Your twenties can be an odd—and unsettling—period of time. I’m in my late twenties (make that almost 30—when did that happen?!) and unmarried. Until recently, I’ve always had a roommate or at least several housemates. When I left for grad school, I decided that I was done with the roommate thing. I was moving to a state where I knew nobody, and I didn’t particularly want to decide to live with someone I’d never met. The idea of living with peers I might or might not get along with added to my feeling of unsettledness in this stage of life.
I heard that some people at my new school lived with families and babysat in exchange for rent. Financially, that was appealing, and I liked the idea of having a bit more personal space but also not living totally alone. I found a family through a mutual friend, and we talked on the phone, straightened out details, and decided it would work.
Two years later, I can definitively say it has worked very well, and not just because I’ve saved some money. I’ve been grateful for a good place to live, I’ve grown close with the family as I’ve watched them welcome a new little one, and I’m touched every time one of the children includes me when she’s listing her family members.
In addition to satisfying my practical need for a place to live, our living arrangement has helped me mature into the next phase of my adult life. I realize that not everyone has the opportunity for this kind of living situation. For many people, sharing a home with roommates is an excellent way to go. But if you have the chance, here’s why I’d take it:
01. The stability and acceptance in family life give a sense of rootedness and meaning.
Living with a family can give you a sense of community that is more committed and less transient than a community of peer roommates bound only by the terms of the lease. Of course, some peer roommate households can develop shared commitment and community by assigning chores, designating a roommate dinner night, and hosting mutual friends often. But at the end of the day, in renting roommate situations (even with the best of friends), we are always open to the possibility of change—new jobs, marriage, or living opportunities can always be right around the corner.
In a family, although there is moving on—mostly as kids grow and go to college and beyond—the community fostered in the home remains intact. Because of these lifetime bonds, there is a deeper felt commitment in the house, even for someone like me, a "roommate" in the family. There is a unified rhythm in family life that involves shared responsibility for the house, for each other, and for the family life as a whole. Though I was not a family member and therefore not fully integrated into the lifelong commitment, I couldn’t help but be impacted by it.
This past year, on my birthday, my five-year-old friend excitedly asked if I wanted a chocolate or vanilla birthday cake, and then proceeded to make it for me with her mom’s help. The kids would all sit on my bed and watch me pack for various trips, offering commentary on the different outfits I was packing. (If you need a bit of a self-esteem boost, ask a five-year-old girl what she thinks of your outfits!) And when I returned, they would often run to greet me with a hug. I loved the sense of coming home to people who missed me and who loved me unconditionally the way those children did.
02. Observing a family’s lifestyle gives you valuable knowledge about running a household and organizing your adult life.
Sometimes I feel like I’m still just a grad student who is trying to figure out this whole “adulting” thing. I’ve really appreciated the chance to watch some adults—who are just a few years older than I am—excel at it. I am always making mental notes of how they cook, how they clean, where to shop, and how to plan. Some of these mental notes are for small things (like what vacuum I’d really like to get someday!) and some are larger, such as how to juggle work, meals, cleaning, extended family, etc.
In our very mobile generation, keeping up with the various relationships we’ve developed along the way can be difficult. I’ve watched these parents make choices of when to take road trips in order to be present for important events for family and friends, and, also, when to say no and stay home. They are wonderful about staying close with extended family, and I’ve gotten to see what that looks like on a daily basis in the middle of a busy life. I saw them get together when things were hard so they could support one another. Certain months of the year were filled with nonstop birthday celebrations for extended family who lived locally, and I would often come home from school and walk in the door to a celebration over dinner and birthday cake. The kids loved FaceTiming their out-of-state grandparents, and I was happy to get to know various family members as they spent time at the house or when I was invited to their homes.
03. You’re reminded of the various stages of life and development, and why they matter.
I’ve been babysitting since I was 12. I’ve always loved kids, and babysitting has been the natural way to earn a bit of cash and enjoy a break from homework over the years. I’ve definitely had families who would call me for babysitting on a regular basis before, but living with the kids and caring for them multiple times a week has been a totally different experience.
I’ve gotten to know these kids so much better than I’ve ever gotten to know anyone else for whom I’ve babysat in the past. I know what they like and what they need. They don’t get away with any of the “but Mom lets us do this” tricks because I know, from the last two years of living with their mother, what she does and doesn’t let them do. I appreciate that the parents explicitly gave me the authority to discipline so the kids know that I can, and will, send them to time-out when necessary.
All of this has brought a responsibility and a joy that I’m not sure I anticipated two years ago. There is the responsibility of helping in the task of raising these little ones. I’ve heard the kids repeating phrases that I use (and their parents don’t) and realized just how much they are watching and absorbing what I do. I’ve rocked that baby to sleep many nights; I’ve watched him start crawling, then walking and talking, and now, become a big brother. I’ve had the joy of watching these kids grow and of loving them through their different stages these two years.
While living with peers at the same place in life has its benefits, my life has been greatly enriched in remembering all that goes into the development of a human through the years. It’s helped me be more patient with myself: just as learning to walk and talk take time, falls, and mispronunciations, it’s going to take me time to learn how to balance my work and life, pay my bills and taxes correctly, and even learn to love my friends, family, and fiancé well.
04. Living with a family helped me see my desire for marriage and my path toward it more clearly.
Because I’ve been sharing their home with them, I’ve gotten to know the couple I am living with. I’ve seen a lot of their interactions. While living with them, I have also been dating and am now engaged. During the different phases of my romantic relationship, it has been helpful to see what a normal, healthy marriage looks like in day-to-day life. Their example enabled me to better evaluate my own relationship.
I’ve realized that even though I don’t think I have rom-com standards of love, it is easy to compare my relationship and get frustrated when my fiancé doesn’t quite live up to my knight-in-shining-armor ideal. But that’s just what it is: an ideal. Living with this awesome couple has helped me to see that a marriage can be solid and good and still have elements that aren’t perfect. I’m not making a case for settling or lowering your standards—far from it. But I am saying that it’s been very helpful for me to have an up-close look at real life and real marriage and to see what an ideal relationship can look like—two imperfect humans working to love each other better each day.
As I thought about my own relationship, it was so helpful to have the example of this couple. I saw their flaws, but I also saw that even considering these flaws, they still are wonderful people with a very happy marriage. I was better able to discern if any of what I saw in my own relationship was a deal-breaker, or if it would be OK. Obviously, it’s impossible to predict the future, but seeing a real couple work through their issues has given me confidence that the man I am marrying, while not perfect, is the right man for me.
The experience of living with a family has deepened my desire to get married and build my own family home. But it has also taught me another valuable lesson. I’ve come to see that a living situation can be more than just the most financially advantageous, safe opportunity you can find. This family’s gift of new relationships and valuable life knowledge helped me feel more secure and less unsettled as I journeyed through my twenties. Whether we’re living with our families, dear friends, or complete strangers, the relationships we foster in our homes can help us to grow into adulthood. That’s not included in the cost of rent, but it’s worth so much more!
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