extended families

I have written before about the experience I had growing up in the same house as my paternal grandparents. When I was very young, I had an inchoate sense that my mother and father and sister and I were living in Gran and Grandma’s house. But later, after my father got out of prison and after Gran was forced into retirement after a horrific automobile accident, the terms and conditions seemed gradually to shift, and I started to feel that the house was somehow now our house and Gran and Grandma were living with us. But in fact all along we were just a family living together, and never at any point was this an odd thing. It was common enough in our social class — working class, lower-lower-middle class — in those days that I don’t think either of my parents were ever the least bit ashamed of it, though surely they were at times frustrated by it.  

These days, though, there can be great shame associated with living in extended families, because of the peculiar sense of independence that so many of us have. Young adults don’t feel independent unless and until they are living away from their parents; and as for the parents, as they age they dread the loss of independence that would accompany having to move in with their children. 

There is at least the chance that the current crisis will change those feelings. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Americans are going to lose their jobs in the coming months. Not all of them will have homes to go to — “homes” in the Robert Frost sense of a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in — but those who do will have a chance to revisit our assumptions about the necessity, indeed the very value, of independence. And that may not be an altogether bad thing.