my article on living on my own for the first time

Flying the Coop … 
Leaving Home Is One Thing, Living on Your Own Is Another

By Alison Green
The Washington Post
May 11, 1993

Like most people, I used to daydream about winning the lottery or, more precisely, about everything I would buy: a new car, unlimited CD’s, clothes, perhaps a small restaurant. Now I sit around and fantasize about running through the Price Club with Ed McMahon’s certified check in one hand while the other hand pushes a cart loaded down with dishwasher detergent, cat litter and family-size boxes of cereal. You see, this summer I moved out of my mother’s house and into my own apartment.

It’s been a shock, to say the least. Last year was my freshman year at college, and I thought that I was living on my own — after all, there were no parents around to check in with or to remind me to make my bed. But living in a college dorm is definitely not living on your own, at least not if your parents are paying your tuition and pizza costs and are letting you bring laundry home on breaks. The most fundamental difference, however, is the sense of security that some of us are not even aware that we have.

In most cases, dorm residents are living with the knowledge that if they sleep in one morning instead of going to class, they still will be able to eat the following week. The dining hall food may resemble the stuff your cat throws up, but it’s plentiful and someone else serves it to you.

Of course, no one realizes this at the time. At college last year, I was smugly confident in my new-found independence, reveling in my fresh adulthood — never mind that Mom and Dad were financing it.

When I decided to take a year off and get an apartment with a friend, I anticipated only the most basic changes – and only the positive ones. I would have a bathtub instead of those dorm showers designed by peeping toms and a full-sized refrigerator stocked with delicious refreshing beverages.

An apartment would be a miniature house of my own, I decided, just like living at home but without the restricting presence of parents. Little did I know.

We never realize just how much our parents do for us until they aren’t doing it anymore. All the little things that most of us have taken for granted our whole lives suddenly aren’t there. I mean, do you ever think about all the odds and ends that your parents cover?

I just assumed there was some kind of toilet paper fairy who kept a steady supply of Charmin in the house. Trust me, there is nothing like a dearth of toilet paper in your house to shatter cherished illusions. Now I find myself combing the aisles of Safeway looking for the best deal on an eight-pack and thinking: “What did people do before toilet paper, anyway? I bet they used leaves. Leaves are cheap and economical.”

And what about all the creature comforts in your house? It’s taken years of living on their own for your parents to accumulate all that. It was a shock to discover all the things I didn’t have to which I had grown accustomed – little things, like spices or a scale, a thermometer or a cheese grater. And big things, too – like furniture.

Fortunately, my roommate has been living on her own for several years and had already acquired a couch, a dining room table and chairs, dishes and so forth. Thank goodness for that.

Kathy also had already developed the mentality that one needs when on one’s own. Our first joint trip to the grocery store was a sobering event. We decided to each cover half the store and meet in the middle.

When we met up in the frozen foods, I was pushing a cart loaded down with chips, soda, pretzels and baked goods. I glanced into her cart and saw detergent, paper towels, cat food and toilet paper. Needless to say, my shopping habits have had to change. Thus, the lottery fantasy.

There are other things that you have to do when you live on your own, things about which you don’t normally think. It’s a pain to spend half the day waiting for the plumber or the cable installer. And it’s hard to remember to schedule dentist and doctor appointments — especially when you’d rather spend the money on something else. I learned this the hard way when I spent several hundred dollars on a bar and professional set of bar tools, only to have my wisdom teeth announce their presence a few days later.

I spent the next week in agony; surprisingly, the knowledge that I could numb the pain with a drink from our bar was not the consolation I had thought it would be.

One thing that has taken me a while to learn is how to prioritize. In fact, I’m still learning it. Frequently I spend money spontaneously and when it comes time to pay the power bill, the prioritizing decision is between having electricity or being able to eat. Faced with this decision, I find it easiest to decide to diet.

Money is by far the biggest issue most people face living on their own. The bills never stop coming, and just when I think I have a budget worked out, something invariably comes up that I hadn’t planned on. There are so many hidden costs to simply living in this culture that we never see when we’re at home with Mom and Dad.

Security deposits are a truly evil aspect of independence. When the power company told me that they would need a deposit to connect us with service, I figured they meant $10 or $20. They meant $150. The landlord wanted close to $1,000 before we could move in. You get the money back in the end, but in the meantime, you have to come up with the cash.

This brings us to work. Entering the work force – the real work force, not the teen work force in which most employees wear beanies and plastic aprons — has given me a whole new perspective. I never used to understand why my mother always came home from a day’s work exhausted — I mean, it’s not like she had a job that required a lot of heavy lifting or anything. Now I understand. That’s all I can say.

Work, while not the bane of my existence, is also not a source of ecstasy to me. Most of the interesting jobs go to people with a college degree, and while I was lucky enough to get a better-than-average job for someone with only a year of college, my job is not terribly challenging. This is a problem, because when my alarm goes off at 7:30 each morning it is all too tempting to turn it off and go back to sleep. But I can’t; it’s not like missing class when you can make up the missed work later.

