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Grow up, twenty-somethings. You can go home again.

Ten years ago, my high school English class read James Joyce's short story "Eveline," about a young Irish woman torn between staying at home with a needy, unappealing father--a "life of commonplace sacrifice" and occasional warmth--or escaping with a slick new lover on a ship bound for America. As Eveline confronts her literal and figurative point of departure, Joyce intends the moment to be a wrenching one; he'd felt his own guilt on leaving family and country. But we 16-year-old Americans were unmoved by Eveline's panic and--when she finally chooses family over freedom--utterly mystified. Why in the world wouldn't you leave home?

Those kids would have been horrified if it had occurred to them that a decade later, they might be making the same choice as the pathetic Eveline. Today, thanks largely to high rents and low wages, more than 18 million single adults aged 18-34 live with their parents--a phenomenon that has the psychologists apoplectic. "Failed adults," they term these young people: a generation of budding Norman Bateses spoiled by affluent parents. They dump their own kids on grandma, their problems on dad, and their cap on the living room floor. It's a pandemic so ominous that "doubling up"--relatives sharing space--have even earned a label from social statisticians: "borderline homeless." America's adult children are coming home in droves for the first time since World War II, and that seems to us a serious violation of the natural way of life.

If the economic reasons for the phenomenon are not exclusive to America, the distress associated with it surely is. What makes us so unhappy at this new necessity is a peculiarly national notion of success, one predicted on separation. Long before the cult of codependence, America's concept of mental and material normalcy included a break from our families. (In 1776, after all, we declared independence from the "motherland.") And from Thoreau to Thomas Wolfe to James Baldwin to Jay McInerney, the link has been perpetually underscored: leaving the claustral parental home is requisite to emotional, economic, intellectual, social, and sexual independence. Sinclair Lewis's repressive Main Street probably has fax machines and a gay bookstore by now, but the necessity of leaving home endures as one of the great unchallenged assumptions of American life.

That assumption is undergirded by a certain amount of psycho-logic. Though true maturity and independence have never come so cheap (the intrepid Thoreau routinely left Walden Pond to take his laundry back to mom), leaving home is in general pretty good way to find yourself; never leaving is a pretty good way to be a loser. But what's frustrating about all the attention paid to a few newly crowded houses is that it blinds us to the real problem with American families, a trend caroming in precisely the opposite direction. As the media pouts about "boomerang" kids, many more millions of Americans--single mothers, old people, even kids--are going it alone.

For decades we've grimly noted the demise of the dining room table, the death of extended families, the exodus of the young from their hometowns, and the indifference of children to their aging parents--and those trends simply aren't reversing. Americans still have, by far, the highest divorce rate of any industrialized nation and the highest proportion of single-parent households--probably the most economically vulnerable segment of the population. We still institutionalize our parents at a rate unequaled anywhere but in Northern Europe, and the urge to disentangle from our families has spawned a vast industry of self-help books and tapes. Too much familial dependence? The real problem is that we don't have--and don't want--more.

Ironicaly, the side effects of the despised coming-home phenomenon might be the very ones we ought to covet in an era of fragmented families. Just as the Depression held kids and parents together--there were four generations of Joads--this recession could strengthen our frayed familial bonds and yield significant public benefit. A renewed commitment to familial support might keep a few people off the dole, or off the ledge; it might make us a little less selfish and a little more willing to share. It might even make us happier, another notion Americans value pretty highly.

About the same time that the L.A. times ran an article on how to kick kids out, a study by two University of Wisconsin sociologists appeared in The Journal of Marriage and Family. Despite all the horror-story news accounts, they found that 70 percent of parents and adult kids were actually pleased to live together against the zeitgeist. Good Lord, they liked it. Perhaps they'd discovered, as some other cultures have, that there are some compelling reasons for doing so. Perhaps, despite our gut reactions, sticking together isn't a pathology after all. Maybe it's a genuine social possibility.

House broken

At the House of Ruth, a D.C. Shelter for battered women, a 31-year-old resident receives thousands of dollars' worth of city and federal aid for shelter, job training, food, and counseling. She clearly needs help after what her boyfriend did to her. But what's interesting is where she can't get it. Her parents are high-paid professionals; her aunt and uncle, who live in the area, are both lawyers. Her brothers, who live in Chicago and New York, are comfortably situated. This family isn't notably indifferent, either; when the woman checked into the shelter, her uncle called, lawyerlike, to interrogate shelter workers about their credentials. Apparently it didn't occur to the family, as it dutifully ascertained that the state was fulfilling its responsibility, that the family might have one, too.

