ABC’s hit sitcom Modern Family is meant to be a humorous window into an extended American family living today, with a gay couple and their adopted daughter; a dysfunctional, competitive husband and wife, who bicker with one another and their three children; and the aging patriarch with the young and attractive Mexican wife (his second marriage) and their gawky, prepubescent son. Like most sitcoms – with a few exceptions – there seems to be a disconnect with reality. The houses these characters supposedly live in are extremely large and immaculate, they seem to be bathed in perpetual sunshine, they all have new cars and money, they’re all attractive and witty. Jobs – or the lack of them – don’t appear to be an issue. Real life, of course, is grittier and messier.
My own family falls into the gritty and messy category. It’s a peculiar thing to be living with your mother and brother at this stage in life (over 35). I feel a bit like a teenager – down to being reliant on my mother to borrow her car – but with added responsibilities and two growing children of my own. I even have to go pick my mother up from her job at an elementary school, in what is a weird reversal of our roles when I was a child. Unsurprisingly, we have an uneasy relationship. We chat to each other about the minutiae of our day, we share the responsibility of raising my children, we share dinners together and some chores; sometimes we argue. The arguments were explosive when I first got here five months ago, and I’m guessing that this was my mother’s way of dealing with the huge intrusion and disruption to her settled life, which was well on its way to retirement.
It makes me wonder how I would feel if my children, with their complicated adult lives, suddenly dropped in on me in my advanced years and never left. ‘Boomerang kids’ – grown-up children who leave and come back, usually after traveling or going to university – are on the rise in the United States and presumably in other Western countries. According to the US Census Bureau (as reported by CBS News) there were 6 million young adults (18-24 years old) living at home in 1960. In 2008 the number had grown to 15 million, with an additional 1.2 million living with their parents between 2008 and 2010, a gain of 5 percent. This can be attributed to the downturn in the economy and rising student debt and perhaps people putting off major life decisions, such as marriage, until later.
A scout in America
My situation is a little different, although it could be partly attributed to our flagging economy. If there were more job opportunities, perhaps the English Husband would have come out with me and taken the chance on finding a job. Instead, he continues to work in London while I take the temperature of the United States, to determine whether things could be better for us here. In this sense I am a bit like a solitary ant who is sent ahead by the troops to scout around for food. I see these scout ants wandering aimlessly through our bathroom upstairs and I am reminded of their fragility. I do a very un-Buddhist thing and squash them regularly. I wonder how this squares with my vegetarianism … but I digress.
Do I see myself as a boomerang kid? Not really – I’m far too old. Personally, I feel less like a boomerang – which has an implicit sense of fun – and more like a barbell. To lift a barbell out of its place, you have to make a huge effort – it’s all dead weight. With a boomerang, there’s a certain amount of zip and weightlessness.
But there’s also some humor to be had from this situation. When the kids jump on my brother’s ‘bed’ – which is sprawled all over the formal dining room near the Christmas tree – I kind of laugh at how we ended up here. At this juncture, my brother would like me to tell everyone that he has just returned from an extended trip – about 9 months in total – that took him all over South East Asia. Not long before that, he traveled through South America for 8 months. He wouldn’t change a thing, even if his closet is now squeezed between a water tank and a cupboard in the laundry room and he’s had to give up his room for me. Things are looking up for him, though, because it was his birthday yesterday and he got a Playstation 3. I fear that I will never again be able to watch the television while he’s in the house. Speaking of television, I’m certain that a better writer than me, perhaps someone like Roseanne Barr, could make television fodder out of my family dynamics. Modern Family is amusing but its characters aren’t much like any families I know. I think the best humor – no matter how elaborate, exaggerated or ridiculous – reveals an uncomfortable truth about ourselves or others.
The English Husband arrives from London on Saturday. I’m sure we will have a long conversation about what I’m doing here and how long I’ll be doing it for. I could pretend that I’m looking for a job, but it’s a rather dispiriting process that I can only do for short bursts, usually about once or twice a week. At this rate I don’t know whether I will get a job, and that will mean returning to London and admitting defeat.
It’s not the worst thing that could happen. I don’t usually go around quoting proverbs, because it would make me a tad annoying, but this one popped into my head as I was writing this, so I looked up the full quote on the internet. (I wish I could say I knew it from memory.) It was the inventor Alexander Graham Bell who said: ‘When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.’ I think I spent too much time in London dwelling on the opportunities I might have missed when I left the United States 15 years ago. I’d like to say I’ve learned my lesson.