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For Rest That Fuels Creativity, Spend More Time With Mom

While some may view living part time with an elderly parent as an obligation, for Ken Tomita of Grovemade, it’s a creative respite.

Most men spend their young adulthoods trying to get away from their parents, but for Ken Tomita of Grovemade, it’s been a different story. Tomita, 37, is the child of immigrants from Japan (they moved when Ken was a baby); his mother’s command of English remains iffy to this day. And when he was just out of high school, Tomita’s father passed away, making Tomita, the eldest of two brothers, the man of the house.

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Ken Tomita

Still, through his late teens and early twenties, Tomita did the young-adult thing, trying to cut a path his own. He went to RISD. He lived in Santa Barbara. But he made regular trips home to look after his mother, and never lived outside of his hometown of Portland, Oregon, for more than a few years at a stretch.

In his late 20s, he cofounded Grovemade, which specializes in handcrafting wood and leather accessories (its first product was a bamboo iPhone case). And for a time, he allowed dual necessities—the imperative to look after his mother, and the financial pressures of launching a business—to box him into that corner every young adult dreads: living at home. From 28 to 32, Tomita lived in his childhood room, which his mother had kept just as it had been in his teenage years.

For the most part, he says, he was “cool with it,” but at the same time, “every choice has a pro and con.” As for dating, “it really does make it difficult,” he admits of living with his mother. “It definitely doesn’t look good on the surface.” For the most part, he felt lucky that, not having a mortgage, he could take bigger risks with his business and learn more. At the same time, though, at a certain point it became too much, and as Grovemade had more success, he moved out. First he lived in a group house. Then, eventually, he got his own apartment, and a live-in girlfriend. Visits home remained regular but sporadic. Years passed. And at a certain point, Tomita could say what most thirty-somethings hope to say: He was a grown, independent man.

Ken’s Mom’s Home

Gradually, though, Tomita came to feel that time spent at his mother’s house was among the most relaxing, and in some ways productive, ways he could spend his free time. Where others book trips to Aspen or time at the beach, Tomita has settled back into a weekly ritual: spending three days a week at his mother’s house in the hills of Portland.

It started with the fact that she needed help each Tuesday putting the trash out (she’s somewhat frail, and it involves carrying heavy trash up a hill). Tomita also got in the habit of visiting Sundays, and now he stays each week from Sunday until that Tuesday chore. And he loves it: Those mothering comforts that may have irked him a few years ago are now some of his favorite parts of the week.

“The food,” he says immediately, when asked about the perks of spending nearly half each week with his aging mother. “She cooks amazing Japanese food. It’s a big deal for her when I come home. There’s always a feast: sushi, crab legs, hot pot.” After the main course, there’s tea and dessert, often a homemade cheesecake, or maybe an affogato. In the mornings, after his shower, there’s usually a smoothie waiting for him, followed, often, by a Japanese breakfast of miso soup, salmon, and rice. “Luxurious,” he calls it, with a laugh.

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Other perks of Mom’s house: two friendly dogs, forest hiking trails, and a deep Japanese bathtub. And for a designer, the setting is ideal. “Though she’ll never admit it, she has really good taste,” says Tomita of his mother. The modern house was designed in the ’70s, and the house is elegantly furnished. Tomita recently brought a member of his design team up to his mother’s for lunch. “He had an image of a ‘mom house,’” that is, a typical suburban tchotchke-filled thing. “But the reality was totally different.” Ceramic art, subdued Japanese design, and elegant displays are found throughout the home. “She has unique ways of figuring out how to display objects,” says Tomita.

Overall, he says of the visits home, “it feels like going on vacation. It creates a really interesting rhythm for my life.” And on those well-fed evenings surrounded by a well-designed home, Tomita has often come up with some of his best ideas for his business–including a recent bold plan to drastically slim down Grovemade and focus on the business’s core. “The vast majority of my bigger-picture thinking happens there,” he says. He calls the hours after a home-cooked dinner and a relaxing bath “a magical time” when ideas start to flow.

Sometimes he recognizes that his life is unusual, and that others might look askance at it. “Immigrant families. Sometimes we’re flipped upside-down,” he says. But sometimes being upside-down offers a new perspective, and Tomita thinks more people in business might want to try it. Their mothers, surely, will like the idea.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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