Part of The Home Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
Earlier this year, Kathy Pao, 28, was living in Washington, DC, with two roommates in a townhouse and working as a management analyst for the federal government. Then Covid-19 hit and her roommates moved home to California: one permanently, and the other for long periods, to stay with family. Not wanting to live alone, Kathy decided to do what more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds have already done: move back in with her parents.
The notion of millennials living at home well into adulthood has become a trope and a generational punchline. But because of Covid-19, moving home isn’t the signal of personal failure or laziness it used to be. For some, it’s an economic decision — why pay expensive rent when proximity to your workplace won’t matter for the foreseeable future? For others, being close to elderly parents means they can keep an eye on mom and dad’s health. And for the sea of millennials who’ve lost their jobs during the pandemic, moving back home isn’t a choice, it’s a necessity.
But even before the coronavirus, the pressure for young adults to move out after they turn 18 varied widely. Living with one’s parents well into their 20s and 30s is normal in many parts of the world, including Portugal, India, and Italy, and for many immigrant families living in the US, the tradition carries on. Kathy’s mother, Betty Kao, for example, is a Taiwanese immigrant and couldn’t have been more thrilled that Kathy was moving home. “I grew up in a different culture,” said Betty. “For Americans, everybody thinks that you should move away when you’re 18.” If Betty had it her way, Kathy would have moved in with her parents long before the pandemic.
Of course, adults who move back in with their parents face challenges, from divvying up chores to maintaining their freedom. For Kathy and Betty, things are going well so far, but how long will the peaceful cohabitation last? Here, Kathy and Betty talk about what it’s like living under the same roof for the first time in 10 years.
Betty: When Kathy called to say she was thinking about moving home, I was surprised and shocked. I said, “Huh? You want to move back?” Of course, I didn’t say how it would make me so happy. I haven’t seen her for a while, but of course we have had conversations and I’d say, “Come back any time. As soon as you are ready.” When she said she’d be coming home, she also said she could pay rent to live here, and I said, “That’s okay, I don’t need your rent. As long as you’re home, I’m happy. I know that you’re safe here with me.” That’s all I want.
Kathy: She stopped talking, and she doesn’t do that very much. And so I was like, “So, I’m thinking I might come home if that’s okay with you and Dad?” And then essentially, it was decided in the next five minutes how all of that would happen.
My family is close by, so I thought it would be nice to spend more time with them. Finances were a part of it, but they weren’t the driving force. Of course I was like, if I didn’t have to pay rent, I could save a good chunk of money every month. But I will help chip in with groceries and anything else that’s needed in the house. Money’s always been very fluid in our family. My money is your money. I try to give them money for stuff, and they don’t take it a lot of the time. And plus, when you go home, it’s just comforting to have loving parents and a nice house with a yard where you can go outside. So it’s just nice. I think for both of us, we have overall less life responsibilities.
I was a little nervous. My dad’s an essential worker, a mailman, and he goes into work every day, so I knew he wouldn’t be in the house. It would be me and my mom both at home most days. And my mom’s kind of loud.
Betty: Yes. But not intentionally. It’s just who I am!
Kathy: You’re very excitable. And I was like, how will things go if she’s yelling on the phone or something? But I thought we could make it work. I think she gets that I’m an adult now and I have my own job. That’s what we used to fight about the most when I was younger, either my schoolwork or a job. And now that I have a stable life and I can be independent and take care of myself, there’s definitely less of that.
Betty: I try not to give too much advice. I used to kind of control her when she was younger, of course, but now she’s been out there. She knows when she’s making a good decision. And I am trying to constantly remind myself not to interfere too much. Because I don’t want you to move somewhere else.
Kathy: Well, eventually I’m going to move out.
Betty: Kathy is my only daughter, and I love her very much. She’s a very independent woman. She has a lot of ideas. And she’s very strong-minded. Many times I have to yield to her demands.
