while hanging laundry,” Mitchell writes.
Grandmother also believed that artificially warming or cooling the house is bad for the body and definitely bad for the budget, so there was no air-conditioning in the summer and no heating in the winter. Fortunately, Grandmother no longer lived in Armenia but in southern California. Her frugality was extreme. “When clothing became too old to wear anymore, it was cut into squares and stored in the bathroom as toilet paper. When she goes walking she brings a bag along to collect bottles and cans for recycling.”
Mitchell and her family stayed for two years, but while they were hard years, she says she learned many valuable lessons. Grandmother had survived deprivation Mitchell could only imagine; she was a magnificent cook, and she allowed Mitchell to stand in the kitchen and be the first to write down the family’s Armenian family recipes. “She taught me how to be a penny pincher, although you won’t catch me looking through my neighbors’ garbage. But I do now know where to shop for fresh, inexpensive fruit and veggies, how to get the most out of my local markets, and to not be afraid of the thrift stores. Her wisdom has rubbed off on me and made me a better person.”
“Rajni,” the 37-year old who worries about finding both love and work, ended his letter with some thoughts on what it means to be living with his parents a second time around. “Who gets a do-over with his parents? After the first few months we figured out how not to drive each other absolutely crazy, and since then we’ve had these moments to reminisce and even share new experiences. I’ve done landscaping with Dad, helped babysit my niece, obsessed over the election with Mom. I’m surrounded by pictures of us together 10, 20, 30 years ago. And here they are now, pushing 70. For the first time I see that not only will I not be young forever, I won’t have them too much longer. I still desperately want to find new work, move out, and start a family with all I now know. But I wish every adult could spend a few months at midlife with his or her parents, just to love them, or settle things, or share a few last moments.”