An Experiment in Multigenerational Living

In The Happiest Toddler on the Block, Dr. Harvey Karp points out that nuclear families (just mom and dad raising the offspring) are a very new development in the history of humankind. In fact, they’re still in theThe joy of a backyard with a swing experimental stage from an anthropological perspective and are still rare in much of the world. “Our ancestors always lived in extended families (near grandparents, aunts, cousins, etc.),” he writes. “For thousands of years, parents had the village to help them. In fact, when people from more traditional cultures hear about our spread-out families, they’re usually stunned.”

My sister can attest to this. She and her husband have been trekking in South America this summer, and they spent a week living with a family that was a host to my brother-in-law ten years ago when he taught in Ecuador back in the 90s. They arrived in time for a family wedding, and my sister said the bride and groom just moved in downstairs after their honeymoon. Another sister and her husband and baby live across a courtyard, and several other family members lives there too. The family shares meals together every evening, trading off cooking responsibilities. “They don’t understand why we all live separately,” Deeanne told me last week. “They wonder how we afford to live separately, who looks after you, and who takes care of the children.”

Good points. After almost three weeks of multigenerational living, I think the extended family idea really has merit. Except for the big problem of San Francisco not being outside the front door and our dear friends now living hundreds of miles away, Villa living is working.

My parents have a ranch style home in the suburbs of Oceanside, and we have taken over the entire “East Wing.” I actually think we have more room than we did in our last apartment! Lily loves the huge yard, and my mom continues to come home with more goodies for her to enjoy—a swing, an alligator swimming pool, the latest this or that she found on sale. Lily has never had so much adoration and attention.

It’s not that I leave Lily with my mom much yet—Lily still is veryBathing beauty attached to nursing to sleep for her naps, and she’s quite a handful to have alone these days as she’s turned into a wiggly wonder, but it’s just nice having another adult to help feed her, to watch her while I run to the bathroom, or—heavenly wonders—play with her for a few minutes while I shower. I’m also being frequently reminded that my parents have, you know, done this before. Stephen and I are both finally feeling productive again, like we’ve discovered a new normal to our work patterns.

A long post recently went around on a mom email group that I belong to asking for advice about how to take a shower when home alone with the baby. The advice from the other moms ranged from a) time naps right, b) bring older babies in the shower with you (and switch to paraben-free shower products), and, most importantly, c) let go of the expectation of daily showers. I’m sure somewhere some (well-rested and freshly-bathed) mothers from an indigenous tribe in Papua New Guinea are laughing, saying, “Really—this is called progress?”

It’s also really amazing to watch my parents with Lily—they are silly in a way that I haven’t often seen them, and they delight in finding new ways to make Lily giggle. My mom in particular seems to speak “Liliputian.” Lily lights up when she enters the room, and she is starting to throw a bit of a fit when my mom leaves a room. She has taught Lily to play ball (rolling it back and forth), and—in a decision we might all come to regret—to scream in dramatically increasing decibels at the table. The video that I’ve captured doesn’t come close to capturing the full intensity of this game they play (when Lily sees the camera she gets markedly quieter). We’re either creating a monster or the next Pavarotti.

Of course there are challenges. We have different routines, patterns, approaches. My mom laughs at myLily with her Oma and Leo. organic-buying ways while I vow to convince her that pesticide worrying is for more than liberal San Franciscans.

In some ways, I think it’s a good spiritual practice to live in close proximity to family precisely because we’re going to see some things—from produce practices to spiritual practices—differently.

My parents have always managed to foster an environment where wide-ranging opinions are welcome, and I have never had any doubt that I am unconditionally loved by them, no matter my political, religious, or personal persuasions. I hope to figure out just how they have cultivated that unusual gift while we’re sojourning here; I can’t think of a better family legacy to continue.

I feel a bit like a bird on migration. We’re missing true north, but there’s a reason why we flew south for the winter, er, fall.