When “safer at home” orders were issued in the State of California last month, I found myself facing the anxiety of both a global pandemic and the prospect of sheltering in place not only with my husband and child, but with my husband’s parents as well.
What came as a surprise to me, perhaps because the looming threat of COVID-19 felt so surreal at the time, was that I was far more concerned about the latter. Not that I had much reason to be. My small nuclear family had moved in with my in-laws temporarily nearly three months before, and it had been going swimmingly.
We ate family meals, shared household duties and worked together as a cohesive team. Still, the prospect of being isolated together, of spending all of our time navigating our lives — work, school and social — in the same few rooms, felt daunting.
The trope of the toxic, obnoxious, overstepping in-laws is familiar and well-worn. Sitcoms, advice columns, stand-up bits — the horror stories are, for many, quite accurate. So I should have expected the reactions I got when I told people about my living situation.
“I can’t imagine how hard that must be,” a concerned friend told me.
“I would just die!” a co-worker said.
But their perceptions couldn’t have been further from the truth.
In reality, my in-laws are very much parents to me. Perhaps because I have known them for more than half of my life, or because their values and beliefs are similar to my own, or because they are simply kind and welcoming people, I have always felt comfortable around them. They made me part of their family decades ago, and these months that we have been living with them have been no different.
In pre-pandemic times, this meant that my daughter, my spouse, my parents, my in-laws and I spent many hours in each other’s homes each week. We cooked and ate meals together, we shared the load in household projects and in child care. And, of course, when we moved in with them, all of this intensified.
“Though we occasionally feel the pinch of a lack of space or privacy, the benefits of living together far outweigh any drawbacks.”
Now, we alternate chores and shopping trips. If I have a meeting, someone is usually available to watch my daughter, and if someone else has a meeting, I am able to have dinner ready when they get home. In short, we support each other. And though we occasionally feel the pinch of a lack of space or privacy, the benefits of living together far outweigh any drawbacks.
Even as I confront the danger of a life-threatening virus, I have never felt so lucky. And yet, when my friend and my co-worker said those things, I found it easier to laugh along uncomfortably than to correct them. I was actually ashamed to admit that I didn’t really want to move out. In fact, things have been going so well that I am starting to become anxious about the end of our stay, about embarking again on our own as a tiny three-person family.
A “nuclear family” is traditionally defined as a family group that consists of two married individuals and their biological offspring. In the 1920s, when an anthropologist first coined the term, ideas about atomic nuclei were unconfirmed. The meaning of “nuclear” back then was more figurative than concrete, tied mostly to the Latin word nucleus, meaning “kernel,” the central or most important part of something.
In the United States, the nuclear family is held up as virtuous ― an ideal that is part of the white picket fence American dream. And yet, statistics show that the impression that most Americans live in a nuclear family consisting of one father, one mother and 2.5 children is as figurative as the term “nuclear family” itself.
Though American households in general have grown smaller over time, partially due to a rise in people living alone, today 20% of people live in multigenerational households. This is up from only 12% in 1980, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
The growth of extended family households has been propelled in large part by young adults moving back home — not just for economic reasons, but also to care for their parents as they age. It is also driven by an increasing number of seniors moving in with their children, either to care for their grandkids, to be cared for themselves, or both.
In a March article for The Atlantic, David Brooks calls the shift in preference for nuclear families over multigenerational households that were common before the 20th century “the story of our times,” and he doesn’t mean this favorably. He views nuclear families as fragmented and fragile, as opposed to extended families, which he considers to be robust and resilient. In some ways, this may be true. Extended families have the numbers to really look out for each other. They are a “supporting web” in which one of any number of people can jump in and support a member in a difficult situation. By contrast, a smaller nuclear family appears to have no such buffer. If something bad happens to one of the members, the burden can only be picked up by a precious few.
However, this depiction overlooks the fact that even those of us who do live in a somewhat “typical” nuclear family often rely on a much larger network of people. We have friends and neighbors and co-workers. We have family members who live separately from us and chosen family who are minutes away. We have teachers and nannies and shopkeepers. The list goes on.
“If this crisis has underscored anything for me, it’s how interconnected we all are, how what we do as individuals affects everyone around us.”
For a more accurate representation of a nuclear family, one might look to another definition of the word “kernel”: the soft, usually edible part of a nut, seed or fruit contained within a hard shell. The nucleus, or kernel, is not something unto itself. Rather, it is part of a whole, the softer part within the strong outer shell. The nuclear family may indeed be soft or fragile on its own, but when it is protected by the rest of its support network, it is a hard nut to crack.
As I write this, I can hear my mother-in-law regaling my daughter with stories of distant road trips before bed. My father-in-law is drying dishes and chatting with my husband, who is finishing a late dinner after a long day of work in his makeshift garage office. The house is calm but not quiet, humming with the machinery of extended family.
I realize this makes me luckier than most. For one, I get along with my in-laws. Beyond that, I have a deep extended support network that includes not only my husband’s family, but my biological family and my friends who have become chosen family.
When social distancing orders went into effect last month, we were sealed into our homes, and many of our connections within our support networks were abruptly severed — or at least significantly altered. But if this crisis has underscored anything for me, it’s how interconnected we all are, how what we do as individuals affects everyone around us.
The ideal of the independently successful nuclear family is ingrained, but it isn’t realistic, and we don’t have to live up to it. We aren’t failing if we rely on others for help. We’re doing what humans have done for centuries: calling on our social connections to get us through.
Ruth Kogen Goodwin a writer and editor living in Southern California. She received an MFA in poetry and nonfiction from American University. You can see more of her work at www.ruthkgoodwin.com. Follow her on Twitter @ruththeputh or Instagram @ruth_k_goodwin.
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