A family life that is whole, not ‘nuclear’

I grew up in a multigenerational home with my mother, my uncle, my grandfather, and my grandmother. I grew up experiencing the many gifts of a multigenerational home—which was the norm for most of American history—and only later came to realize some of the costs that friends or neighbors were bearing whose family life was either nuclear or solitary. Karen Swallow Prior writes on the “life-giving” nature of living with family:

Multigenerational homes, which the U.S. Census Bureau defines as households consisting of two or more adult generations living under the same roof, were common in the U.S. through the 1950s. They declined through the ’80s but have slowly begun to rise again, even more since the pandemic. …

In 2020, 12% of homes purchased were multigenerational. As some municipalities relax regulations to allow them, “granny pods,” small detached dwellings on the property of a main residence, seem to be growing in popularity as yet another option for extended families to live together. Indeed, a 2021 report estimates that more than 1 in 4 Americans are living in a multigenerational household.

More than half of those living in a multigenerational household cite the pandemic as a factor in their housing arrangement, but the overwhelming majority of these (72%) plan to keep these living arrangements long-term.

That was the case with Lisa Mathews and her family. Living alone since being widowed in 2017, Lisa moved in with her daughter, her husband and their two young boys after the pandemic began in March 2020.

This new arrangement offered even more than just the expected community and support. Lisa’s grandsons have a rare kidney disorder, and the extra time and help Lisa brought alleviated some of their long-standing health challenges. Lisa’s presence also allowed her daughter to give more attention to her small business. Helping improve everyone’s quality of life and helping a working mother’s business flourish were both sources of real joy. …

Indeed, if multigenerational living goes against the grain of the autonomous nuclear family that has become the paragon of American life, it doesn’t go against the general grain of human history. Worldwide, 38% of the population lives in extended family households compared with 33% living in two-parent households.

I aspire to build a home and a life capable of welcoming our parents and our children (and if needed, their children) under either one roof or multiple nearby roofs. And a family spirit of adventure and courage as much as closeness and security, with different seasons calling for more of one than the other.

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