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I'm 37 and Single — and My Mom Lives With Me

This isn’t what I envisioned, but I’ve never been happier.

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Alexandra Bowman
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“Baby, we’re not going home. This is our home now, OK?” After my mother explained to me, not for the first time, that we’d now live with grandma and grandpa and that daddy wasn’t coming with us, I cried the rest of the day and didn’t stop for a year. I was 4. It would be my first lesson that homes are made from the inside out.

Now, in my current house, I’ll hear the front door open and shut and hear my mother’s voice, and I’ll suddenly feel hungry. This sequence reminds me of back then, when my mother would get home from work and bring me a cookie or muffin as a treat, one of her more generous ways of treating my childhood sadness from her divorce. Only now, I’m 37 and the front door is to my own home where she moved in — with me, I might add — two years ago.

I’m fairly certain neither of us had this in mind years ago. When I was 6 and declared I was running away from home to find a better mommy, she found me having dinner just a few houses up from us. When I was 12 and wore jeans two sizes too big and she wore blue mascara. When I was 15 and declared I would be childless lest I have a child that hated their mother as much as I hated her (she wouldn’t let me go to a party in a notoriously bad neighborhood).

Old habits die hard. And my stomach loves its traditions.

Twenty years later, when I’m hastily making coffee to head out the door, my mother’s greeting is to continue a conversation from the previous night or from 10 years ago: I shouldn’t wear clothes one size too big, I shouldn’t be afraid to take up more space, we need more toilet paper.

Today, I have MS and my mother has asthma, but this is not why we moved in together. I’d accepted a role as a university administrator that came with a cushy residential position. Not long after settling in, I suggested to my mother that she should move in with me. She was living in a studio with a roommate a mile from me, and I thought it would be a practical arrangement. But even though the arrangement made logical sense, initially I was worried. Though I have siblings from my father’s second marriage, I am my mother’s only child.

Remember that scene in Terms of Endearment when Shirley Maclaine tries to climb in the crib with her daughter? Add three decades to that scenario and you have us. This isn’t to suggest my father wasn’t around, he very much was. My parents married a year before I was born and divorced a few years after with her getting primary custody and him getting weekend visitation rights. Though theirs is not my story to tell, I can confidently say part of why she left him was simple: He got in her way.

Today, our living situation is practical for me, and I cannot imagine any alternative. I cannot imagine coming home without hearing my mother fussing and muttering about the special diet I demand we keep the dog on. Or her proselytizing about these entitled kids today and the coddling they get, followed later by how much she wants to squeeze their little eager faces — and me begging her not to do that.

My mother sometimes gives the impression of being flighty or disorganized but she neither. Her will was so strong that the summer between high school graduation and college, when most teens are trying to live their best life before starting the next chapter, I had to plead with her to let me just hang out with friends for once instead of doing yet another scholastic program. I’d like to say that I rebelled after leaving home. But I graduated from college early with honors, found gainful employment within months and ended up at Harvard University for my Ph.D. After my dissertation defense, my mother took a long and dramatic bow.

Though now I pay the bills, I’m still the child and she clearly the mother. Even the dog obeys her more than me. But the difference now is that I listen, as her child. More than that, I absorb and I share it. The worst thing for MS is stress. Stress can make me physically ill, even hinder my ability to walk or swallow. So I’d find myself exhausted day after day, whenever the stress of higher education administration spilled over into toxicity. There were times all I could do was type from my bed and my mother would be the one to care for the dog, pick up groceries, even manage some phone calls. She would see me come home frustrated, sometimes in tears but usually cursing. She’d hear me say, “I’m not cut out for this; it’s too hard.”

She’d remind me of when I was 10 or 11 years old staying up late doing homework. “This is too hard and it’s past my bedtime,” I’d say. “Hmm. We can call the school so you can be late tomorrow,” she’d reply. “But then I’ll be tired,” I’d push back. “That’s OK,” she’d say. She knew what it would take me years to realize — that I am capable of managing whatever is in front of me.

“Give birth to something out of this” is what she tells me now, softly rubbing my head. And so, though I’ve struggled at work and needed to adapt to living with my mom as an adult, I have given birth to something from this situation. I’ve learned how to say no and to be generous at the same time. I’ve learned I can pull from the messy and make it into something neat that serves me. I’ve learned grace is remembering my own path and not following others.

Now I know that my mother planned my life, encouraged me and moved in with me not so I could be just another successful member of society, though she enjoys its domestic perks. My mother saw something in me that I am still gaining the confidence to display: That I am my own best thing.