Failure to Launch Screwed Up My Early 20s

Photo by Sammie Chaffin on Unsplash

November 2017 was one of the many turning points in my 20's. I was 27 years old and had just returned from studying abroad in Egypt, with $40,000 plus of student loan and credit card debt in tow, and an incomplete Master’s Degree that I had no idea what to do with.

All I knew then was that my mental health had been deteriorating for a while, and that being in my comfort zone — with my mom, grandmother, and other family members nearby— was what I needed to feel better.

A large part of my stress came from the financial hole I had dug myself into, compounded by my utter lack of direction careerwise.

As I juggled adjusting to life back home and finding any job that would allow me to start fixing this mess and act like “a real adult”, I scoured for solutions online on how to become financially independent.

That’s when I came across Dave Ramsey’s YouTube channel.

Financial independence has always been a goal for me. From the time I was in high school, I had envisioned myself as a successful, wealthy woman, who’d be able to take my mom out of the low-income grind she’d been accustomed to since I could remember.

Moreover, I had never questioned that I’d achieve this success because I was intelligent, “knowing” that smart people always succeeded.

Yet even though I had a Bachelor’s Degree, a 3.92 GPA in graduate school, and I knew how to write one heck of a research essay, I had nothing concrete to show for this “intelligence.” I was a 27-year-old who still lived at home with her mother and had no plan to leave anytime soon.

Despite the struggles I faced after college in finding the success I had been “promised” by doing well in school, I have never been the person to blame others for my mistakes or setbacks.

That’s what appealed to me most about Dave Ramsey’s content. His no-nonsense, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” financial advice spoke to the part of me that knew she was always in control, and that only she could fix her life.

Out of the many YouTube clips where Ramsey gives advice on how to become debt-free and wealthy, I was most drawn to those related to family relationships and how they influence our wealth. In particular, the ones where Ramsey and his team scold a 20 or 30 something-year-old for still living at home with his or her parents are very entertaining (The parents who allowed their kids to live at home also got a piece of Ramsey’s mind.)

An example of Ramsey “personalities” knocking down the idea of adult children living at home

In reality, and though I’d lived away from my childhood home for three months while I lived in Mexico City in 2012, and when I went to graduate school in Egypt between 2015 and 2017, the thought of going back to the U.S. and living at home again with my mom was constantly in the back of my mind. It was my safety net.

I could easily be one of those 20-something-year-olds that Ramsey was chastising, having failed to leave her mother’s nest. In fact, failure to launch, for me, was not only about not physically leaving my home. It was far more about not being able to mentally detach myself from the comfort of my childhood

Technological developments have changed the way we work, and the financial crises of 2008, as well as the 2020 pandemic, have certainly contributed to the economic challenges that have forced people in their 20’s and 30’s to live at home.

But in my case, there were other reasons why I failed to leave my childhood nest, especially mentally.

The guilt of leaving my loved ones behind

Growing up with a single mother, I had formed a special bond with my mom, one where despite our challenges and the many times we butted heads, we were like partners in crime trying to overcome the challenges of everyday life. This was accentuated by the fact that she didn’t understand or speak English well, and so I took on a lot of responsibility for dealing with things outside the home (scheduling appointments, completing applications, calling the cable company, etc.).

Anytime I mentioned leaving home, my mom responded emotionally, and I felt guilty for thinking about leaving her alone to “fend for herself.” I felt the same strong guilt when I told my grandmother, with whom I’m also very close, that I would be moving to Egypt in 2019.

Having a close relationship with my mother and grandmother, but also with my extended family, made it difficult for me to take the leap to live life on my own terms.

My insecurities about making it on my own

I grew up with anxiety, but I didn’t realize it until my mid-20’s. I remember being extremely self-conscious and terrified about interacting with strangers or being awkward in social situations. Luckily for me, I had the book smarts to make up for my lack of streets smarts.

