Whatever happened to the extended family?

So I was lying on the roof reading the Sunday Chronicle Magazine that I scavenged out of a garbage can and I noticed this article and felt compelled to respond. Read it, and then I’ll tell you my thoughts on it.

It’s ok, I’ll wait.

So the basic gist of the article is “look, loser twenty somethings are living with their parents.”

The thing is, in a not so distant time historically, children lived with their parents. Parents lived with their children. It used to be called the “nuclear family,” the concept of three (or more) generations under one roof. Now it’s called an “extended family,” because it’s apparently a real stretch for us to imagine multiple generations living together. (And several dictionaries now define the “extended family” as “a family group that consists only of father, mother, and children,” which is pretty fucked up if you ask me because I don’t think of that as an “extended family.”)

Remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? There’s Charlie and his parents and Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine and Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina. All living under one roof. When Dahl wrote the book, that sort of family arrangement was not all uncommon—the acute poverty of the family might have been but not the shared living situation. Later readers seem deeply perplexed by the whole thing, though—not only is Charlie Bucket poor, but…he lives with his grandparents?

There are a lot of advantages to living in an extended family environment. Grandparents can look after children. Family members can make meaningful connections with each other. Eat together. Play together. And, yes, as the article points out, young adults can save a bundle of money after college. When your student loan payment is close to six hundred dollars a month, it seems rather preposterous to be maintaining your own house and struggling to survive. The cost of living in this society is skyrocketing, but wages are not rising with it. It’s becoming very prohibitive for young adults to actually succeed without substantial help. We live in a cutthroat service economy, not the 1950s.

The article also seems shocked that parents are happy to have their kids move back in. What’s so odd about that? Presumably parents love and care for their children, although they can also be frustrating sometimes. Especially in the big houses a lot of these boomers own, you might not even be aware your kids are home. Is it such an awful thing for parents to want their children to succeed? Perish the thought that parents might actually enjoy being around their progeny, or want to encourage them to find meaningful lives.

Yes, people are marrying later now. But, once again, back in the dark ages, newly married people often lived with the parents of one partner or another while they found their feet. Indeed, in some family models this still happens—I know several Chinese families where the son has brought his wife to live with the parents to take care of them. And what good is marriage, when the divorce rate is rising astronomically and only heterosexuals are allowed to do it? Is marriage truly all it’s cracked up to be?

It’s funny that the article calls it “getting with the program” to move out, find a meaningless office job, and join the daily grind. Apparently only by abandoning your parents can you build a fulfilling life. “Getting married, having kids, and buying a house” is actually not my life goal, or the life goal of most of the people around me. Well, except for the buying a house part. But the point is that the article makes a lot of heteronormative assumptions. Hell, it makes a lot of assumptions period. It assumes that there’s only one way to live your life, and that any other life choice is a “waste.” And that angers me.

It saddens me that American society fosters a disconnect with your own family. It saddens me that people think it’s weird that I still “hang out” with my dad, even though we have separate houses and lives of our own. I know a lot of twenty something working poor who would have much better lives if they were living with their parents, saving some money, making choices based on what they want to do rather than what they must do.

This article is about affluent families and children, presumably because the working poor (the fastest growing class of American society) don’t exist. We are mere shadows in the night, you see. But much of it could refer to us, even though the author has chosen not to. When almost half of young adult college graduates are moving back home, it’s something to sit up and take notice of, rather than writing it off and dismissing it.

Allegedly, my generation is less likely to be politically active, which may well be true by the statistics coming from the polling places. But there’s more than one way to be politically aware and to be connected, and I’m not sure sociology has caught up with communications technology yet. I know that moving back home and living in the area of my roots has left me with a stronger connection to the place I’m in. I go to city council meetings and the like because I do care about the place I live in—I care about it because I grew up here, because the land being developed is land I’ve walked on. And it’s amusing to me that people still criticize me for living here (and I’m not even living in my father’s house). It’s amusing that people find it perfectly acceptable to make judgments about me and my life even though they don’t really know me, because they base their conceptions of “the good life” on what society tells them to. By conventional measures, I’m worthless. It used to cut me to the core when people said things about “still living here” and asked me “what I plan on doing with my life when I grow up.”

I am grown up. This is what I’m doing with my life. A number of people seem to have a problem with it, but perhaps they should be examining their own lives before making comments about mine. According to them, I’m indulging myself, refusing to grow up, and making a nuisance, because I drift from job to job. I’m not married. I’m not spawning. I’m just trying to make a living and to find a career doing something I love, rather than the first job I got after college. It’s shocking to me how heavily we are judged by older generations and their outmoded values. Apparently joy and fulfillment are not socially acceptable things to seek. Money is a good life goal. There seems to be some bitterness from older folks who are angry at us for pursuing our dreams, rather than giving in and breaking our backs under the wheel like they did.

Maybe I’m like one of the interviewees, “put[ing] a lot of stock in Honest-to-God happiness.” Is that such a bad thing?

4 Replies to “Whatever happened to the extended family?”

  1. 2 questions.

    How come you don’t live with your father? I seem to remember a few years back you two looking for a house together.

    This one from the GM. She’s wondering how you reconcile your stance on property ownership with the concept of someone stealing flowers from your garden. I have my ideas, but I’d like to hear yours.

  2. Answer one: that’s a great question, considering how pro-extended family I am. The short answer is that I am impossible to live with. We are actually still looking for a place together, with two units. (Well, a main house and a cottage might be a better way to describe it.)

    Answer two: the flowers aren’t “mine,” per say. Actually, by nature of their being on the street, they are a shared commodity, and I dig that. Someone removing them from shared public space is being selfish. I’m not sure it’s a property ownership issue as much as it’s a personal space (walking into my sphere of influence without my consent) and shared resources issue.

    How is the GM, by the way?

  3. Me and my family live in one big house!
    My Husband and i bought a house with the intention that his mother and her boyfriend would be moving into the house with us.
    Its kinda funny because the roles are kinda reverced Im 19 my husband is almost 21 but we have been married sence we were 16 years old but we travled and lived on our own until we bought our house this year. we all live togeather happly and we have two children of our own and my husbands sister even moved in!
    It was alittle diffacult at frist, but we all love it and have vary vary few problems!!!
    We ALL love it!

  4. For a long time I’ve had a dream of owning a fairly large plot of land with multiple homes inhabited by the various members of the family. I know from experience that having everyone living under one roof can be strained at the best of times, but everyone living in close proximity on the family property seems like it would relieve the tension and be a positive thing all around.

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