Questions I Texted My Parents in My First 5 Months Living in Boston
On September 1st, I moved into the 2rd floor of a purple and green triple decker and started my first job as a data analyst at a Boston hospital. I also started doing a few things for the first time, like paying for my living expenses and being the sole person contributing to the effort of feeding me.
Did I know what I was doing?
Did I start to figure it out?
Here’s a data source that might start to answer these questions: my text threads with my parents. In my first 5 months living in Boston (Sep. 1 - January 31), I texted my parents 197 questions.1 I decided to analyze these texts to see if they lend any insight into my first 153 days of greatest independence.
Why These Data?
My texts to my parents may be the closest thing to a record of what was on my mind. I don’t tend to second-guess myself when I’m talking to my parents. They’re my go-to humans when I feel frustrated or confused or in need of some level-headed advice. I’m hoping that the questions I asked them will capture (in an unbiased and somewhat quantitative way) what I was grappling with and when.
My Parents & My Texting Habits
During the 5-month time period, we sent 2878 texts, for an average of about 19 texts per day. Here’s the distribution of texts per day over the 5 months:
Okay, so I’m not sure whether to be embarrassed by the amount of blue in this graph. Apparently, I send the vast majority of the texts. My parents aren’t very big texters, and they’re much slower than I am at typing with their thumbs. (But they do always eventually respond to my questions).
In case you were wondering, the big spike in January was a conversation between my dad and me about how best to execute an experiment on myself,2 including 96 texts discussing what assumptions were reasonable for the power analyses. The little red square at the top of the spike is my mom chiming in to remind us we both probably had more important things to be doing.
For the rest of this post, I’ll focus on the subset of 197 texts in which I asked questions.
I assigned each of the questions to a category in each of two dimensions: topic and type.
Topic refers to the content of the question. Here are the categories and an example of each:
- Food/cooking - “Do you think a sweet potato that’s been in my fridge for a month and a half is still okay to eat?” (October 17)
- Financial - “Will Bank of America just give me quarters?” (September 22)
- Social/human - “Do you think I can call him Daniel?” (October 29)
- Home/maintenance - “Do you think this thing just screws off and there’s a normal light bulb inside?” (October 21)
- Family/plans - “Flight to Portland still on time?” (October 26)
- Medical - “Here’s a question: there isn’t all that much snot anywhere, so why does my inner face hurt so much??” (November 8)
Type refers partly to question structure and partly to question intention. There are 7 categories:
- There’s no one right answer but I’m looking for a recommendation or adult perspective on appropriate behavior
- “What’s an easy thing to cook that I can make a lot of and is filling and includes vegetables?” (October 17)
- My parents had some specific information I wanted
- “What day is Sarah coming to Maine during Christmas again?” (November 19)
- I asked what they were doing or if they were awake because I wanted to call them or otherwise have further contact with them in some way
- “Are you guys still up?” (December 10)
- Primary purpose is to connect over some shared experience or to check in and not to acquire any particular information
- “Did you ever come to the Ether day celebrations when you worked here, dad?” (October 11)
- I directly asked them to do something for me or followed-up on a previous request
- “Mom, can you send a photo of the kind of hook you think I should get for the curtains?” (January 20)
- There is a right answer, and I probably could have just googled it
- “How do I deposit a check at a bank?” (September 19)
- I am seeking reassurance or commiseration and not information or action
- “Would you be very upset if I sent you a photo of what happened when I snaked our bathroom sink drain?” (January 25)
Topic Trends Over Time
I’m primarily interested in exploring how the quantity and content of my questions changed over time.
Let’s start by diving into food/cooking. Before the move, this is what I worried about the most. I don’t love to cook, my knowledge and skills are minimal, and I was truly afraid my ineptitude and boredom when it comes to cooking would converge and I just wouldn’t eat.
