When the coronavirus hit the United States in March 2020, Michelle Li, 27, moved out of her 600-square-foot Atlanta apartment and back into her parents’ house in the suburbs. She assumed the lockdown was temporary and would soon blow over — why not wait it out somewhere with a little more space?
But when her lease was up a few months later, the pandemic’s end felt much further away. She let the apartment go and opted to stay with her parents indefinitely.
Some days, Li, who says she has “a pretty good” relationship with her parents, enjoyed the company after four years of living alone. She also saved money, had space to spread out and spent quality time with her parents — time she never expected to have again. Daily walks with her mom and dad were the best part, she says.
Other days, Li felt like a cramped 16-year-old. She missed her friends, her sense of leading her own life. “My parents aren’t very emotional people, whereas I am a highly expressive and emotional person,” she says. “I feel like they saw more of my daily emotional roller coaster than they’ve seen since I last lived at home, which was in high school.”
That led Li to feeling like her life had stopped progressing. But, since moving into her own home in June 2021 — a feat made possible by the money she saved in the previous year — Li has reflected on the ways she blossomed back under her parents’ roof.
“I feel a lot more comfortable with being lonely, I am less affected by FOMO, and I’m now better at identifying the things that make me happy versus the things that make me look like I’m happy,” she says.
But, Li adds, “You can’t move back into your bright orange childhood bedroom without feeling some sense of regression.”
Li is one of many millennial women who unexpectedly moved in with their parents during the pandemic — navigating everything from caretaking to strained relationships to opportunities for newfound connection. In the United States, a higher share of 18- to 29-year-olds are living with their parents than ever before. A July 2020 survey from Pew Research Center found that 9 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 moved during the pandemic, as did 3 percent of all adults. Of those who moved, 20 percent did so because they wanted to be with family. For another 18 percent, financial reasons caused the move.
As life in the United States marches toward normal, with many restrictions being lifted and offices reopening, some women are also beginning to move back into their own spaces again. And many say they’re reflecting on the impact of the ups and downs of such a unique time in their lives.
“The potential mental health impact of moving in with their parents is likely different for different women,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed therapist and founder of Take Root Therapy. “There are so many variables to consider, including the relationship the woman has with her parents, how the woman sees herself in the world and how her parents see her in the world.”
Like Li, when lockdown came, Sheeta Verma didn’t see the benefit of paying for her small Boston apartment when a large room was available at her parents’ San Francisco Bay area home. The 20-something was glad to share meals with her parents instead of sitting in Boston worrying about their health.
But the 10 months working back at home was challenging, especially with the time change — her co-workers were three hours ahead on the East Coast. What’s more, Verma says, she didn’t have many friends in her hometown, and being there made her feel “like a kid again.”
“It seemed like free rent and groceries came at a cost to my mental health because of working and battling my own insecurities,” Verma says. “It felt like I moved backwards in life.”
Other women found marked benefits to moving in with their parents, even if there were nuances. Such was the case for Lucie Wilkins, a 39-year-old mom whose partner had a new business shut down because of the pandemic. Her work as a veterinary nurse wasn’t enough to support them and her son, so they put their house up for rent and moved in with her parents.
Wilkins’s son, now 7, adjusted well. “We always try to stay positive around him, and he got to spend time with my mum, who he loves dearly,” she says. “My parents were there to help with cooking and looking after my son, and it was nice to be around them at times.”
At other times, though, Wilkins says that “it felt like we were invading their space, and we couldn’t live exactly how we wanted.”
According to Lurie, extra time with grandparents can be especially beneficial for kids, allowing them to create more intimate relationships. But it can also be mentally taxing for mothers to seek that extra help and integrate their parents into their own nuclear family life.
For other women, coming home provided an opportunity to move into the caretaker role. Such was the case for 41-year-old Sarah Thomas. She had a move planned early on in the pandemic — but it wasn’t supposed to be into her parents’ basement. Only two weeks after Thomas relocated with her husband from San Francisco to Texas, her father was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive stage 4 cancer. She packed up her bags again and moved into her parents’ basement in Massachusetts.
She says that in between long hours of work, she drove her dad to daily chemo appointments, which were an hour away, and spent nights with her mom, watching Netflix and drinking wine. She credits her mom with being a “superwoman” and “opening her home, her heart and her hand to help in any way she could.”
The opportunity allowed Thomas to deepen the relationship with her parents over the last seven months in a way she would never have expected to have at this phase in her life, she says: “I was able to not only support much-needed care coordination and navigation of a complicated health-care system, but I was able to connect on a really raw and personal level with my family.”
For some women with strained parental relationships, the time provided them a chance to form bonds. At the pandemic’s start, Kierstin Johnson, who’s in her early 30s, had only just begun speaking to her mom again after a two-year estrangement. A bad living situation in California combined with job stress led her to feel “physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually miserable.” Her mom called on a particularly terrible day and offered for her to come home.
Johnson made the trip to rural Maryland for the first time in 10 years. At first, Johnson says, things were tense, but she appreciated the effort her mom was making — setting up a room for her and cooking family meals. The ice began to melt. “In the end, I feel like we had a better understanding of each other than I’ve had of her my whole life,” Johnson says. She grew to accept her mother for “exactly who she is.” In the end, she lived with her mom for 11 months.
“The best thing she could have ever done was at least try, and she did try,” she adds. “So I gained a lot by coming home during the pandemic.”
Moving forward, people who moved home have the opportunity to look at how this time altered them alone as well as their family dynamics, according to Lurie. They can then decide which of these changes to keep and which to work intentionally to change. That may be reclaiming parts of their independence through specific tasks or a new space, or it may mean ensuring their relationships with their parents continue to grow outside of a shared roof.
“For a lot of reasons, I’m really grateful that I was able to move home during the pandemic. I’m closer to my parents than I ever have been, and I’m actually starting to have anxiety about not seeing them every day,” says Li, the Atlanta resident.
“But that being said, I’m ready to get back to my real life.”