Okay, so all unhappy families are different, and relationships within them so rife with peculiarities that generalizations about "the right thing to do" are about as useful as a Stairmaster in a fifth-floor walkup. But what is clear from recent social work literature is that this family's choice isn't all that extraordinary. When we read about the burgeoning number of destitute single-parent households, there's one question most of us don't usually think to ask: Where are the mothers, fathers, uncle, siblings? Some of them may have tried to get involved and been shut out, and some may be in worse shape themselves, but many others have chosen not to intervene.

We adore the extended family in the abstract; Madison Avenue has counted on our warm feelings for decades to sell Ritz crackers and Kentucky Fried Chicken. We just hate to live in it. As a welter of studies on American households conclude, in the last 30 years Americans young an dold have chosen privacy over companionship as often as affluence has allowed, which it has. In the years between 1960 and 1990, the proportion of adults living alone tripled, from 4 to 12 percent of the population. The number of elderly living with their children dropped from one in three to less than one in five. The net result is that Americans are spending less of their lives in family households than ever before.

It's easy--and partially accurate--to blame our independence ethic on simple demographic reality. Americans are having fewer children and getting divorced a lot more often; there simply aren't as many close relatives to count on. But even when families are large--as in the less affluent segments of our society--the cultural preference for separatism, if not always the means to fulfill it, prevails. Reverend Ernest Gibson began noticing the change in his congregation at D.C.'s Mt. Zion Baptist Church about three years ago. Suddenly, parents couldn't be counted on to take in their pregnant, broke kids. Aunts, uncles, and cousins abounded, but they wouldn't automatically chip in during a crisis. He's heard the line over and over: "Reverend Gibson, I've got my own life to live."

Intergeneration cohabitation is clearly not just a demographic dinosaur; it's a cultural taboo. Many of us would feel more comfortable at a Washington party asserting we were in a methadone program with a battering spouse than confessing we still lived with mom. That shame has its roots in the 19th century, when the leaving-home ethic helped promulgate a national priority: Encouraging some of the young to leave the nest was the obvious way to domesticate the West. But as our economy grew more sophisticated and our geography more negotiable, our rationale for leaving evolved, too. The justification now centers not on economics, but on psychological growth--a justification that has become ever more compelling in recent decades. Judging by the cultural signposts, the family in the nineties represents what the corporation represented to William Whyte in the fifties: the corrosive pressure to conform.

Jungle Fever, Spike Lee's movie, contains a good expression of the family as bulwark against progress. The father and brothers of the young Bensonhurst heroine perpetuate everything bad about American culture, from male domination to racism to selfishness to violence. Two decades ago, in "All in the Family," Meathead had a lot more (good) influence on Archie Bunker's views than Archie did on his. But in Lee's cosmos, the pressure goes in only one, wholly negative, direction. The family's stifling, importuning contingencies stand in mortal opposition to the good and freedom-loving itself.

If Lee sketches the evil too starkly, the roots of his anxiety are widely accepted. One thing Freudians and anti-Freudians, Oprah and Erikson, agree on is that excessive dependence on a parent impedes normal maturation, making it impossible to love and work successfully as an adult. If movies are too expensive, you can examine the young casualties in countless pieces of fiction from the last half of the century.

"Laura! Come here and make a wish on the moon," demands Amanda of her crippled, dependent daughter in The Glass Menagerie, a classic of the family-pathology genre. "Look over your left shoulder, Laura, and make a wish. . . . Now, darling, wish."

"Moon? Moon?" Laura looks faintly puzzled, as if called out of sleep.

"What shall I wish for, mother?"

Of course, literature also offers us the Joads, J.D. Salinger's Glass family, and D.H. Lawrence's coal-mining clans. And if pressed, most of us can probably identify a few close, even cohabitating, families in which the members seem to function normally despite "abnormal" living situations. It's painfully self-evident: As people vary, families vary, and so do rates of emotional growth. And oddly enough, some people actually prosper in multigenerational households. Studies repeatedly confirm, for instance, that infants raised with both mother and grandparents develop far better emotionally and intellectually--as do the mothers themselves. Some young people who live at home after college are afforded the luxury of choosing careers that are more meaningful than instantly remunerative--social work, say, over the $30,000 a year job as a paralegal. And even more people in temporary crisis--job loss, a divorce--manage to stay off the dole and set their lives straight by heading back home to retrench. (And then there are the subtler impulses home countervails: The Gatsbyesque tendency toward self-invention, for instance, is hard to sustain when there are a dozen people around who knew you when you drooled.)

In cases like these, extended family support offers obvious social benefits--more capable children, more your adults doing interesting work, fewer people on public assistance--at a time when "nuclear" families have never been more unstable. By the close of this decade, fewer than 3 of 10 kids will have lived in a continuously intact family until the age of 18. Yet our cultural assumptions about success and normalcy weigh so heavily against prolonged parent-child relationships, we barely notice their pay-offs.

