Normalizing Multigenerational Living

We like to joke in our family about our two family compounds, and one is where we live on land owned by my parents. There is the "big house" and the "little house" (guess which one we live in?). There are seven people and two cats currently living on this property, and while it's not always easy, it's a lifestyle that I love.

The other family compound is about fifteen minutes away at the property that my cousin and grandfather just moved to last month. They have seven people living there with two more to join them in the next couple of years as soon as they can get the second apartment finished.

I know this lifestyle isn't for everyone. Not every person grows up in a tight-knit family like mine. But I'm going to be honest here and say that our society's obsession with personal independence has stolen something from us.

I know I tend to think more romantically about the past than is warranted (especially for someone who loves indoor plumbing as much as I do), but there was a time when living with or near your family was the norm. Now, if you live with your parents past the age of twenty-five, the world thinks there's something wrong with you. That may be changing, though. According to Pew Research, multigenerational households accounted for 21% of the US population in 1950. Contrast that with an all-time low of 12% in 1980. In 2009, though, the number had grown again to 17%, likely due in large part to the Great Recession. But even as the economy has improved, more and more families are continuing to live together under one roof. The most recent analysis from 2014 shows that 19% of American households contain members from multiple generations. (This doesn't include families like ours where we have our own living quarters separate from the main house but on the same property.)

The reasons for this continued rise are complicated, including factors like immigration (non-white families are much more likely to live with multiple generations) and a lack of affordable housing. Whether this is a lifestyle of choice or necessity, though, it's benefits are numerous. 

We can share the load

As English writer John Heywood famously wrote, "Many hands make light work." In our family compound, my brother handles most of the yard work, so that is one less thing for the rest of us to worry about. We often grab things for each other when we're at the store. My mom will often drop library books off for us on her way to work. Chris is the king of hauling anything and everything in his little red pick up truck. When something breaks, my dad is there to fix it or show me how. There is less work for each when there's more people to share in the labor.

We all save money

My parents bought this property before I was born for about the same thing we paid for our house going on ten years ago now. (Talk about inflated housing costs.) Yes, they worked hard to afford it, and the fact that we are standing on their shoulders is not lost on me. But the fact is that they did work hard and they did it so that they could give their kids and grandkids a legacy of roots and a place to call home. This dream is a hard one to realize in our current housing crisis. By sharing the land and the space and the cost, we all benefit, and as my parents age, more of that cost burden will fall on our shoulders at a time when they are winding down their earnings and we are still gearing up. This transition of affording life together from one generation to the next is part of what family is all about for us.

We can take care of each other

Life happens. People get hurt. We age. We need each other.

When Chris had a venous ulcer pop open for the first time, our tiny house looked like a crime scene. There was blood everywhere. And I had a four-month-old. In that moment of fear and panic, my dad was there. His quick acting to apply pressure and stop the bleeding probably saved Chris from needing a blood transfusion (or worse). And then he took my child so I could race my husband to the hospital. When we got back home, he and my brother had cleaned up most of the bloody mess. We take care of each other.

When my dad had a kidney stone and the pain was so bad that he couldn't drive, we took him to the ER and waited with him for hours until he was able to get some pain relief. We take care of each other. 

When Chris has a doctor's appointment that I need to go to with him, my dad often watches our children, and it's easy to drop them off early in the morning or pick them up late at night if necessary because we don't have to drive across town. We take care of each other.

When Sunshine swallowed part of a clothespin, and we spent ten hours in emergency rooms and in surgery with her, my dad watched Sweetheart so we could focus on taking care of our preschooler. We take care of each other.

And when my mom and dad start to decline and need our help in their everyday lives, we will be there. Because we take care of each other.

We get to be together

Perhaps the best part of living so close to my family is that we get to do life together. My four-year-old asks every single day if she can go visit Grandma. (No, I don't let her go every day. My mom needs rest, too!) My dad often stops to say hi on his way to and from work. Sunshine follows my brother around when he's doing yard work sometimes, and when I just need to talk, my mom is right next door. When my dad decides to grill some pork ribs, he texts me to ask if we want some. My kids benefit from the daily example, influence, and wisdom of their grandparents. Most of these moments would not exist if we lived across town. What a loss that would be.

Normalizing multigenerational living benefits us all

I think it's time that we start seeing multigenerational living as normal for functional families who want to live this way and not as some deviant behavior characteristic of so-called boomerang offspring. It's good for our kids, it's good for our parents. and it's good for us. Adding stability and affordable housing to society is a net positive, and that's something we should all favor, whether we choose to live this way personally or not.