And when I eventually realized that that academic success didn’t always translate to life success, it intensified this anxiety further, making it more difficult for me to make the choices that would lead me to independence.

I also had no role model or example of someone who had built a successful career or even graduated from college. I navigated this whole process on my own.

All this combined was detrimental to me finding my footing in adult life, leading me to have very limited social skills to build relationships and find the right career path for me.

Specifically:

I wasted time planning to do things perfectly, instead of just doing them imperfectly

The comfort of my childhood mindset made it easier for me to plan without actually taking a step towards something concrete. I remember the plethora of makeshift agendas I would spend hours creating, hoping that having the perfect plan would lead me towards success. However, I never made any real changes and would take the easy way out by applying to jobs that would pay minimum wage, even after graduating from college. I think that not having the full pressure of rent or bills (I did contribute some money) allowed me to escape the inevitable healthy step of launching.

Perhaps if I had faced the need to fall on my feet on my own terms, I would have taken action more quickly — as I am now that I am fully independent — and could be further along today both financial and careerwise.

The guilt I suffered from my failure to launch made me push people away

Because of this back and forth between trying to half-heartedly step into independence, and at the same time feeling the pull of home comfort and family relations, I felt a lot of resentment towards the people around, a resentment that I didn’t voice directly— but which came out at times through fights and negative comments on my part.

Not finding my footing after college made it difficult for me to form relationships with those around me too, or for my relationships with my family members to evolve into adult relationships. I felt mentally stuck in my teenage years and wasn’t confident enough to voice my opinions or to clap back at someone when they criticized me or treated me like a child, not a woman in her 20s.

Perhaps this hidden shame of not being successful after college, which I believe was accentuated by my postponed adulthood as compared to my peers and even older cousins, caused a lot of pain inside me and led to me holding myself back furthermore.

By the age of 29, I eventually opened my eyes more to what I needed to do to step out of the comfort zone of my adolescence. As a result, I have a more mature relationship with my family, and they respect me for my choices. I am also starting to build my own tutoring and writing business, and I feel more confident than ever in my abilities.

But at 31, I feel that there is so much to catch up on.

Since the late ’90s, the concept of “failure to launch” has popped up from time to time. There was even a 2006 film by that same name. Millennials seem to be the age group that is most associated with the term, and the pandemic is only the latest reason as to why this age group can’t get ahead and start living out their adult lives.

Surprisingly, failure to launch is not a phenomenon exclusive to the United States. In Japan, young adults who choose to live with their parents to save money are known as “parasite singles.” In Italy, these are referred to as “Bamboccioni” or “big babies”.

You’ll find a plethora of critics who bemoan the deterioration delayed adulthood has produced in our society, especially in our character and work ethic. Conversely, we’ve started justifying more and more why taking your time transitioning from adolescence to adulthood is actually a good thing.

We can acknowledge that the time when our parents were growing up was different — it might have been easier to find a job after college, and the prospect of dying with student loans and mortgage debt was unlikely.

But sheltering ourselves indefinitely during our “emerging adulthood” period, when we are changing from teens to adults — can impact our mental health negatively, and could have its downsides for our future success. It can also put a financial strain on our parents.

Despite not being a mother, I can imagine that parents want the best for their children. And being an adult who is financially dependent on his or her parent(s) for a long period of time can have many downsides for both the parent and the child.

Being financially independent can make us feel more secure about ourselves and our abilities. On top of this, the struggles we face will only make us stronger. Sheltering ourselves from this growth will negatively outweigh the advantages of any money we could save by living with our parents rent-free.

In the end, I really believe there is no such thing as “too late.” Yes, I’m a hopeless optimistic, but that optimism is rooted in the belief that — as business coach Marie Forleo says — “Everything is Figueroutable.”

Thank you for reading my article! Let me know what you think in the comments.

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Angela Martinez

Angela Martinez

Teacher, traveler, and language learner. Writing about productivity, personal finances, life abroad, speaking another language.