I couldn't figure out who was checking my e-mail. My junk mail was untouched, but e-mails from friends, guys or financial institutions were no longer in bold, as if to say, "Someone's had their nose in your business but wasn't savvy enough to mark 'unread.'"
I had recently moved back home, and apparently mom had made a habit of peeking around my office (OK, my brother's old bedroom) before I woke up every day. At 14 I might've accepted my mom's obsession with my online activity (OK, probably not) but at age 28, after a decade of living on my own, this was not cool.
Apparently I'm not the only person my age encountering serious threats to their personal space. Recent studies estimate that "boomerang kids" are an increasing 21st-century trend, with somewhere around 40 percent of young adults living once again under their parents' roofs immediately post-college or after a temporary stint in the real world. The economy and unemployment rates are major factors, as is the Generation Me belief that an individual should never have to suffer through an unhappy job or relationship. What it adds up to is a mass exodus — back to childhood bedrooms.
For many boomerang-ers, the toughest part is getting back the personal space they had when they lived on their own. When I went off to college, I was free to make my relationship decisions without mom saying, "Oh honey, even if you're mad at him you should call him back. Don't be mean." My roommate never told me my attitude sucked when my college flavor of the week upset me; instead she said, "Oh well. Hey, there's this party tonight ... " In my young adulthood I learned to bounce back quickly from love letdowns because my decisions were my own, and because my feelings deserved respect and I could enforce that with self-assuredness. And financially I learned to manage things too, living for four years in New York City while paying my own rent, and even traveling in Europe for a year. I'd evolved into a pretty self-sufficient individual (and if I could just get a book deal, I'd be totally independent!).
So imagine how humbling it was to go back to sharing space with mom and dad (though God bless them for taking me back in). I cheerily jumped back into my old role pitching in with chores, sharing the day's successes over dinner, and even helping with bills. But when it came to my personal life, I had to defend my turf with an iron shield. Finances and my career choice were as much a target of conversation as my love life had always been, and believe you me, there was no shortage of romantic coaching now, either. In the last 10 years my role in the universe had changed, but my role in the family had not. Despite the fact that this was who I'd been since birth, it was not me at all.
I guess the over-attention wouldn't have been hard to predict. My parents had fallen into a common empty-nester routine by the time I moved back home: long walks with the dogs on the weekends, date night every Wednesday, and an explosion of cheers and popcorn for dinner with each new season premiere of American Idol. It was a little like a Diane Keaton movie, but with no young hunky doctor bringing any action to the table — until I moved back home, that is, and the young hunky doctor was the guy I was dating. Suddenly Mom twirled into my bedroom with armloads of new dresses and shoes, so that if his surgeon's schedule opened suddenly, I'd have my doctor's-girlfriend Barbie outfit all ready to go.
When the doc's stethoscope moved on to someone new, the analysis of what went wrong provided my parents with endless conversation. Eventually I moved on to a new partner, so he became fodder as well. But once he started hanging around a lot, my parents were ecstatic to have gained another regular in the house. Mom cooked Sunday dinners like Barefoot Contessa and invited him on our Thanksgiving family trip. Dad invited him to smoke cigars and watch sports while I slept soundly in my bed right over them. Both my parents felt he had serious son-in-law potential, and I began to think that the number-one hottest trait a guy can possess is that he gets along well with your family.
The night we broke up I sat in my brother's old bedroom tilting the phone against my shoulder, and to keep my body from shaking I repeatedly traced a thumbtack over the letters that had been carved into his desk: "The Dave Matthews Band." My boyfriend's words echoed through me: "You can't tell me you never slept with that doctor." Capital D, little a, capital V, capital E... "You want things that I can't give you." Capital M, little a, two Ts... "I don't want to lead you on." Capital B, little a ... By the time we hung up I had traced every blemish on my brother's old desk. It reminded me that one time, someone else had been frustrated in this very same position, tracing shapes to escape a different sorry state of affairs.
For the first time since I'd left home 10 years ago, mom creaked up the steps, closed the door, and hugged me while I cried. I had suffered heartbreaks out in the real world, and the scariest thing about picking up the pieces had been the impossible weight of doing it by myself. I'd been out on my own, but now, finally, I wasn't alone. I guess there are moments when personal space is overrated.
Fortunately we've come to firm resolution regarding the privacy of my e-mail. I explained to mom, "It's not that there's ever anything I need to hide from you — if only my life were that interesting. It's that unlike anything else right now, it's mine." And even though I share a home with my parents again, I'm an adult now, and there are some things — in my life, in my e-mail, in my laundry basket — that exist for me and only me to deal with.