After growing up and graduating from college in Winona, Minnesota, a picturesque town of about 30,000 along the Mississippi River, Derek Mihm grew restless. He had a solid 9-to-5 and decent outdoor recreation opportunities around him, but an action-packed trip to Colorado opened his eyes to a different kind of life.
“One day my friend and I woke up early and snowboarded Loveland Pass, then on the way back down stopped to go whitewater rafting,” Derek says. “We got back to Boulder and did an epic mountain bike ride, then went out on Pearl Street that night. I thought if I can do all this in one day, why not live here?”
So, at age 29, Derek decamped to Boulder, got a bartending gig, and spent his days on the slopes and bike trails. He stayed there for 11 years and, for the most part, stayed happy. But, in his absence, Derek also developed a greater love for his hometown “Even though Boulder is one of the most beautiful spots in the country, I really appreciated Winona whenever I came back,” he says.
Eventually, Derek met a girl, got married, and had a daughter. At first, he and Meredith, his wife, figured they’d buy a house and raise their family in Colorado, but a confluence of factors — overcrowding in Boulder, astronomical home prices, living far from family — got them rethinking their plan. Realizing they could purchase a big Victorian house in Winona for very little, they relocated to Derek’s hometown in 2015. “Seeing my parents getting older also played a role,” he says. “We saw early signs of my dad’s Alzheimer’s, so I wanted my daughter to know him while he is still here.”
Derek’s departure from and eventual return to his hometown is a very common story. Lots of parents of young kids follow a similar path — and cite many of the same reasons for moving back home: familiarity, extended family, tight-knit community, affordability, and so on. In fact, despite America’s image as a nation of restless migrants (Go West, young man!), most of us end up living pretty darn close to where we grew up, if not in the exact same place. And it has a large effect on who we are and how we parent.
According to a New York Times analysis of a survey of older Americans, adults, on average, live only 18 miles from their mother. Distances did vary greatly by region, however. For instance, those in the Rocky Mountain states live 44 miles on average from mom, while adults in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky settle only six miles from where they grew up. On the whole, however, only 20 percent of Americans live more than a few hours’ drive from their parents.
These stats may seem shocking, especially given the stigma often attached to sticking close to home. The common narrative, particularly in rural areas and small towns, tends to be that if you are smart, ambitious, and have the means, you should GTFO. And many people do. That is why there is a well-documented “brain drain” in these communities, as the best and brightest often leave to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.
However, as suggested by the Times’s data and shown in other research, plenty of people who leave their hometown—whether that’s a rural community, a small city like Winona, suburbia, or a bustling urban center—eventually find their way back. And according to a fascinating set of studies conducted a few years ago, many of these “return migrants”, as they are called, are parents.
In the late 2000s, researchers Christiane von Reichert, John Cromartie, and Ryan Arthun wanted to learn more about return migrants — who they were, what brought them home — and devised a brilliant way to do it: They attended multiple high school reunions, in mostly rural areas, and interviewed some 300 attendees about their lives, careers, families, and reasons for living where they did.
Along with return migrants, they spoke with graduates who’d moved away and stayed away, as well as a handful of those who’d never left home (this latter group was tougher to access, says Cromartie, likely because many felt stigmatized for staying in their hometown). These conversations allowed the researchers to paint a picture of each group that reflected what kinds of people lived where and for what reasons.
Consistent with other studies, the researchers noted that those who left their hometown, whether or not they later returned, were typically better educated and more financially successful than those who stayed put. Many of those who left went off to college or the military and seized on the more lucrative job opportunities available elsewhere. But after getting established in their careers or experiencing all of what life had to offer in other places, a fair number opted to move back to their hometown.
What Brings Parents Back Home
Although the age at which people return home varies, it tends to be during an individual’s “settling down time,” says Cromartie. This period is often marked by marriage, home ownership, and the beginning of a family and, on average, takes place 10 to 15 years after high school graduation. “These days, people are delaying getting married and having kids, so we found that the late 20s, early 30s is key time to come back,” Cromartie says.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising then that, according to the interviews, the number-one reason people returned to their hometown was to be close to family. In fact, Cromartie says roughly 90 percent of the return migrants indeed had parents or siblings still in town. Although some came home to take care of ailing parents or help with the family business, the majority moved back to receive help raising their kids—a fact that surprised Cromartie and his team.
“People with young kids move back because they see many advantages to raising them in their hometown,” he says. “At the top of that list was ‘My parents are here and I want my kids to be near their grandparents.’ These people were looking not only for emotional ties but also to build a support network to help out while they are working.”
Along with proximity to family, the type of environment their hometown offered for raising kids was also a big draw. “They didn’t want to raise them in the big city, or they preferred a place where they knew people and could have closer relationships with neighbors and teachers,” Cromartie says. On the topic of school, many returnees said they wanted the smaller class sizes, deeper parent involvement, and greater opportunities to play sports that their hometown offered.
“Familiarity was another factor in return migration: ‘I want my kids to have the childhood I had,’” says Cromartie. “After that, it had to do with being close to nature and recreation: fishing, hunting, camping, kids riding bikes all over town.”
Now having lived in Winona for almost four years, Derek’s family, which has expanded to include two sons along with their daughter, now eight, has experienced many of the hometown benefits noted by Cromartie’s interviewees. Although his dad’s Alzheimer’s has prevented his parents from helping out with the kids as much as they’d like to, Derek likes living close by so that he can help them out. He also enjoys being back in a tight-knit community.
“It takes an extra hour at the grocery store because you run into 50 people you know,” he says. “Everyone sort of watches each other’s backs. I’ve woken up so many times to find my driveway has already been shoveled or snow-blown, and I’ll do the same for my neighbors.”
Also making the transition smooth, both Derek and Meredith “landed in sweet spots job-wise,” he says, something they didn’t necessarily anticipate. Derek is the bar manager at a busy establishment, and Meredith, who has her doctorate in classical piano, is an adjunct professor at a nearby college, a musical director at a church in town, and a private piano teacher.
Of course, work doesn’t always pan out this well for people who move back. Given that family ties, not jobs, are typically the main pull back home, many return migrants even expect to take cuts in pay or status — and they may be totally okay with it in light of the other perks of coming home.
There can be many other downsides, too, of living and parenting in your hometown. “There is still some small-town closed-mindedness,” says Derek. For instance, he’ll occasionally hear racist comments from people who haven’t lived among much diversity or complaints about things he views as non-issues.
But overall, Derek and his family are thriving, so he’s more than satisfied with the move home. However, he’s also grateful for the 11 years he spent in Boulder. “I am definitely glad I moved away,” he says. It allowed him to meet a diverse array of people and get a different perspective on life, which is something hometowns don’t always offer. Sometimes the best part of coming home is bringing a new perspective with you.