Living alone is seen as a rite of passage
I’m 20 years old, and I live with my parents. I have no plans to move out in the near future (though you never know what God will throw at you!). And I’m very happy with that.
According to the dominant script of Western life, that makes me either a socially inept nerd or an underachieving layabout. While I may well be one or both of the above, I’m not convinced that’s got anything to do with the fact that I live at home.
In Britain, more than a quarter of young adults aged 20-34 live with their parents. In Northern Ireland, it is 36%. The data’s less up-to-date in the Republic but in 2010 the figures were higher than in Britain.
The headlines put this down to the recession, with ‘boomerang kids’ unable to find jobs being forced to move home. The media tends to treat living at home as, at best, a grim necessity. Sheila Wayman wrote a piece in The Irish Times that began “you don’t really grow up until you leave home”. The Daily Mail, wrote, Daily-Mailishly, that “Northern Ireland is the capital of mummy’s boys and daddy’s girls.”
It’s true that living with your parents is often prompted by necessity. But why are we so obsessed with the idea of moving out?
The prevailing narrative is that living alone is a rite of passage – that people need to prove that they can look after themselves before they can look after a family. There’s also the idea that complete self-reliance is good in itself, that it’s part of being an adult.
Catholics should question both assumptions. The vast majority of people end up getting married and starting families, and it strikes me that the best preparation for that is… living with a family. We do believe that ‘it is not good that man should be alone”. While living on your own doesn’t have to mean isolation, we should be much slower to assume that it’s ideal for everyone.
Clare Coffey, a Catholic blogger, writes: “Young people are expected to come into flourishing maturity in an artificial context that resembles no other part of their lives and removes them from the economic and personal support life in common provides. For all intents and purposes, we force them to transition from infantile dependents to parents and heads of households with only a sort of non-sequitur ellipsis in between.”
And is independence a quality that Catholics should particularly prize? Our Church is based on interdependence, learning both to rely on others and to be relied upon. It’s true that living alone can teach valuable life skills. But so can living, as an adult, as part of a family.
I don’t pay rent to my parents, nor do I think that turning the relationship between parent and child into that between landlord and tenant is desirable. Much better is for the child (if they’re earning) to pay for aspects of the upkeep of the house – say, the grocery or electricity bills.
One thing that should absolutely be avoided from the parents’ side is the phrase “my roof, my rules”. As Coffey puts it, “this is a really weird reduction of parental authority to property ownership.” I hugely respect my parents and value their opinions, but not because their name is on the deed of the house. In fact, the more relationships between parents and children are based on mutual respect and listening, the better.
Making an idol of independence can actually get in the way of forming healthy families and communities. In the past it was common, particularly in times of financial difficulty, for a multi-generational family to co-exist in one house, with children getting married and having children of their own before eventually leaving to find their own home. This is still completely socially acceptable in many parts of Spain and Italy.
The very idea is now anathema to most of the English-speaking world, but again, why? Sure, it isn’t for everyone, but what exactly is the intrinsic problem? If each member of the household pulls their weight, has a certain amount of breathing space, and does their best not to drive each other (too) mad, couldn’t this often be a good arrangement? Catholics should be modelling alternate forms of community life, and this would be an easy place to start.
Finally: I like my family. I don’t just live with my parents, I live with my brother and sisters, and they’re among my favourite people in the world – great for a laugh, a deep chat, or a passionate debate around the dinner table. God willing I’ll one day have a family of my own, and have the privilege of introducing my kids to their extremely cool uncle, aunts and grandparents. But for the moment, my place is here.