Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | I thought of home as a waiting room, the place I had to be until I could go somewhere else. Then I left, and missed it terribly.
"Bumfuck nowhere,” “part of the country that needs to die off already,” a “nowhere place”: It was a jolt to hear how other people—well-intentioned friends or bosses or random strangers I met in passing—referred to the place I knew as home.
Home is writing these words at the long kitchen table that my grandfather built as a gift for my mother. It’s the smell of my mom’s lemon cake and coffee wafting through the house, the neighbors I used to see every year as a child at our street-wide chili potlucks on Halloween. That’s how I think of it now. But for the majority of the time I spent growing up here, I thought of home as a waiting room, the place I had to be until I could go somewhere else.
There was a pull to “city life,” which I couldn’t have described: I envisioned it as every block being different, life being a revolving door of new people, new experiences, and new locations. I saw an allure in leaving, in embracing a rootlessness we associate with the in-betweenness of young adulthood. I saw moving somewhere new as a marker of a certain kind of success in growing up.
In high school, I wanted to leave so badly that in retrospect it’s embarrassing—I imagined that my life would really begin once I was somewhere else. Yearning for belonging I believed could only be built elsewhere, I wondered whether new places would bring about new selves for me to try on.
I moved like I was lost and trying to find myself—as if good things came only from searching, as if looking for something was the only means of mattering. It never lasted long. I moved about an hour away from home to college, commuting back and forth to my job and sobbing in a McDonald’s parking lot because I no longer belonged at home, certainly didn’t belong on campus, and was adrift in the in-between. After my freshman year, I moved home (and the ability to do so was a privilege), trying to tune out comments on why I couldn’t “handle” moving away by embracing precious moments, like coffee in the mornings with my mom and romps with the family dog.
I was humiliated, not just because I’d left school, but because I’d glaringly stumbled off the traditional path everyone I knew had taken: If you move away from home, you don’t move back. That’s not how young adults do it. We leave. We find our way.
But I didn’t. I moved home on repeat. I moved for a job a few hours away, where I had an apartment with a gallery wall and made enough to pay rent even if I had no health insurance, finishing full-time school from the apartment floor while I worked—only to bounce back home when the organization I was working for encountered financial trouble, and my chronic illness flared up. When I moved to New York—and thought I was finally “making it out”—the perfect storm of illness, loneliness, and a harassment incident sent me careening back to my hometown, feeling flooded with solace, and guilt for feeling that way. Each time I left, I found myself aghast that what awaited me wasn’t some new self or newfound capacity for adventure. It was homesickness. I thought I needed to prove that I could “make it” elsewhere. In reality, coming home was a relief.
The more I listened to how people described their homes, the more uncomfortable I became with the seemingly popular belief that metropolitan cities are just adventure grounds for people in their 20s. I felt disenchanted with the idea that going from a small town to a big city was a rite of passage. Even when people I knew moved back to their hometowns because the cost of living was lower or they needed to step in as caretakers, others talked about them as though they’d reached for the trapeze bar of young adulthood swinging you to the next thing and missed. It felt like “going back” got framed as quitting. Moving as a rite of passage, especially to certain places exalted as the centers of ultimate young-adult experience—big cities and college towns—didn’t make sense the more I unpacked it.
Home is a privileged conversation. Young adults who face housing insecurity—which can involve homelessness, staying with friends or relatives, eviction and forced moves, or cost-of-housing burdens—are grappling with a lack of stability that can influence health, happiness, and security, and mean the losses of social identity and of self. Living out of cars or bouncing to and from friends’ couches isn’t just some trope of young adulthood that glorifies the “adventure” of being unattached. It happens because of situations including abuse, inability to pay rent or even find affordable housing, or moving to a city specifically for a job and getting laid off and being unable to find another. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, roughly 550,000 youth and young adults up to age 24 have experienced a “homelessness episode of longer than one week.” It’s one aspect of home and moving that rarely pops up in listicles about what houseplants are hard to kill or what neighborhoods have the most bars, as if that’s all moving is about.
Among those young adults who have the privilege to change homes, not everyone moves for the same reasons, and not all of those reasons come with the absence of responsibilities and the addition of adventure. In 2010, almost a quarter of kids and young adults in the United States were first- or second-generation immigrants and, according to a 2014 study, often faced competing social responsibilities such as family or community obligations on top of the demands of work and school. This can make identity and a sense of home and belonging more layered.
Dalal Katsiaficas, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me that moving away from home has traditionally been one of the sociological markers of becoming an adult. But she pointed out that giving back to communities and being able to contribute to family in new ways is actually part of this coming-of-age component for young people, especially those from immigrant backgrounds.
So there’s this push and pull, where fulfilling this Americanized ideal of being out on one’s own and forging one’s own life comes at the real cost of contributing to families and communities in tangible ways, Katsiaficas explained. “For so many young people that I’ve talked to, they’ve narrated that hyperindividualism as a real sense of loss,” she said. Rarely, if ever, had I heard that sense of loss, or even homesickness, described as anything other than something we’re supposed to grow out of.
Supposedly, as a young adult, you have more mobility and opportunity than you ever will, and if you’re not taking advantage of that, you’re missing out on the golden opportunity of this age: exploration. Rarely acknowledged is that you might need stability and commitment alongside exploration and adventure. Newness gives us a hit of dopamine, which fades as the novelty wears off. It’s why our first times in a new place are overwhelming and exciting, whereas your once-wonderful-and-new neighborhood has likely lost that shiny luster going into year three of the same sights day after day and the same commute with the same coffee stop. It’s not hard to see how the pleasure of new beginnings could become enticing. They also feel like visible markers that life is moving forward in some way.
