| January 24, 1999, Sunday
Rooming With a Guy Named Mom
By RACHEL LEHMANN-HAUPT (NYT) 2215 wordsSTEPHEN DeROSA, a co-star of the Off Broadway hit comedy ''The Mystery of Irma Vep,'' was catching up with a few fellow alumni of the Yale School of Drama at a midtown diner.
As the evening wound down and the others drifted off to their various closet-size apartments on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn, Mr. DeRosa, 30, hopped into a ruby-red Mercury Mystique and sped home to a four-bedroom house in Westchester that he likes to call ''my mother's place.''
Maybe that's because it is. After finishing graduate school in 1996, Mr. DeRosa moved back to the spacious house he grew up in, to save money while building an acting career. But three years and a steady paycheck later, he has no plans to leave.
''How can I give up all that space to live in some rat-hole walk-up?'' he said. He admitted that his living situation isn't great for his love life. ''I'm left with three options,'' he said. ''Your place or yours? Your place or my car? Or say good night and go home because there is probably food in the fridge.''
Still, the rent can't be beat: it's free. ''It allows me to afford the bigger necessities, like going out to dinner and therapy,'' Mr. DeRosa said. ''Rent is money thrown away.''
A lot of people in their 20's and 30's are in his shoes, young adults who have given up the privacy and independence of living on their own to become roommates with Mom and Dad, in quarters where the cooking is the ultimate in comfort food and the cable bill is usually subsidized. Particularly in low-paying creative careers like acting, publishing and music, such young people seem to abound, as they try to maintain the amenities of well-heeled upbringings.
''My father said: 'Ah, the prodigal sons and daughters returning. I bet there are a lot of you,' '' said Elda Rotor, 28, an associate editor at Oxford University Press, who lives with her parents and 9-year-old brother in the building she grew up in near Gramercy Park. ''The doorman is usually Al, who's known me since I was about 2,'' she said. ''I say, 'Good night, Al,' and he says, 'Good night, sweetheart.' He's like an uncle. He doesn't say anything else.''
The phenomenon of ''boomerang kids,'' who refuse to leave the nest even after parents have fulfilled the generational compact by feeding and sheltering them through the college years, was first noted by demographers in the 1980's. Census data showed that the proportion of adult children living with their parents rose throughout that decade, spurred by rising real estate prices (and entry-level salaries that couldn't keep up with them), college debt and the rising age of marriage.
In the 90's, the numbers have leveled off nationally. But in high-price Eastern cities like Boston, Washington and New York (where the market rate for a studio apartment is $1,200 to $1,800 a month), the trend has accelerated, said Paul Attewell, a sociologist at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. He is studying the grown-up live-at-homes, whom he calls ''incompletely launched young adults.''
Although no figures are available for New York City, Dr. Attewell's research found that in Boston, 27 percent of married couples over 35 have a child older than 21 at home. A quarter of the live-at-homes are older than 29. Dr. Attewell said the phenomenon has long been more common among lower-income groups but is rising among the middle class in high-rent cities and suburbs.
The living arrangement might even be said to be cool. Shoshanna Lonstein, 23, a young woman about town who recently introduced a line of lingerie that was in the windows of Bloomingdale's, lives in her parents' Fifth Avenue apartment. And last fall, CBS introduced the comedy ''Maggie Winters,'' starring Faith Ford as a 33-year-old divorced woman who moves back home with her mother, played by Shirley Knight.
''The biggest challenge for Maggie is getting people to treat her like an adult,'' said Kari Lizer, the executive producer. ''But she has also realized that she really enjoys being roommates with her mom.''
Maggie Winters's challenge -- not only being taken seriously as an adult, but also accepting an adult's responsibilities -- is typical of boom erang kids.
''It's a real concern among social scientists,'' Dr. Attewell said. His research found that the living arrangement is stressful for many parents and that when adult children finally leave the house, their parents' lives improve because they have fewer financial and emotional burdens. ''We worry that it is putting off a life transition for parents, and for kids that the situation is unhealthy because they lack the self-esteem that comes from independence,'' he said.
Gabriel Rotor, Elda's father, says he hopes his daughter understands that she will not always be free to spend money she saves on rent on fashionable accessories, like her Kate Spade bag and leather pants.
''I hope that she is mature enough to know that it's not going to last forever and that at some point she will have to take responsibility for the rent,'' he said.
Yet, despite Dr. Attewell's gloomy findings, many New York parents with adult children at home say the arrangement works fine, in part because the generation gap of the past is less pronounced today.
''There isn't the divide that there was between my generation and my parents,'' said Lynn Nesbit, the literary agent, who shares her Upper West Side apartment with her 27-year-old daughter, Claire Gilman.
Ms. Gilman, who is studying for a doctorate in art history at Columbia University, has lived with her mother for five and a half years. (Her fiance, Sasha Greenewalt, a student at Columbia's law school, lives with his parents on Riverside Drive.)