Sometimes the only thing that gets me up is knowing that if I don’t, I don’t get paid and neither does the rent. Last month I was sick and missed a week of work. I lived on potatoes the following week.

Where are my parents, you may be asking. (You’re only asking this if you’re my age; if you’re older, you’re feeling sorry for my parents for having such a spoiled child. More on that later.) Yes, I have turned to them for loans a few times when I was desperate, but I hated doing it. It’s odd; my attitude used to be that you should milk your parents for whatever you could get. No longer – I want to do it for myself now. It’s as though asking them for money somehow diminishes my independence. I’ve decided to do this on-my-own thing, and I want to do it all the way.

So I’m working on developing my shaky sense of responsibility, though in many ways it’s too late. I’ve already succeeded in destroying my credit rating through several bounced checks and several missed payments on those insidious plastic cards. Someone should start a “Just Say No to Credit Cards” program on the scale of the drug war. Ruining your credit rating is just plain stupid. It follows you around forever, the way I used to always think my parents would.

Speaking of parents, I’ve found that they don’t follow you around nearly as much as you might like once you’ve moved out. (This is probably because they’re too busy trying to reassemble the few pieces of their house that you have left intact during your years there.)

I was surprised to find that it can be a treat to have your parents drop by your new abode — especially if they come bearing food. And if you master the sad, wide-eyed, “my stomach has been empty for three days so I could pay my power bill” look, they’ll bring a virtual feast.

But be forewarned: Along with the goods comes the Official Inspection. This most often comes from my mother. She walks around suspiciously, her nose twitching. At first I thought she had an allergy, but then I realized she was trying to find where I had stored the mess.

She thought up various excuses to look in closets (“You say you don’t know where Kathy is? Let me check in this closet for you.”) I’m no fool — I hide everything under my bed. Why I care, I don’t know. I guess part of me wants to prove that I’m not the slob who resided in her house all those years, though of course I am.

I’ve gotten tripped up several times by the Unexpected Drop-By. The enemy that strikes fear into the hearts of all grown children living on their own for the first time, the Unexpected Drop-By has a way of happening at the most unfortuitous times. The first time that your roommate is gone for the weekend and you’ve just settled in for a cozy night of passion with the person of your choice, rest assured that the doorbell will ring and there will stand Dad, a big smile on his face and a wrench in his hand. “I’ve just popped by to fix the drain, honey!” he will announce, sure that you’d like nothing better than to spend this Saturday night watching him wage war against your clogged pipes.

And you will let him, because when this first happens, you will not yet have figured out that, for the first time in your life, this is your apartment and you are the one in control. So Dad will come in and spot Lothario or whomever you are with, and a cloud will cross his face, as he realizes for the first time that maybe you really do have a life outside of watching him extract gobs of hair from your bathroom fixtures. It will be a shock, and you will have to be gentle with him.

In all seriousness, however, having your parents over actually can be nicer than you expect. The key is that they are no longer there indefinitely. They may nag and they may bitch, but at some point they will go home. And often — more often than you think — you may find that you are talking to them as people, not as your parents. And this is in no small part due to the fact that you are coming to appreciate the real-life problems and experiences that they face.

Don’t run with that appreciation though, or you may find yourself becoming them. On more than one occasion, I have witnessed myself become my mother in a transformation reminiscent of “Freaky Friday.” The whole responsibility thing takes its toll on you after a while, and several times I have heard myself demand to know who tracked mud all over my clean kitchen floor.

I also have found myself mentally tabulating the additions to my water bill every time a guest flushes the toilet. Stinginess is an attribute that independence can bring out in even the most generous.

Does it sound like I am complaining? More than once while writing this, I have realized that it does. I have tried to picture the reader, and whether he or she will see it that way. Any parents reading this undoubtedly are thinking that I am spoiled and lazy, unappreciative of everything my parents have done for me. But I am not, not at all.

If anything, I am more appreciative of them than ever before. But parents will read this and wonder where I get off lamenting my hardships, even as they clip this and hand it over to their kids. “See? I told you it’s not all fun and games,” they’ll tell them. And will their kids gain anything from hearing about my experience? Probably not.

People (read: my mother) tried to warn me about how difficult it is to strike out on one’s own. You just don’t listen until you’re there. What those parents won’t realize but most of my peers will is that I am enjoying this new life. It has its good and its bad, but I create both.

And when I am older, I will tell my own children how hard it is to live on one’s own and that they shouldn’t take their luxuries for granted. And they will roll their eyes and think, “Just wait, I’ll show her … ” And I’ll watch them and know this and wait for the day they come to me asking if they can have just one roll of toilet paper until their next paycheck. When they do, I’ll tell them about the leaves.