Go rest, young man

One testament to our aversion to the concept is that some affluent parents shell out hundreds of dollars a month for years to maintain their progeny in their own apartments--"kept kids," as New York magazine dubs them. (The dirty little secret of the avant-urban scene is how many Nebraska moms and dads are footing the bill.) Unfortunately, economics isn't cooperating with our expectations. Rents have risen 28 percent since 1982, 10 points more than other components of the consumer price index, while 25- to 34-year-old workers are bringing home smaller paychecks. Yet as parent-child "independence" grows more difficult for economic reasons, experts now advocate the erection of artificial barriers. A New York Times column recently advised cohabiting parents and adult kids to draft a "business contract" in which parents specify the amount of time the child may dwell with them and children declare the kind of emotional and financial support they'll be requiring for the duration. (Three months, 10 loads of laundry, and half a dozen demonstrations of unconditional love?)

Is it just cohabitation that makes us nervous--or is it the emotional closeness those arrangements demand? "In a previous generation it might have been expected that adult children would spend every Sunday night with their parents," Dr. Matti Gershenfeld, an expert at Temple University, noted darkly in the Times. "But that's inappropriate these days."

Ah, the insidious, emasculating Sunday-dinner trick! Comments like that suggest the narrowness of our idea of what a "normal" family does. And in a way that reaction is inevitable. We're not used to familial togetherness anymore. It's not just that we purchase child care from institutions and deputize hospitals and nursing homes to care for our relatives; we purchase emotional support, too, from self-esteem therapy to job counseling to help in getting off the sauce. (Is it any coincidence that the sixties, the decade of family dissolution, launched the psychotherapy boom?) Our urban public schools now spend an estimated fifth of their time inculcating values, offering birth control advice, conducting dental screenings, and performing other services in loco parentis, and most of us don't think twice about it. After all, we say knowingly, the kids probably don't get that stuff at home.

As conservatives are eager to note, government policies tend to reinforce a subtle antifamily tilt. When a resident of D.C. public housing wants to take in a son or daughter in crisis--even for a week--the parent is forced to break public housing law and risk his own tendency to do it. It may be better for a poor 19-year-old saddled with two kids to move in with her mother, but she may risk her welfare check if she does.

It's not just the beggared who feel the push. A middle-class mom can get a nice write-off by sending her three-year-old to the Kindercare Center on K Street in the District, but not to grandpa's house in the Suburbs. If grandpa gets sick, she can count on Medicare to put him up in a bleak $2,000-a-month "skilled nursing" institution. But if she want to take him in, she'll find the government much less helpful with the bills.

In the past few years, many academics have recognized that supportive families are crucial to improving the educational and occupational achievement of low-income youth; there has even been some anger directed at government policies that work against familial intervention. Yet as some of us prescribe family as an anodyne for poverty, it's medicine we don't take ourselves. The affluent and well-educated are far less likely to take adult children, grandchildren, and elderly parents into their homes.

Children of the norm

Buffered as we are by cultural and government biases, it's easy to forget that families aren't nearly as powerful a cultural force as they used to be, especially on the young. For proof, pick yp a Newsweek and find the article on the overweening influence of rap music/drugs/MTV/Air Jordans on kids. As youth culture grows increasingly differnetiated, young people--like their parents--are less identified with their families than they were a few decades ago, no matter where their beds are.

Consider two of ther major causes of that differentiation: In the eighties, more young people went to college and more went to work than ever before. While the first phenomenon prolonged dependence on family resources, school also provided increasing social independence. Colleges, with coed bathrooms, campus bars, and lesbian caucuses, no longer try to recreate the mores of the average middle-American home. Second, as more young people work, they're influenced by the corporate ethic, too. And now consider a third cause: the preponderance of working moms who simply don't have time to obsessively mold their Muffies.

So fear of the family's all-powerful influence is not entirely rational these days. But our anxiety about it confirms our inflexible, all-or-nothing view of family life. Might there be a healthy middle ground between killing your mother and suckling forever? To find it, you'd have to set aside the codependence literature and look overseas, to the not-particularly-pansyish Europeans.

A few decades back, Northern European census-takers, in search of a way to categorize cohabitating lovers, came up with the term "consensual union." Perhaps the term is also a useful way to think about broader living arrangements in other European societies, some of which reflect a more nuanced, less paranoid mindset about the family. While the French claimed "Il faut tuer son pere" long before Freud came along, Parisians--and the Spanish, Italians, Greeks, and Russians--keep living at home longer than their American counterparts, without much angst at all. The easy answers for that phenomenon are a lack of space and the high cost of housing, but research suggests it's not so simple. While independent living in the U.S. strongly correlates with money--the more you have, the faster you leave--the correlation is not so neat in other cultures. Perhaps what really keeps people at home in some other countries is a greater recognition of the benefits of family life.

