Right after college, I did the thing you’re not supposed to do: move into your parents’ basement.
Stories about millennials hauling their bags back into their childhood bedrooms are usually tied to unemployment, the economy and higher education trends. For me, it was a little different. I went back to the nest because that’s what Mami and Papi wanted.
My Nicaraguan-born parents have been in the U.S. for more than two decades. They’ve learned the language, the norms, the neighborhoods, and the technology (my mother is my most active Facebook friend). But the “American” way hasn’t quite seeped into their views of a woman’s place in the world and the value of independence. The thought of me finishing school and moving into a shoebox-sized apartment in Brooklyn was radical, despite what all my friends and every single American-born girl on HBO seemed to be doing. In my family, tradition trumps trends every time.
To be truthful, I was looking forward to living with them again. My family is really close-knit. I figured if I got restless, I could pack my bags whenever, right?
My dad’s extremely traditional ideas of what young women should be like led to most of our arguments. He wanted me to obey him, because after all, I was living in his house. When I’d wail, “FINE! Then I won’t live in your house!” he’d explain that women all over Central America lived with their parents until they were married. They helped their parents. They obeyed and provided good examples for their younger siblings. They put family before absolutely everything. If they moved out, it was because they were pregnant or looking to get pregnant. He always reminded me how much he and my mother had given me, and how ungrateful I would be if I just left. And he never forgot to add that if I decided to strike out on my own, I wouldn’t be allowed to come back home.
While she was more delicate in her approach, my mom stood behind him. She’d gently explain that there was a significant culture gap and no matter how hard I argued, they just couldn’t support the idea of me living on my own.
There were fights and screaming matches and curfew talks. I’d envisioned my early 20s to be my years of independence, professional experiences and the real start of my adult womanhood. Instead, I was locking myself in my bedroom every night and blasting Fugazi as loudly as possible.
I craved quiet and space. When I’d go over to my friends’ apartments, I’d resent tiny things, like how they could choose the color of their walls and the decorations in their bathrooms. I had started my first real job and wanted to be seen as a strong, independent woman—but independence always seemed connected to where and how I lived. It was an image I didn’t fit while living with my parents.
Broaching the subject of where I lived was awkward at work. My boss made repeated inquiries about my living situation, cocking her head to the side and wondering aloud, “So, are you ever planning on moving out?”
Despite my constant frustration with my parents, I was terrified of defying them. I’m extraordinarily close to both of them. They’d called me nearly every day in college and would drive up from D.C. to New York to see me at least once a month, packing tons of groceries, clothes and things I could stuff into my dorm. The idea of ruining my relationship with them was unbearable.
I wanted to preserve the close family ties my culture had taught me to cherish, but I also wanted to prove myself as an autonomous woman who could live on her own. I have an extended family of more than 53 cousins, yet not one girl had moved out of her parents’ home unless she was on her way to the altar. I didn’t have an example to follow of how to balance my independence and my family, and I wasn’t ready to blaze trails if it meant risking one of the most intimate relationships I have.
It was a hard dichotomy to explain to my friends with American parents. Some of their responses were dismissive: “So what if they get upset? They’ll get over it.”
After a year and a half, I bit the bullet and leased a one-bedroom by myself. I almost pissed my pants when I told my dad. I opened with a long monologue about how much I loved him and didn’t want to disrespect him, but I needed to grow up. As soon as I was done talking, he got up and slammed the door to his bedroom.
The day I moved out, he didn’t say a word to me as my boyfriend and my little brother helped me shove furniture into the car. I alternated between making sure my new keys were in my pocket and trying not to cry. As if it couldn’t get more fucking dramatic, it started pouring rain when we pulled out of my parents’ driveway. When I finally stepped into the apartment—this one moment and symbol of adulthood I had been dreaming about—I sat on the floor of my empty living room and just sobbed.
That night was more than a year ago, but I still think about it all the time. I didn’t cry because of my father. The experience wasn’t a lesson about family and having the courage to fly the coop. It was about “independence” and the expectations I feel I have to meet as an American woman, expectations that are in sharp contrast from the culture in which my family raised me. I was—and still am— overwhelmed by being pulled in two directions my whole life and never quite meeting either ideal.
I’m stuck between both definitions of being a woman. Maybe one day I won’t be stranded in this literal no-woman’s land, but for now, I’m still navigating.