Like many other Manhattan natives who grew up in a cocoon of private schools and buildings with doormen, Ms. Gilman realized in the first anxious months after leaving college that life in a luxury apartment a block from Central Park would be much better than ''some hole in the wall'' in a ''not-so-good neighborhood.'' Even though she can afford her own apartment now that she has a part-time job and an educational grant, she chooses to continue rooming with Mom.
It means traversing uncharted terrain, as parents and children rewrite the rules of family living. ''When my mother says, 'You left the light on,' which is what any roommate could say, it still feels more authoritative,'' Ms. Gilman said. When her mother recently gave a party, Ms. Gilman was free to attend, but she felt ''shoved back'' in her room.
Ms. Nesbit said: ''It's almost like a role reversal. I have opera on while she is studying and she says, 'Don't play your music so loud.' ''
Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University, who is writing a book about the generation born between 1969 and 1980, confirmed the notion that parents and their offspring in their 20's are closer than previous generations. Living with one another, she said, doesn't necessarily signal a failure of fledglings to leave the nest.
''I think it's more of a sign of a close-knit relationship than a refusal to grow up,'' she said. ''This generation tends to feel more respected by their parents, and parents respect their independence. Ironically, this might make it easier for kids to stay closer to their parents, because they don't feel that their parents are trying to lead their lives.''
Louise DeRosa, Stephen's mother, said: ''I'm not like my mother. All her focus was on her kids. Because I have always had a separate career and life, I think that allows us to be more independent of each other. As his roommate, I try hard not to pry into his life and act too much like his mother.''
Many adult children who live at home say that the experience has led to a more mature relationship with parents. ''I've become friends with my mom as an adult, and I see her on a whole different level,'' Mr. DeRosa said. ''A lot of people run away from home when they want to become an adult, instead of learning to deal with the issues as an adult.''
He said, for example, that he and his mother now appreciate each other's favorite television shows.
''But it also runs deeper in terms of the emotional support that we give each other,'' he said. ''If she gets worried about bills, I'll step in and do a reality check, and if I didn't get a part, she'll say, 'Tomorrow's another day.' '' Although he doesn't pay rent, he does do his mother's taxes and manages the mortgage.
Reid Maclean, 26, moved home after he spent a year living in India studying the sitar. Living with his parents for the last three years, he said, has let him focus on his music career, and has taught him a new sense of responsibility to his family. ''I see my parents getting older, and I like knowing that I'm there to help them if they need me,'' he said. ''I've gained that Old World view about families sticking together.''
His mother, Linea Maclean, said she and her husband, Alan, love having him around. ''He adds a youthful spirit to the house,'' she said. His band often practices in the living room while his parents watch.
Phyllis Jackson Stegal, a psychologist in Seattle and the author of the 1987 book ''Boomerang Kids: How to Live With Adult Children Who Return Home'' (Little, Brown), said that many such children have what she calls ''narcissistic entitlement.''
''Some of these young adults have the feeling that they are special, and entitled to have everything they want come without effort on their part,'' she said. ''Parents have failed if they raise their children to have these expectations.''
In fact, some boomerang kids feel mildly ashamed of their situation. They are aware of the ironies and contradictions in their lives. ''Sometimes I wonder whether I would be more productive if I was forced to pay the rent,'' Reid Maclean said. When James Engel, 28, goes home at night to his mother's apartment on the Upper West Side, he recoils walking by the doorman. ''I feel like some cocky prince walking in, saying, 'My mommy lives here,' '' he said. ''I mean, I don't deserve a doorman. I haven't earned it.''
Mr. Engel, who graduated from the Dalton School and Vassar College, was living in a tiny studio on the Lower East Side and working as a telemarketer while struggling to become an actor. He moved back home after being accepted to a yearlong program at the Actors Center. ''After five years, the euphoria of independence wasn't worth the struggle to pay rent,'' he said. ''My mother is an artist, so she is pretty supportive. When I had to play Jerry Seinfeld in an acting exercise, she helped me comb my wig.''
Some of the children interviewed for this article said the arrangement complicates their sex lives. When they spend the night with a lover, it's usually at the lover's apartment. But others see no problem. While Mr. Engel said he and his girlfriend usually stay over at her apartment on the Lower East Side, they sometimes stay at his mother's and ''pretend to be Upper West Side yuppies.''
Herschel Thompson, a graduate of the former Lenox School in Manhattan and Vassar, was working 60-hour weeks as a currency-trading trainee at Bear, Stearns & Company when his father died of complications from surgery in 1994. Mr. Thompson said the death made him realize that he really wanted to become an entrepreneur and market a device his father had invented to help people stop smoking. He quit his job, bought a laptop computer with his credit card and moved back into the bedroom he used as a teen-ager on the Upper East Side, converting it into an office.
Working from a desk built from a door and two file cabinets, he raised $150,000 in financing. ''I'm not some trustafarian,'' he said. ''In order to start my business, I was dependent on not having to pay rent.''
His mother, Nancy Thompson, said that living with her son has taught both of them to see each other as adults. ''We can't hide from each other,'' she said. ''He sees me as a person, not just as a mom.''
Thompson can now afford to move. ''But the second-hardest thing in New
York, next to running a business, is finding an apartment,'' he said.
''I'm just too busy to move out.''