When French grandparents were polled a few years ago about what they wished to devote their retirement to, the answer most frequently given was "to help the children." They mean it. One third of infants are looked after by grandparents while their parents work; one half of children spend their annual holidays with their grandparents. Perhaps most astoundingly, a full 50 percent of French people live within 20 miles of their parents. While since 1960 the frequency of Americans' contact with their elderly parents has dropped dramatically, modernization and urbanization have not killed off the French idea of the clan. Instead, argues Theodore Selder in his examination of French social structure, "The car, the telephone, and early retirement have reinforced it."

The balance is not perfect--there, as here, parents give more than they get--but crucial to the clan mentality is the sense that the young will eventually pay their parents back. While our idea of a boomeranging child is an unemployed 29-year-old watching Taxi Driver over and over on the VCR, Europeans tend to be more mindful that their return marks the beginning of a filial obligation--caring for their younger siblings, cooking meals, and eventually taking in their parents.

Turin native Federico Brigatti, a 20-year-old junior at Boston University, is not exactly old-fashioned; he's an advertising major notable for his chain-smoking and natty suits. But the idea of moving back in with the folks after completing an education seems perfectly natural--even practical--to him and his friends. "Europeans get a much better start on life that way," he says. And besides, in the long run, fair's fair. Almost everyone he knows back home has a grandparent in the house or in a flat down the street. "The only reason people are institutionalized is when there are medical problems the family can't take care of."

Brigatti overstates: Children today are not the inoculation against institutionalization they once were, in any industrialized country. But as America's aging parents obsess about saving for retirement, rightly doubtful that their kids will take them in when they need it, far more Europeans nonchalantly take in their old folks. Similarly, in Russia, only 83,000 people live in nurshing homes, compared to 4 million in the U.S. and even in Japan, a country so childcentric that 75-year-olds sometimes stand on mass transit to that kids can have seats, two thirds of the elderly live with their offsprings. When relatives are in trouble, it's the family, not the state, that tends to spring into action. Less than 1 percent of all Japanese receive any sort of welfare.

A sense of shared enterprise also mitigates against the generational politics that plague America. Alarmed by projections that pension costs would consume up to half of workers' earnings by the early 21st century, the Japanese government mounted a reform effort in the eighties to lower pension benefits over the next two decades. It passed--hard as it may be for Americans to believe--without protest.

Families that gray together

The signal difference between these other cultures and ours isn't that they have a surfeit of compassion or of infantilism. It's that those societies tend to view the parent-child commitment as a life-long one: a continuum of sacrifice and repayment. American has seen that continuum before, but it seems to take economic stress to make us by it. "The Rosary crusade had a slogan. 'The family that prays together stays together,'" recalls an old lady I know. "But in the Depression, we altered it: 'The family that pays together...'"

It's too bad that economic crisis is the only effective engine, because when families hold back out of mere cultural reflex, the wasted potential--collective and individual--is enormous. To my family, that reflex was initially tempting when my brother fathered a child four years ago. He and the mother weren't married, and besides, he was paying child support. But to my mom and sister, there was a secondary reflex, too. Kyla, his daughter, doesn't make my mother's retirement more peaceful or simplify my sister's life; the four-year-old has a strong genetic predisposition for chasing cats, upending cookie sheets, and decoating walls. But in part because of the relationship--a relationship that released Kyla's mother to work extra hours, attend community college, and simply go for a swim once in a while--Kyla may have an easier life. My family certainly has a richer one.

Getting comfortable with close, unconventional family arrangements requires redefining our ideal of independent living. But perhaps it's not such a lousy idea, in an age of flimsy church and community connections, to foster family relationships that go beyond high school graduation into shared childcare or eldercare, shared planning for the lives of the young, and plain old shared conversation. Government can get the ball rolling by taking a cue from abroad, where they've long seen that it's cheaper and more effective to support family living than to try to supplant it. In Finland, grandparents who take care of kids have received a "childminder" subsidy for decades. In a dozen other countries, kids who take in their parents get one, too. And occasionally, even American governments stumble across the right approach. Last month, Washington D.C.'s Office of Emergency Shelter Services announced it would attempt something fairly revolutionary in the realm of social services: When a person shows up requesting a slot at a homeless shelter, social workers will, for the first time, try to contact his family before a warehousing him in a public shelter.

The motivation is not, of course, a revelation about the unrealized potential of families; it's municipal poverty. Still, like the boomerang kids, it's a small sign of hope for the nineties. If we're lucky, we can quarry some cultural virtue from the economic necessity that's throwing us together again. But first we've got to stop thinking like 16-year-olds about the non-negotiability of independence.

Katherine Boo is an editor of The Washington Monthly. Research assistance was provided by Debra Weissman.
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Author:Boo, Katherine
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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