Here’s a chart of the number of questions I asked related to food/cooking per month, color-coded based on the question type:
Alternate title to this graph: Jess learns to Feed Herself
I would like you all to know that I haven’t skipped a single meal since moving to Boston.3 I do sort of hate planning out my meals for the week, grocery shopping, and cooking, but it’s just not as bad as I feared.
Finances show a similar trend, with a striking amount of favors requested. (Here’s one from September 4: “Will you help me with my I-9 form?”) The spike in September is me learning basic skills like how to deposit a check in person and how to acquire quarters for the laundry machines in the basement of my apartment. The second spike in November corresponds with signing up for 2020 benefits at work. Decisions decisions.
Here’s the same chart for social/human:
Curiosity/check in and contact remain somewhat consistent throughout the time period, but clarification and advice questions decrease in frequency. The advice questions I was asking were about things like what to wear or how to address someone. I don’t think I actually gained new skills in these areas, there’s just many more situations in which to question appropriate social conduct when you’re new somewhere.
In what instance was I seeking support related to a social/human issue? Well: “I thought the man I sat next to on this train would stop manspreading when I sat down next to him but he has not. He’s all leaned over reading a book, with his elbows on both his knees. What if I started doing the same thing?” (September 23)
Home/maintenance shows the opposite trend as the first 3 categories:
Family/plans is all over the place:
This might reflect the months when I spent the most time with family; December certainly fits that criteria, but I’m not sure about October.
And, last but not least, medical:
I’ve had some unexpected health challenges these last few months (unrelated to the sinus suffering I was apparently experiencing on November 8).
What strikes me most about this graph is the sudden appearance of pink “support” in the later months. I got pretty overwhelmed. It’s strangely comforting and validating to see it in graph form.
I also notice how much “advice” comes through here. That is, at first glance, surprising, but there are so many choices to make when your body stops working well; it’s really one big judgement call.
There’s a lot more to say (and potentially to analyze) about this set of texts. Perhaps I will dedicate another post to them. I’d also like to note to everyone that I’m receiving great care and, despite the ongoing challenges, my prognosis is positive.
Is there a story here?
Here’s a chart summarizing the frequency of questions on each topic over the 5-month time period:
Since the medical questions eclipse everything else, let’s exclude those and examine the other topics more closely:
If we return to the premise that the questions I text my parents reflect the things I’m trying to figure out at a given time point, here’s the story I see in this graph: I gradually figured out the food and finances (those have the lowest frequency in December and January!). Only after these basic resources were taken care of did I start to tackle home/maintenance. In December, I was mostly trying to figure out family and planning stuff. And throughout the time period, I found myself in fewer and fewer situations in which I needed advice or clarification about social/human issues.
The last thing I’ll graph for you is the question type over time, regardless of topic:
I could probably do some more curiosity/check in. Although I do also talk to my parents on the phone regularly, it’s probably not a bad idea for at least every 10th or so texted question to be about how they’re doing. All joking aside, though, this strikes me as a beautiful quantification of the support I’ve gotten from my parents since moving out of their house.
There’s such an obnoxious trope these days about millenials and our struggles to adjust to “adulting,”4 and in a way it’s exactly this struggle that I hoped to quantify and analyze. But once I sat down and graphed everything, it was obvious that my health issues played a much larger role than did, say, food or finances. My first five months of greatest independence were so much messier than I would have predicted, and not because I didn’t know how to take care of myself, but because these 5 months followed exactly the same rules as all the others (uncertainty, joy, loss, connection), and they happened to be a rather challenging set.
Here’s to having people, parents or otherwise, to reach out to (with any of the 7 types of questions).
I’ve excluded questions related to my employment and any follow-up questions↩︎
I don’t want to give away the topic in case I decide to follow-through with it and publish the results here↩︎
Yom Kippur doesn’t count.↩︎
I think it’s really harmful to equate moving out of one’s parents house, paying bills, and feeding oneself with being an adult because many people, such as people with chronic illness or other disabilities, are not able to do these things, and those people are still unequivocally whole and worthy adults.↩︎