Kathy: She only says that because sometimes she needs a strong guiding hand, especially in terms of technology. So I will be a little more forceful with her. If I won’t do it for her, she won’t do it at all. Anyways, we’re living together again for the first time in about 10 years. So we’ll see how that goes.
Betty: I moved away from my parents years ago because I’m married and I have a family, so that’s very traditional, but I grew up in a different culture. Kathy moved away ever since she was in college. And, of course, we’ll move wherever she settles down.
Kathy: They always say that, but I don’t know if it’s going to happen. When I decided to move back, I really wasn’t concerned about the social stigma of living at home with my parents. Covid has changed a lot of that. Before, it was like you had somehow failed or done something wrong and were forced to move home. Since Covid, a lot of my friends who were transplants to DC have gone home. And they all say it’s temporary, but who really knows?
Betty: We want to live nearby her. Just to give her support, just in case.
Right now, we’ve only been living here together a week. We try to give each other space, and we share housework. I’m so glad she’s here cooking dinner. Ever since Covid, I’ve been cooking myself, and I hate my own cooking, so I’m glad somebody’s taking over. She did cook one time, and it was very good. It was spaghetti squash, and it was amazing. I had more portions than I should have had.
Kathy: It’s also nice to have my mom’s cooking because she’s definitely a much better cook than I am, especially with the Chinese food I grew up eating. One of the reasons I was kind of excited to move home was because there are some life skills that I would like my parents to teach me now. One of them is to cook the traditional Chinese dishes that I grew up eating, and the other is for my dad to teach me how to fix my car.
Betty: My husband and I have been empty-nesters for a while, so it takes time to adjust. Most of the time, after dinner, we fall asleep on the couch. But since she’s here, we get more involved after dinner, doing some family activity.
Kathy: You and dad still fall asleep on the couch.
Betty: But we do more things now before we do! Before, we would watch TV and fall asleep on the sofa, then get up and go to bed. But with Kathy here, we manage our own time better. We play cards together.
Kathy: We did, and she didn’t like it.
Betty: It’s too complicated for me. I don’t like counting points. I don’t like the strategy. But at least we’re getting involved in some kind of social activity.
Can I bring one thing up? I don’t want to clean the house. Can we hire a maid to do it?
Kathy: Do you think that’s a good idea right now?
Betty: I was cleaning the bathroom, and I don’t really want to do it anymore. I was thinking about having someone come over every other week.
Kathy: We’ll talk about that post-Covid. It’s only been a week. So we’ll see how it is in like, a few weeks. When I moved in, I was like, “You and Dad, are you gonna be loud in the morning?” Because they wake up really early. I wake up at 8:20, and then I sign on to work at 8:30. That’s just my schedule. So I asked them to please be quiet and not wake me up. My dad wakes up super early, and he’ll be in the kitchen banging around. I was like, “Alright, can we all just be quiet?”
Betty: We try to follow her instructions.
Kathy: I appreciate it. I don’t want to wake up at 6 am!
Betty: I’m just happy that she’s home. So I’ll do everything for now. I don’t know how long my own patience will be. But now, I will accommodate anything that will keep her here and in the house.
Kathy: If stuff returns to a new normal, or some semblance of that, I think I would definitely still want to live on my own or live with my roommate. It’s just that I like having that bit of freedom. I don’t have to tell her where I’m going because I’m not going anywhere. But if that were a thing, I think I would just get tired of, you know, being accountable to another person because I haven’t had to do that for a long time. So if this were forever, I think we would of course make it work because what else are you going to do? But I don’t think I’d want to live here past Covid.
Betty: I think she’ll be here at least another year.
Kathy: That’s a long time.
Betty: It doesn’t make sense to move back here for four months and then move back again. All that back and forth.
Kathy: I’ll hire movers.
Julie Vadnal is a writer and creator of the newsletter JULES. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, ELLE, Glamour, Domino, and Real Simple.