When the pandemic began last March, with New York quickly becoming the epicenter, there was an immediate exodus to the suburbs. As offices went remote within the span of a week — including the Forward, my third day on the job — 2.6 million young adults fled apartments for their parents’ homes, where they could work with more space and without Craigslist roommates or crowded city stores. It was only supposed to be for a few weeks. None of them expected to still be there, a year later.
Living at home with your parents in your 20s or 30s is not on anyone’s bucket list, but it became a reality last year for nearly 1 in 10 young adults. While some eventually left after months at home, realizing there was not going to be a natural exit point, and others were unable to find a job that could pay their rent, some freely chose to stay.
I spoke to four 20- and 30-somethings who moved home and stayed about their experience returning to their childhood homes as adults. Most of them have enjoyed their time at home, but it should be noted that there’s a self-selecting bias here — several people chose not to speak to me about their experience because it has been tough.
For many, the appeal of moving home was having more space than their shoe box apartments. But when David Bengar returned in May, it was to a two-bedroom apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, which he shares with both parents and his sister; the 29-year-old has been sleeping on a bed in the living room. “It’s tight quarters,” he said, adding that he has become somewhat nocturnal as a result. “That’s the only time I have the space to myself.”
Bengar, who graduated from Harvard Law in May, hadn’t lived with his parents for 11 years. He had taken a job with a D.C. law firm, but they planned to be remote until December, so Bengar moved home, figuring he would save on a few months of rent and reconnect with family, who immigrated from the then-Soviet Union between 1978 and 1980. When the law firm extended their work from home policy until May 2021, he just stayed. Now, Bengar expects to stay in the living room until he begins a clerkship in Denver in September, nearly a year and a half after he moved in.
The experience has been a positive one, which is why Bengar has stayed so long, but there is an inherent strangeness to returning to your childhood home as an adult. “I don’t feel like I have a life outside of the family, which makes me feel even younger than 16. It makes me feel like a real child,” he said; he has been quarantining especially strictly, not even socializing with his area friends outdoors, so he can visit his grandparents, who live nearby.
Bengar’s parents also have their complaints — they don’t love having a bed in the living room. But what’s most important is that it feels like home, and everyone is willing to make sacrifices. “I think, for the most part, they’re really excited to have the time together,” said Bengar.
Meeting the parents
Parents often struggle to fully transition to seeing their children as adults, but when Shira Olson, a 29-year-old social worker, moved back into her parents’ home in Cranston, Rhode Island, she brought her then-fiance, Scott MacPhee, a clear symbol that she is no longer a child. (The couple has since married in a small family ceremony, officiated by Shira’s uncle.)
The pair only planned to be in Cranston for a couple weeks, but by May, having spent months living out of suitcases they had packed for just a week, they accepted the fact that they were staying. “I had the foresight to leave our spare keys with a friend,” Shira said. “They went into our apartment, they packed up some more suitcases for us while we were on FaceTime, and we met in the middle of Connecticut at a rest stop off 95.”
Luckily, things have meshed easily; Shira and Scott have had dinner with her parents nearly every night and the group got into TV shows together, even watching Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” sex scenes and all. Plus, Shira’s father was thrilled to bond with Scott over sports, something Shira and her brother had never been big on.
Shira and Scott tried returning to their Harlem one bedroom apartment over the summer, to see what working from home and living in pandemic-era New York would be like, but they quickly decided to break their lease and commit to life in Rhode Island. “I was overcome with homesickness and longing for my parents,” Shira said. “That tells you a lot about how well it works and has worked for us to be here.”
For Shira and Scott, the pandemic just accelerated their process. “We were already talking about like, let’s plan on not renewing our lease in May of 2021,” Shira said. “We are ready to slow down the pace of our lives, we are ready to consider living in a city that will better support our long term goals, that will allow us to save us some money.”
