Over the past two years, I’ve been embarrassed to tell people where I live. “Do you live in university housing?” “No, uh, actually, I live with my mom.”
I am in my late 20s, married, now with two children on the way, and I live with my mom. Not still, but again. And this isn’t really lucky, per se, it was more by design.
When I moved back to New York for grad school, it certainly was not lost on me that there are perks to returning home. I’d spent college in a completely different part of the country with no relatives to speak of nearby and experienced a good bit of culture shock there. My post-college years, during which I got an MA, were in the same region I’m from, but a very different city. In a lot of ways, I preferred that life – the relative familiarity was enough comfort for me to build a new way of being for myself, to ease into full adulthood and become financially independent, to grow personally and emotionally without my parents nearby poking their noses in (or, more accurately in my case, not really getting involved but still asking very prying questions as parents do). I had the choice for the PhD to move to an entirely new region again, strike out in a new phase of my life without any family nearby and with no sense of the culture or the people. And I liked that idea, but my adviser and my future cohort of medievalists pulled me back home. And so I recognized the benefits awaiting me – intimate knowledge of the area and its culture, old friends a subway ride away, and my mom (and her house) in walking distance.
“Oh you’re so lucky!” I’ve heard from colleagues and mentors alike. “You don’t pay rent, right?” I know what they imagine – it’s like being a kid again. It’s not. It’s like having a very involved landlady and no lease. Plenty of people, especially those attending urban universities, continue to live with their parents for college or move back home for grad school, and they all recognize the trade-off: what you save in money, you give up in a social life and personal freedoms. For the first year of my program, I was content living on my own – my husband and I found an apartment we absolutely loved in a totally different neighborhood. I was paying as much or less than I would in university housing, but with a dishwasher and more stable rent, and I was able to negotiate my cat into the lease. The only downside was the neighborhood, which felt far from everything even though plenty of Columbia students live there. But things changed when my husband got into business school. While we could easily afford the rent with my stipend plus his salary, once he stopped working my stipend wasn’t enough to cover all our living expenses. And so we finally moved in with my mom, which she had been gleefully offering since I was first admitted to Columbia.
Now, it’s worth taking a second here to talk about class and privilege and how they play into graduate school (and ESPECIALLY business school). I will not for a moment pretend that it isn’t an incredible financial- and class-based privilege that I grew up in NYC in a space large enough that I was willing to share it with my mother as a married adult. That is not the typical “I’m living at home to save money at university” arrangement. And furthermore, this is not something I had to do. Because the reality is that I did not move in with my mom because I was unable to afford housing as a broke grad student, but that my husband and I were unwilling to rack up the kind of debt that is expected of business school students, a sort of loan from the future you that makes more money.
Business school is not like most other kinds of grad school, because you don’t just enter into it expecting to have a career at the end, you enter into it with a near guarantee of a lucrative career, or at least a substantial increase in quality of life, and business school students accordingly adjust to their expected new lifestyle the second they get admitted (there is one notable exception to this, which is people who go into the non-profit sector). Typically, you do not actually need a degree in business to achieve in a corporation – some companies and industries do require it do advance beyond a certain (income/status) level, though, and traditionally this is why people go to business school. But it was clear to me from the first b-school event I attended that the students aren’t just anticipating a raise, they’re anticipating an entirely new social stratum, a new way of life. An official pre-orientation event was a week-long vacation in East Hampton. Having grown up around that world, I knew it was something I didn’t want to participate in – empty, superficial, and self-satisfied.
So while my husband had initially considered applying to business school in order to advance in his career (granted, he didn’t really want that life either, and his main goal within the school itself was academic achievement), I made sure to encourage him to use it as an opportunity to pursue his passions, grow as a person, and transition to a career he felt personally engaged in. A major part of doing that was relieving him of the financial burden that business school itself posed – we were going to have to take out a huge loan just to pay for tuition, rely on my stipend to cover all of our living expenses, and then expect his future job to provide enough income that we could pay back that loan without being crippled by debt for the next 30 years. If we also had to use that loan to cover living expenses, much less the living expenses of a typical business school student (which includes a lot of fancy drinks, enough black-tie events that at least half of the people I talked to felt that buying a tuxedo was “worth it”, and, typically, international travel), we were looking at doubling our debt. From my husband’s perspective, that tremendous debt threat meant that the only responsible thing to do would be to return to his previous company, which had given him a return offer to sit on for two years, where he could expect a hefty salary increase and a bonus that, with a little bit of planning, could pay off the loan in just two years. But by the time he had left his former employer, it was clear that he hated the work there, even as much as he liked the people he worked with – he was facing that empty future of a nice life with no real meaning, to put it very dramatically.
This is, as my dad would say, a high-class problem. So we moved in with my mom, which allowed us to limit our loan to just tuition, and my husband was free to explore the career he really wanted, and eventually got. We traded one kind of privilege – a particular socio-economic class and lifestyle – for another – the privilege of family support. And that is a lucky thing to have, people aren’t wrong when they say that. But while we as a society often nod to the idea that we should show gratitude to our parents for what they provide us and that it would be ungrateful to take that help without at least some recognition, there is a way in which we expect that sort of privilege, and indeed look down on and shake our heads at the people who are “not fortunate enough” to have it.
As I sit on the cusp of the much greater life burden of two new children, I think more and more about how much I can expect from the people around me. This is the oldest form of support we expect from our parents – the benefit of free childcare and the wisdom of experience. And yet again I get comments of “oh aren’t you lucky that you’ll have family to help you with this.” Is it lucky? In some ways, it’s a mark of modernity that we don’t expect this kind of support, or that we think it’s even worth mentioning. I’m moving far away from my family support network, and, yes, once I’m gone my parents and in-laws really will be making a huge effort to provide me with the kind of support people generations ago didn’t think twice about. And I’m also looking to this support for a very modern reason – not only am I “going back to work” (ugh) but my work requires a tremendous amount of domestic and international travel over an 18 month period, during which my family is stepping in at various points to enable me to do anything remotely productive. In that sense, I am “lucky” only in that having children will not force me to completely abandon my career, which is indeed something to be thankful for as a woman in the modern world, but also a deeply upsetting expectation.
But should I not expect this kind of help, or is it just the strain of modern life that makes us think that this kind of familial support is above and beyond? In a pre-/early-industrial society, there is no standard of “going back to work” because the work takes place in the home. And by that I don’t mean that women were confined to being housewives, but that families either didn’t exist in a capitalist system and therefore everyone (including adult men) typically produced sellable and self-sustaining goods in the home OR the economic and labor burden was split between all adults in the house relatively equally and people moved through jobs as they were suited to and able to complete them. Childcare, in those situations, was not a commodity, but an aspect of work that was taken on by people too old or too young to produce sellable goods. With the modern life came the expectation that work takes place outside the home and therefore the increasing distance between not only places of work and the home, but even between the familial home and the satellite. I have lived, at times, 500 or 1000 miles from where I grew up, and I’m about to move 3000 miles away, and then, for a time, 6000 and 10000 miles away. As a Mediterranean historian, I know not to be fooled by distance – plenty of people of the past moved around – but even then, systems and structures existed in relative states of formality that supported movement. Modern movement is untethered, because individuality and independence are modern cultural values. A medieval person’s family work could have required thousands of miles of travel, but it might have been side-by-side with a spouse or a parent. But if I take my mother with me to Europe to care for my two 6-month old infants, I am lucky to have that opportunity because modern movement is free from social obligation.
So is it reasonable for me to expect that kind of parental support? Or am I lucky?