Flying in circles: on adulthood and university from your childhood bedroom

When you finally move out, you may need home more than you realize

Kate Haberl

When I was 16, I moved out of my parents’ house for the first time.

I left Canada’s rainy west coast — where I was born and raised — for the east coast of Spain halfway across the world. In many ways, you could say that this initial foray out into the world didn’t really constitute leaving the nest.

For starters, I went from living with my parents to living with someone else’s parents. Staying with two different host families while I was in Spain, I was never really on my own. Secondly, I knew that I would be going back home to my parents after a year. At that point, I hadn’t even completed high school, so this was, indeed, a temporary excursion.

However, I would argue that no baby bird leaves the nest permanently the second it first learns to fly. Admittedly, I don’t know anything about birds, but I assume that they are allowed a practice run or two before they have to strike out completely on their own.

So, although my excursion had an expiration date and I was never truly alone, it still felt like a monumental change in my life. And it did change me — adjusting to living with new people is hard, and it forced me to evolve and alter my perceptions of my environment and relationships.

My first host family hated me. They called me cold, stupid, difficult, disgusting, and many other things. Frankly, my Spanish wasn’t particularly good during my first few months in Spain, so many of the insults went over my head.

I had dealt with people not liking me in the past: girls at school making catty comments, playground insults, and confrontations, but never with adults who held such contempt for me. At the time, I felt that I shouldered most or all of the blame, and it gutted me inside.

Now, I look back and feel a great deal of sorrow for myself — I was young, barely 16, in a foreign country. My host family locked the kitchen on weekends so I couldn’t eat, refused to let me go anywhere or see anyone, and was verbally abusive. I was certainly not perfect, but I didn’t deserve to be treated how I was.

In many ways, moving in with my second host family felt like I had returned to the nest. I fled a scary situation like a baby bird might fly away from a scary gust of wind or a big crow. My second host family was kind, and I love them very much, but there really is no place like home. I was still across the world from my comfort zone, and was pushed to learn and grow much more rapidly than I had been accustomed to.

Since my second host family was very relaxed with their rules, and school was utterly unimportant to me, I would spend my days travelling, drinking, and hitting sandy beaches. This also left a lot of time for introspection and developing my own rules and regulations.

When I returned home, my parents reminded me that I was still barely 17 years old, even if my life experiences had lent themselves to the universal angst of most 16–18 year olds where you’ve developed many of the same skills as adults but have yet to be cruelly knocked by life. That is to say, I felt as if I had graduated past the need for parenting and was ready to experience life on my own. To be fair, I had taken on more ‘life’ on my own compared to many of my peers, but I was, of course, categorically wrong.

Just over a year later, I moved back out of my parents’ house and into residence at Victoria College. It felt like flying from a single-family nest into one giant nest full of people my age and a lovely residence don.

Living in residence was honestly incredible. I loved everyone I lived with, I became involved with the House Council, and I didn’t experience any conflict the entire time. It was also remarkably easy in terms of ‘adulting’ — I didn’t have to cook my own food, clean anything more than my own room, or even really share space.

I had a single room and shared my ‘Jack-and-Jill’ bathroom with one of the nicest girls on the planet, who is now also one of my closest friends. I felt like I had really mastered living on my own, like I had truly figured things out.

Then, COVID-19 hit me in the same way it hit so many others. I obviously never planned for a pandemic to derail my first and second years of university. When I received the notice last March that I needed to move out of my dorm as soon as possible, I had a truckload of stuff and no idea where it — or I — was going to go. So I called my parents.

My mom and dad helped me find a family friend to transport my belongings out of Toronto, booked my flights back home, listened to me freak out on the phone about 10 times a day, and prepared my old room for my return.

Had I been on my own, I think I would have retreated into myself like a turtle hiding in its shell and waited for residence staff to move me out of my room on a dolly. Thankfully, I had help, so I spent the summer living at home before moving into an apartment with a roommate starting September 1, 2020.

It was a disaster. By October, my friends and my therapist were asking me if I had thought about moving out. In an apartment, I was responsible for everything — my own food, cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, settling disputes with my roommate, and everything else that comes along with being an adult in the real world. Rent, landlords, and grocery shopping were all my responsibility, and during a pandemic too. It was a steep learning curve.

To be clear, my roommate never had bad intentions, and I wasn’t perfect either. At the end of the day, we simply weren’t a good fit, and that was not helped by the fact that we were constantly stuck together in a 700-square-foot space for months on end.

By winter, I left Toronto and flew home to Vancouver for Christmas to be with my family, and I haven’t returned since. When I first arrived home after a whirlwind week of moving, flying while wearing face masks, and economics midterms, I felt awful about the fact that I couldn’t handle my issues by myself. Here I was thinking that I was an evolved adult, ready to take on the real world, and one strong gust of wind had brought my whole house of cards tumbling down.

My whole life, I subscribed to the narrative that you move out at 18, and then, you’re a real adult who handles real problems. When I was 16 years old in Spain and needed my parents’ help, that was okay because I was young, and I didn’t feel that I was supposed to have my life together. But when I still needed my parents’ help at 18, and then 19, I felt like I had failed.

I started to believe that all of the growth and learning that I had accumulated over the past few years had either been false or ineffective, simply because I couldn’t do everything all by myself.

Over the long months of the summer, I rationalized to myself that I needed my parents’ help moving out of residence because there is no way you can prepare for a pandemic. But not being able to deal with a toxic living situation with my roommate afterward? Wasn’t that something I had lived through before with my first host family? Shouldn’t I have been able to handle it myself this time around?

While part of me was feeling like I was constantly growing, learning, and re-evaluating how I see the world, the other part of me felt stuck, as if my top half was flying and my legs were stuck in quicksand. If I’m being honest, I don’t have a perfect answer to these questions, and I still feel a little disappointed in the fact that I ran for the familial hills when things got tough.

However, I repeat to myself, and to any of you who may feel similarly, that early adulthood is a minefield. I have grown and changed immensely since I was 16 and getting off a plane in a foreign country. But it’s okay that I still can’t deal with everything on my own.

Navigating adulthood takes an army. The idea that we are supposed to handle everything by ourselves and show the world a stiff upper lip is wrong, as seen by the fact that everyone in my life — my friends and family and even the strangers I see at the grocery store — all get by with a little help from their support systems.

At the end of the day, I wish that we could stop peddling the narrative that kids should move out and stay away the second they turn 18. Instead, I’d like to hear more about people wading into the uncertainties of adulthood and stumbling, who ricochet back and forth between their childhood bedroom and about a million other places — just like me.