Of course, neither of them had planned to start this next phase of their lives in Shira’s parents’ house, and, as comfortable as they have been, they’re eager to “hit play” on their lives as a couple including adopting a dog. When we spoke, the couple had just finalized their lease agreement for an apartment in Providence — not too far from Shira’s parents.
A new grad’s plans on pause
Erica Schoenberg, 22, moved home to Houston in May, joining her parents and youngest brother after graduating from Trinity University in San Antonio. She also brought her cat home with her, bringing the number of household cats up to five; they do not get along.
Thankfully, Schoenberg and her family manage more smoothly; when we spoke by phone on a Friday evening, I could hear her father in the background exclaiming over a challah she was baking. She has also gotten closer to her youngest brother, a senior in high school, discovering that they have a lot in common. “I mean, I think he’s weird and dumb because he’s my brother, but like, he’s a very cool, interesting person, actually,” she said.
Schoenberg had planned to do a program over the summer designed to help participants jump-start their careers in publishing, but it went virtual — and didn’t manifest the opportunities she’d been hoping for. “It’s been such a struggle to even get an email back that I’m starting to wonder if I should just, like, do something else,” she said of her job search. Recently, as a stopgap, she has taken a retail job at a fabric store to make some cash — $9.25 an hour — as well as teaching Hebrew school; the work adds structure to days that were beginning to blur.
When I asked whether her parents treat her as an adult, Schoenberg said she thought so — but that she herself doesn’t know what it means to be an adult in her parents’ house. What had previously made her feel like an adult was living alone, and caring for her cat; now even the cat is part of the family’s pet responsibilities. “I’ll like, go to Whataburger at 11 p.m. or something,” she said. “And I’m like, this is a grown up thing to do. But also, I hope I don’t wake my parents up because the door makes noise every time you open it.”
She misses her old freedoms. “I was looking through a journal that I was writing in at the beginning of this, and I was complaining about how I just wanted to sit in the living room and eat cookie dough and fall asleep with the lights on,” she said.
But the thing that worries Schoenberg most is whether she’ll manage to move out before her youngest brother goes to college; she doesn’t want to be the only child in the house.
Returning to religion
Sara Kaplan, a 30-year-old graduate student in clinical psychology, flew home to her parents’ home in Atlanta, Georgia, when her hospital placement at Bellevue was canceled. She could work remotely, but while she had a desk in her room in her shared Brooklyn apartment, it didn’t seem professional to hold therapy appointments with her bed in the background. Her parents have a big house in Atlanta with an office, so she decided to take advantage of it for a couple of weeks.
“The next thing I knew, it was like, my lease was ending in July, and I already had found out that my clinical placement for this whole academic year was going to be virtual,” Kaplan said. Since she didn’t know where her clinical internship in the summer of 2021 would be, she decided to give up her lease and stay in Atlanta.
“If I had left New York for a year during normal life, I would have felt like I was missing out on a lot,” Kaplan said. “But I didn’t feel like that because no one was doing anything.”
However, quarantine in Georgia turned out to be more exciting than life in New York — she got to vote in a historic election that turned Georgia blue, something she called “the highlight of the pandemic.”
The biggest hurdle has been religiosity. Though she feels strongly connected to her Jewish identity, and made friends in New York through Jewish groups, Kaplan resented her day school upbringing and didn’t keep kosher or pray as an adult. But her parents keep a kosher home. “If we’re having Shabbat dinner with chicken, and if we’re eating pasta, you can’t put cheese on the pasta,” she said. “I’m 30 years old, but I feel like I’ve regressed, being under my parents’ roof and having to follow their rules.” Passover was particularly challenging, thanks to the more stringent rules of kosher, and she says she can’t believe she’s about weather the holiday at home again.
The family has bonded watching movies and TV together, which Kaplan never imagined doing as an adult. Particularly fitting was watching “Schitt’s Creek,” in which a family with adult children all move into a small motel together. “It was very relatable,” she said.
Mira Fox is a reporter at the Forward. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @miraefox.
They moved home for just a few weeks, fleeing the coronavirus. They’re still there.