What does home mean to you? Now that more people than ever before are living single, and fewer adults are raising children, “home” isn’t what it used to be. People are living in all sorts of innovative ways. Does that change the way they think about home or feel about it?
Here’s what I wrote about the many meanings of home, after spending a few years interviewing people for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.
Home has never meant just one thing. Scholars from a variety of disciplines have tried to figure it out, and have found that home can be a place, a space, a feeling, a set of practices, or “an active state of being in the world.” The concept has been related to “house, family, haven, self, gender, and journeying.” Yet in the Western world, among traditionalists, the link to family became particularly resonant: “Without the family a home is ‘only a house’,” they thought. The “family” they have in mind is most often “the white, middle-class, heterosexual, nuclear family.”
Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Project Scientist, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Dr. DePaulo is in her sixties. She has always been single and always will be. She is "single at heart" — single is how she lives her best and most meaningful life.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
My interviewees didn’t get the memo. Very few of them were members of white, middle-class, heterosexual nuclear families. Some live totally alone, residentially—no spouse, no kids, and no one else, either. If a home without a family is “only a house,” they should feel bereft about their dwellings, or at best, indifferent.
Sarah, who was married before but now lives on her own in her bungalow in Santa Barbara, California, says, “I can’t think of anywhere I’ve lived that I’ve liked coming home to so much…It feels right.”
The apartment where Tom lives alone in a suburb of Chicago “feels like home. It’s comfortable, it’s predictable, it’s a place you know.”
Maria, the woman who has opened her home to twenty-one people over the years—many of whom were total strangers before she welcomed them into her life—notes:
At night whenever I pull in the driveway, I just like think, Oh, man. I get to go in there. I think about it sometimes during the day. People who come here will say the same thing: “Man, we love your house.” There’s something about being here.
For Jane, who lives alone in North Carolina, love was not enough. “I loved my job. I loved my friends. I loved my house. But I knew I wasn’t going to stay here. Whereas it feels like I could stay here [in North Carolina] forever.”
Home, to many of the people I interviewed, is a good, comfortable feeling about the place where they live, and a sense that their place is going to be theirs for a while. Lisa Cook, who lives alone in Minnesota, says, “Home means the place where the plane lands [and] you’re saying to yourself, ‘Okay I’m home,’ and you’re not questioning like, why do I live here still?” She adds, “I have made so many moves trying to find this concept of home and trying to grow my roots that this is more than a house to me… I think this is just a really important part of who I am right now. And this identity of being on the board [of her townhouse association] and being a community builder and everything, I don’t think that I would want to give that up.”
Maartje, the Dutch journalist who lives on her own in Amsterdam, admits that she was once a bit too enthralled with social media: “At a certain point I spent so much time on Facebook that the virtual space seemed more important to me than the physical space.” That’s changing now, and she’s thinking more deeply about how to make her house a home. One model is her parents’, “where they have people over and then they have this coffee table with conversation pieces, books…it’s a place to show others.”
People such as Rebecca Lewis (who lives in a four-generational household) and Maria Hall find it heartwarming when other people admire their homes and enjoy visiting them, but I got little sense from anyone that the display aspects of their places are the most significant. Instead, their homes help them live their best and fullest and most authentic lives. Len, Lauren, and Sally’s multigenerational home reflects the music, the reading and the contemplation that they all so enjoy. Anja’s spirituality and artistic sensibilities suffuse her home (the duplex she shared with Tricia) inside and out. In her home, Maria created special spaces for each of the important parts of herself and for the people who live with her. They include the woman cave, the Jimmy Carter room, the busy kitchen and dining rooms, the music and performance room, the elegant sitting room, the nice guest room, and her own cloud-themed bedroom.
Andrew’s contemplation on the meaning of home best fits the multiplicity of places, spaces, relationships, and experiences that fill our twenty-first-century lives. Andrew lives apart from his long-term partner, Brian. Home, he says, as we talk in his bright, open, airy room overlooking an abundance of trees, is the place where we are sitting. It is also his place in Florida that warms him for a spell during the brutal Minnesota winters. To Andrew, being with friends feels like home. So does being alone. Home is any place, any experience that feeds his soul “in some positive way.”