There’s only one thing worse than a frantic 7:00 AM run to the grocery store to get saltines and ginger ale for a child who's been up all night puking, and that’s running into the absolute last person you’d ever want to see while doing it. Yet standing under the harsh fluorescent lights, disheveled and bleary-eyed from exhaustion, hearing my name called across the aisle in a tone of disingenuous surprise and delight by a high school frenemy, I couldn't help but think to myself: “You totally asked for this.”
I left home at 18 years old. Fifteen years later, I packed up my husband, two young sons, and everything we owned in the world and started all over again, in a place I thought I’d left firmly in my rearview mirror.
I have always enjoyed a great relationship with my parents. Leaving my sleepy upstate New York community had nothing to do with seeking distance from my family. But I was young and hungry for the big wide world and wanted to see what it had to offer.
It's a familiar story. I went away to college, as many people do. I fell in love with someone there, as many people do, and that someone called an entirely different part of the country home. As we planned for a future together, we negotiated our different needs and wants — chief among them, where we would live.
I needed to be near a major city for my job in publishing. I also loved the coastal New England area my husband had called home. So we settled in the suburbs of Boston and began the work of building a life together. We made friends, climbed workplace ladders, bought a condo, and welcomed our babies.
It was my step off the corporate ladder after motherhood that first put the idea of moving back home in my head. As a freelancer, I was no longer tethered to the city, or my hour-long daily commute.
Motherhood also shifted something else inside of me. The birth of my second child had me longing for more external family support. I yearned for practical help — babysitting for the occasional date night, a meal dropped off when we all came down with the flu, my dad’s consummate handyman skills when the dishwasher started making a weird noise. I wanted to share my children with my parents while we were all young and healthy and able to enjoy one another. And as an only child, I wanted to be close to them as they aged, and to be there for whatever they might need in the decades to come. Factor in the lower cost of living, more affordable real estate, and excellent public schools, and I managed to convince my husband that a move back to my birthplace was the right call for all of us.
Six years later, we are settled and happy.
Since moving back, I’ve been surprised by the number of people I meet who pepper me with questions about my own journey homeward. I’ve had dozens of conversations, mostly with other mothers, who wonder what it might be like to return to their roots, and embrace the benefits of proximity to extended family.
If you’re starting to feel the tug of your hometown and considering making a big move — like so many people in this age of increased remote work — here’s a little of what I’ve learned about going home again.
My Hometown Had Changed and So Had I
I had to do my best to banish sepia-toned daydreams from my mind. I could sense that the quickest road to disappointment would be to try and relive my glory days, decades after they were permanently gone. My move was a fresh start in — basically — a fresh place. I checked my nostalgia at the door and prepared for the changes that had taken place in both my hometown and myself. I embraced what was familiar while being open-minded about what was new.
I Acted Like a Tourist
I approached moving home like I was readying for an exciting trip to an exotic locale. I checked out hashtags on social media and sought opinions from locals for recommendations on everything from restaurants to the best family dental practice. My favorite haunts and closest friendships today are not with old familiars, but with new things and people I discovered as a curious investigator.
I Prepared for the Good, and the Bad
Free grandparent-provided babysitting is great. Dropping your maiden name at the car mechanic and getting a discount because the owner knows your family? Fantastic. The inevitability of running into the meanest girl from high school when I looked like something the cat dragged in at the grocery store was a less than stellar aspect of moving back home. The anonymity of living far away can be both lonely and incredibly freeing. Subsequently, living on your own set of “Cheers” — aka where everybody knows your name — can be challenging. I knew those run-ins would happen. But I maybe could have done a skim of my old yearbook to avoid blanking on a former classmate in line at CVS.
Home is a Feeling, Not A Place
Home is like a good relationship where you feel both held and free. I had to ask myself what it was I was really searching for before I upended my whole life to start somewhere new. The places where we set up camp are rarely capable of giving us a sense of contentment that mainly comes from within. Building roots requires time and attentive watering.
People say you can never go home again. But what they really mean is you can never go back in time. I can’t argue with that. What you can do is venture back to the original setting of your story and start a new chapter in a place that makes sense to you, to circumstances that make life easier, and let you breathe a little deeper.
In that way, yes, you absolutely can go home again.
Jennifer Taber VanDerwerken is a writer based in Upstate New York. Her work has appeared in the award-winning magazine The Beekman 1802 Almanac, Mini City Magazine and Mother.ly. Jennifer has also been featured on Design Mom and Cup of Jo. She is happiest when with her family, watching British television, hunting for vintage treasures, or fastidiously organizing any mess.