Lessons from My Parents’ Basement

man sitting on stairs with head down on a box
Moving back home was the last thing I wanted, but it was exactly what I needed.

“I live in my parents’ basement.”

The statement isn’t glamorous or attractive. You don’t lead with it in a job interview or on a first date. It’s certainly not the life goal of any college graduate or independent 20-something. Rather, living with your parents has become an indication of floundering.

Yet after four years of college freedom, this is where I found myself — below ground and beneath my parents’ roof and watchful eye. Initially, it was a generous offer I accepted out of convenience. My soon-to-be wife and I were engaged, and it felt annoying and excessive to immediately find a place for myself, then find another in a year for both of us. So I decided, in the interim, to crash with my folks.

It wasn’t what I had pictured or planned, but being a basement dweller became the catalyst for one of the greatest joys and most unexpected blessings of my adult life: a new and improved relationship with my parents.

Pulling Away

For many of us, our childhood is spent pulling away from our parents. We resist from two years old to 22, with tantrums and tears that age appropriately with us. Part of this clawing after independence is natural, even healthy. The search to find ourselves apart from our parents helps us eventually stand on our own. The tension is typically always there — the parent pushing closer, the child pulling away.

And just when you think you’ve managed a healthy distance — not too close, not a crutch — but also not too far, not too distant— then you graduate from college and things change again.

I moved back home. But by then, it wasn’t even home. I moved to my parents’ new house. My childhood home had been sold, and they’d settled into this new place and new empty-nest phase in a duplex on a dead end. They had made it their own, and what was theirs wasn’t mine any longer. As we negotiated the living arrangement, they were so gracious, setting up a makeshift bedroom just for me next to a newly finished bathroom. The rest of it was about what you’d expect, a hodge-podge of thinning rugs, a well-loved desk, a few mismatched dressers and a bed frame. It all looked as I felt — a bit unfinished, odd, unsettled.

Initially, I desired space. I made efforts to be alone, pulling in after a day of work and padding straight downstairs toward privacy — toward independence. It was natural, I guess, that a desire for time spent far from my parents would turn into an internal revolt against being so close. For a few weeks, that pattern continued. I’d binge-watch borrowed DVD collections and eat things warmed in a microwave, dreaming of being anyplace else. It sounds pathetic, and maybe it was.

But it was also a missed opportunity.

Perspective Change

I don’t know how intentional it was, but over time I felt a subtle shift in the way I interacted with my parents. I would mill around for a few minutes in the kitchen before descending downstairs. We would chat about my day and theirs. I was a curriculum salesman, so we’d discuss where I went, how much I had sold and which schools I had visited. I repeated this routine, and over time it began to feel less like an obligation and more like a partnership.

Those quick chats with my parents turned into lingering dinners, and before long, our time together stretched past dessert and into back-to-back episodes of Masterpiece Mystery until we all dozed off. In those stretches when we’d speak over supper or be silent through a mini-series, a connection started to form.

I was building something with my parents, even if accidentally at first. I had stumbled into something important that I almost missed. These weren’t brave steps or great leaps. Rather, we all began to wade in, not knowing how it would all work out, but we were trying. We splashed around, testing the waters.

We began to shift from the familiar patterns of authority and obedience, of adult and child. In their place we set mutual respect and openness and humility. There were few rules and no curfew. My parents didn’t need to coax things out of me — I offered information freely. I didn’t need to prove myself as responsible because they saw it. They didn’t need to beg me to listen because I did. With patience we began to see all we could learn from each other. We were building a new type of relationship. Despite what I had thought I wanted, this was better.

Foundation for the Future

My parents and I began to establish a comfort that happens in close quarters and a friendship that happens in the familiar. The cracks of immaturity in our relationship began to fill as time and effort and conversation leaked into them. We were cementing a foundation of honesty and mutual respect that would become invaluable.

The time I spent back home, taking slight and simple steps of intention, formed a pattern. My parents and I discovered the new shape of our lives — and they included parts of each other’s. In the future, we would encounter new and difficult things. Previously, we didn’t consider how we’d manage the inevitable changes. Now, we knew we would face them together.

That basement season was over 10 years ago. Since then, my parents and I have navigated marriage, moves, kids, new jobs, retirement and more. Recently, my dad asked me for advice. Retirement had changed his role and after 35 years as a pastor, he was figuring out how that looked in his church. I was a pastor now, and could see things from both sides, so I had something helpful to say. He wanted my perspective, but I also valued his. This mutual respect and camaraderie had been born in the basement.

The season in my folks’ basement wasn’t the last time we would navigate the awkwardness of a shifting parent-child dynamic. But with the foundation laid, each new time has been easier. We prepare for tomorrow by intentionally investing today.

Basement Moments

Life is full of these basement moments — moments that start awkwardly, ones in which no one feels quite comfortable, quite at home. We are constantly figuring out who we are and where to go next. We feel unsteady.

We can miss these moments or dodge them because we anticipate a treacherous trek through unfamiliar territory. As adult children, sometimes it’s easier to stay clueless and carefree, while our parents are calling us into something greater. As parents, it can be comfortable to remain the authority and avoid the vulnerability that comes with seeking advice or revealing fears.

The basement is often overlooked and underappreciated. It’s rarely pretty. It’s often dark, sometimes cold and always hard. But it is these things that make it useful and foundational. The difficult times with our parents are often the moments that build something critical between us.

In my basement season, so much changed. My parents and I built upon the past and made something that could only be constructed in closeness. We gained mutual respect and a desire to walk out life with each other. We cultivated a familiarity that would have taken years over the phone or across long distances. We came to a new understanding that we all had so much to give, and we chose to give of ourselves. We became confidants and partners and peers.

Let’s not “move out” too quickly; let’s appreciate every basement moment. These times may be stressful as the child becomes the parent. They may be uncomfortable as parents begin to rely on kids. They may feel unfamiliar as the caregiver becomes cared for. They may be tense as both sides give advice or opinions. But here, as roles reverse or are reborn, we grow both roots and wings, and we can be grateful.

Copyright 2018 Michael Larson. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Michael Larson

Michael Larson is married and lives outside of Chicago with his wife and four kids. He is a pastor, stay-at-home dad and writer at www.michaeljohnlarson.com.

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