Laney, 22, talked with me about novelty from her childhood bedroom—she returned there when her college campus closed during the pandemic, and has been working there since. (She is identified by her first name only so that she could speak openly about her personal life.) Talking about friends who, at the same time she transitioned into adulthood in her childhood home, transitioned to new graduate schools and new cities, she explained, “Especially in this coming-of-age story we write for ourselves, getting to that next chapter is so rooted in location.” She knows there’s lots of growth in her life but said that because she’s in her childhood bedroom, it doesn’t look like much change or growth at all. At the same time, “I know a lot of people who moved cities, who did the whole next chapter, are really unsatisfied right now and feel really empty,” she added.
The idea of new beginnings is hardwired into a lot of marketing around what the “young-adult experience” is. From the jump, college gets presented as an opportunity for a young adult to make their own decisions, a presentation that often leaves out practicalities such as in-state versus out-of-state or private tuition, familial obligations that might prevent someone from moving far away, and the fact that not every young person wants or needs the same kind of postsecondary education. I remember being told, by people who did not know my circumstances, that college was “my shot” to start building a life for myself somewhere else. In some ways, the college decision, assuming there is one, is a sort of promised land—the promise being that you get to decide where you go from here.
Then it builds, with where you go next depending on what happens next, another notch of newness: where you get a job, whether you pursue more school, whether you can get a job, and whether you can afford the city in which said job is located.
Laney is the first person in her family to graduate from college, and if she moved out of her home state, she’d also be the first one in her family to do so. While her family will support whatever she decides, she said there’s this tension within herself between “not wanting to miss out, but not understanding if what you’re missing out on is even important to you.”
Community is a human need we have. “But in the broader U.S. society, we tell emerging adults that they should learn to stand alone, and that can be really painful,” Katsiaficas said. It’s overlooked, she added, but “taking care of family or community, and in turn feeling taken care of by them, has real benefits.” At its best, home can feel like being held. It’s why the quips about moving back in with your parents, or being 30 and still having roommates, are less commentary on young-adult failure than they are commentary on how we sometimes prioritize going it alone above all else.
For students, only one side of the equation seems to get addressed: the big questions about where you’re going to school, and where you’re moving after graduation. The way those get amplified leaves little room for other, more ordinary, equally important questions: Where do you feel safe, and like you belong? Are you homesick for many places, like a hometown and a college town and maybe somewhere entirely different? Is it possible to have roots in multiple places?
Because moving is so ingrained in how we think about this time of life, even though not everyone can “achieve” that milestone, staying seems like it is rarely celebrated. With going-away parties to celebrate new adventures and graduation parties to mark the close of one chapter and the beginning of another, staying in one place can feel boring.
Sometimes, because of the way we romanticize starting over, settling in seems to automatically mean settling down. Melody Warnick, a journalist and the author of This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are, thinks young people go through a “FOMO period,” or fear-of-missing-out period, when they’re newly graduated from school and it “feels like settling to stay in one place very long.” “There’s this sense that you want to experience lots of different things,” Warnick told me. “And we kind of have this long history in American culture that to be upwardly mobile also means just to be mobile.”
Entire industries are centered on that idea of mobility, or rootlessness, including subscription-based services that offer furniture rentals. Permanence—unbroken dishes that match, a nightstand that isn’t just a pile of boxes, framed art hung on the walls—feels like a luxury if you don’t know whether you’re staying, or if your landlord will hike up your rent next year and you’re off to the next spot.
Because traditional markers of stability, such as homeownership, feel out of reach for so many young adults, it’s like we’ve catapulted in the opposite direction: Being always on the move ensures you’ll see everything, and miss out on nothing. That’s how I felt—I wanted to see it all. So why, in retrospect, did that mean ignoring what was right in front of me?
In our conversation, Warnick pointed out that there is a stigma in America against not only small towns, but staying in the same place at all. We tend to think of it as representing “the abandonment of our big dreams,” Warnick said, a feeling of escape that some young people feel acutely. I felt called out, and with good reason: I’d clung to the belief that life would really begin once I left wherever I was. It kept dreams I was too scared to say aloud at arm’s length; it allowed me to imagine, and reimagine, the “best life” I’d finally find with a new zip code, conveniently forgetting that my real life was happening wherever I happened to be. I could participate, or I could wait. And for years, I waited.
If we’re seeking reinvention or creating a new identity, moving somewhere we aren’t known could make that easier. “But the new place isn’t the thing that completely changes us as people,” Warnick clarified. “It might change things about our circumstances. It might trigger some opportunities to change things about ourselves. But yeah, you have that moment of, like, ‘Dang, I am still the same human and I brought all my baggage, and now I’m going to have to move again.’”
Iam wired for coming home in the same way it is assumed we are wired for leaving. Any adventure that lures me out is no match for the ties that draw me home again. I come home in the way you’d fall asleep after a day spent in the heat of the sun—before you know it’s happened, before you know you want to. Half the pang of growing up for me was realizing that I’d somehow have to create a sense of home wherever I went, that for all the effort I spent trying to leave, all I would ever want to do is figure out homecomings, ways of returning to the place where I feel the most like me.
We don’t have to keep transitioning. It can be equally transformative to stay put for a bit, giving us the chance to know ourselves in the context of stability, rather than just the context of pursuing something. When we’re home, we can take inventory of who we are. It’s not quitting the adventure early to just want to settle in and stay for a while—nor is it dismissing the ideal of exploring to remember we can explore in all kinds of ways, in our communities, in how we build our homes, in how we feel about ourselves in different contexts. It can feel like coming home to ourselves.
This article has been adapted from Rainesford Stauffer’s book An Ordinary Age: Finding Your Way in a World That Expects Exceptional.
Rainesford Stauffer is a writer based in Kentucky.