On Mennonites, Identities, And Moving In With Mom & Dad

When English professor Rhoda Janzen moved back in with her Mennonite parents at the age of 43, she was surprised at how much she liked it. I've (sort of) been there.

Janzen's publicizing her book Mennonite in a Little Black Dress with interviews in both Time and Marie Claire, and in both places she emphasizes the conservatism of her Fresno upbringing. In Marie Claire (interview not online), she says,

My mom wouldn't let me wear jeans. She sewed me polyester pants with the crease down the front and an elastic band. Oh, my lord, were they modest. She would lengthen them with different-colored panels, like burgundy. We had a TV but couldn't turn it on unless Mom and Dad were in the room; if anyone on a show or a commercial ever kissed — even in a marital context — my dad would change the channel and say, "Smut!"

In college, Janzen "began to read about other religions and read philosophy and literature," and she ended up leaving the faith. But after her husband left her for another man and she got in a car accident, she went back to live with her parents and discovered that she respected their way of life. She writes that her mother forced her to be active instead of "hol[ing] up out of self-pity," and that "trailing one's seventy-year-old parents around town is an excellent and under-discussed cure for heartbreak." She also says,

I had remembered the Mennonites of my youth as congenial folks, so it wasn't a surprise that I loved them as an adult. What was a surprise was that I loved what they stood for - I loved the faith itself, and the way they consistently demonstrated what they believed. For instance, when my mom learned that an elderly woman from her church was recuperating from a surgery, it wasn't a question of if she would visit. It was a question of whether to bring homemade zwiebach or a tray of platz. It was the genuine human warmth of this community that set me thinking about faith in new ways.

I lived with my parents for about a month and a half this summer, after some shitty life events of my own, and although my parents are professors and not Mennonites, my experience was in some ways pretty similar. The media has been buzzing for at least five years now with stories of helicopter parents who coddle their children through an "extended adolescence" that lasts long past college, and maybe it just shows that I'm getting old, but this wasn't my experience. Going to college for me involved a pretty big break with my parents, an instant transition from living with them to talking to them once a week (on Sundays), unless I was in some kind of major crisis. It was a time when I did things even when my dad asked me not to (he had, very graciously I later realized, decided he could no longer tell me what to do), and a time when I decided I could never spend more than two weeks at home because we were too different and there was too much fighting.

And then I grew up for real — or at least, a little more. I realized not only that home is where they have to take you in — a motivating factor for Janzen also — but that my parents aren't actually all that different from me. They do the things I couldn't do in front of them as a teenager — like say "fuck" and drink beer — and they disapprove much less of my personal life than I'd always assumed. In fact, I probably had to assume that they disapproved in order to feel like I was forming my own identity, but the one I've formed turns out to look like theirs in a lot of ways, and I'm not freaked out about it — too much.

I recognize that I'm very lucky to have parents who've given me both freedom and support, and that some people's relationships with their progenitors can be painful and disastrous. I also know that I come from a generation and a class that's said to have a lot in common with its parents, and that some people think this indicates insufficient progress. But my mom is the one who showed me how to donate to micro-lending organizations when I got my first job, who makes sure I recycle, and who calls me on my shit when I start blaming men for all the problems in the world (although my brother has gotten pretty good at this too).

There are still things my parents and I don't agree on, and there's a reason I moved out again — no matter how well we got along, living with them still made me feel like an overgrown kid, especially after I realized I no longer had any keys. And Janzen doesn't seem to have actually rejoined the Mennonite faith. It goes without saying that people need to separate from their parents to a certain extent in order to lead independent lives. But the idea that my generation represents some kind of unprecedented crazy closeness may be based on little more than the break many baby boomers made with their parents in the 60s and 70s. If Janzen's experience teaches us anything, it's that defining what's normal when it comes to family relationships is pretty fruitless, and that going back home can be an eye-opener, not just an ordeal.

Rhoda Janzen: From Modern To Mennonite [Time]