Written by Jennifer Conlin and Originally Published in The New York Times on August 31, 2012
I am now a statistic. Earlier this summer, the United States Census Bureau reported that the number of adult children living in their parents’ households had increased by 1.2 million between 2007 and 2010. Shared households accounted for 18.7 percent of all American households in 2010, up from 17 percent in 2007. Most of those children were between age 25 and 34, but I had suddenly joined their ranks at a considerably older age.
In August 2010, as my husband, Daniel Rivkin, and I approached our 50th birthdays, we were suddenly forced to move into my parents’ home in Michigan with our three teenage children and dog. Never mind that my older brother, who had lost his job the previous year, was already in residence in one of their basement bedrooms — my parents’ three-story rambling colonial home quickly accommodated us all.
Every family has different reasons for deciding on shared family living: ours, however, were somewhat out of the ordinary. Having left Egypt just months before the Mubarak government fell, we found ourselves back in an America that was in the middle of a recession, without any steady income or job prospects awaiting us.
It is hard to say what was most disheartening about this development: losing our fiercely independent lives after having lived the previous 20 years in Brussels, Paris, London and then Cairo; burdening my parents with our large amounts of baggage, both mental and physical (shortly after we arrived, a 30-foot container of global possessions followed); or trying to start over at an age when my husband and I, both of us journalists, thought we would be on career cruise control.
We had lived, in the eyes of our friends, a charmed international life: showing our children the world, vacationing in the south of France and the Italian Alps, taking family trips to visit the ruins in Greece and the graves at Normandy. More recently, we took a cruise up the Nile with a huge gathering of family and friends, a week long trip that I would later write about for this newspaper and that would provide a memorable introduction to our new home.
It was an amazing way to live. Until it came to a sudden halt.
“Don’t come back next week,” Daniel said to me over the phone. I was standing before a wall of windows in a museum in Washington, D.C., on a Sunday morning in the middle of that August two years ago, admiring the Mall’s national monuments below me. I was there on a final mother-daughter pre-college trip with my oldest. Daniel was back in Cairo dealing with new government press restrictions being enforced on local broadcast companies.
“This place is going to blow up,” he mumbled to me. “I think you should stay in America with the kids,” he said, filling me in on the most recent rumors concerning President Hosni Mubarak’s ailing health. As one journalist had recently told us, “You will know the minute he dies, as there will be tanks in the street to stop any unrest.”
“I’m going to quit,” he said firmly of his job managing global broadcast services for a news agency. Besides the political situation, he had been in several business disputes with his boss in the last year.
“And where am I supposed to go exactly?” I asked hesitantly, knowing the answer he was about to give.
“It’s time to implement the escape plan,” he said, not using the heavily accented faux-C.I.A. voice he usually did to make me laugh when we discussed cutting short this latest posting.
The “escape plan,” something anyone facing financial troubles keeps in the back of his or her mind, was a strategy we had come up with over our last few months in Egypt. But it was also a scenario I never actually imagined implementing, as it not only involved moving from the Middle East back to my hometown in the Midwest, but also residing with my parents for an indeterminate amount of time.
It was one thing to go visit my folks in Michigan every summer. Their house in the countryside, complete with a swimming pool, was made for summer guests and, more important, for us. When my children were toddlers, my parents had generously converted the basement into an annex of three bedrooms and a family room for my growing, expatriate family.
But the notion of living with them beyond our normal Labor Day departure was incomprehensible. Having lived a three-movie plane ride away from my nearest relative for most of my married life, it was not unappealing to think of living “near” family. But living “with” them was something else entirely.
I thought of how strange it would be for our three children (Harriet, Florence and Charles, then 18, 14 and 13, respectively) to live in the United States for the first time.
I pictured my mother and father, preparing their lunch back in Michigan, totally unaware of what was about to happen to their quiet existence: the influx of a family of five, refugees from abroad with no jobs, no furniture and no money. All we had were a few suitcases of summer clothing.
As I drove up my parents’ driveway with the children four days later, I watched as my mother, father and brother emerged from the house looking nervously excited by this sudden shift of events.
I tried my best to look cheerful as I stepped out of the car but felt physically ill. Here I was, back in the town where I was born and raised and had met and married my husband, but for the first time in my nomadic life I felt completely and utterly homeless.
OUR first week “back” in America was more than challenging. I soon understood why so many recent unemployed college graduates move back in with their folks and why new immigrants rely on extended family when they first come to America. They have little choice.
I had to scrounge the Internet for family health insurance, something we never had to worry about in Europe, where we always had government-provided health care. (In Cairo, we were given expatriate medical insurance.) The kids needed to see a pediatrician for physicals so they could play preseason sports, but finding an affordable plan was not easy. I signed up for a cheap one with a huge deductible, hoping none of us would get sick before we could afford a better one.
A couple of days after arriving in Michigan we headed to a department store to buy Florence new field-hockey cleats (hers were in Cairo), a couple of lunchboxes (until now, the kids had always had a school cafeteria) and some clothes (this would be their first time without a uniform). When I went to pay, I learned we faced another huge hurdle.
“I’m sorry,” the woman at the checkout said, “but you’ve been turned down for a store card.” I pulled out my British credit card quickly, embarrassed at a rejection I had not even asked for (she had urged me to apply for a card to get a discount on that day’s purchases). When I went to open a bank account the next day, I found out why.
We had no credit history in the United States, having lived abroad for so long, which meant that we could not take out a car loan, get a credit card or even rent a modest home.
Any family moving into new surroundings — parents in with children, or children in with parents — has to deal with an array of adjustments, from personality issues to domestic differences to living in a new part of the country. We had all of that, but were also suffering from extreme culture shock.
My children had never attended an American school, only British and French. Right before I dropped Charles off for his first day of school, he asked me, “Mummy, how much are a dime and nickel worth?” Florence and I needed new wardrobes. In Egypt, as women, we couldn’t show our shoulders or knees or even the outline of our crotches. (Hence, the need for long shirts or a dress with leggings.)
Daniel, who had already been driving for 30 years, had to take a nerve-racking road test to get an American driver’s license. And in the post office one day, I realized I did not know how much an American stamp cost.
Without the emotional support of my extended family (I also have more than a dozen cousins who live in town), I don’t know how we would have readjusted. But I also found it extremely awkward initially when new friends learned of our living arrangement.
The first time was several weeks after we had moved back. One day the mother of a new friend of Florence’s came to the front door to drop off her daughter. Before I could answer the bell, my mother was there offering her a lemonade.
Seconds later, as I was introducing myself, I saw her hand extend yet again. “Hello, you must be Florence’s father,” she said, shaking my brother’s hand.
“Actually, I am Florence’s uncle,” he said, breaking into a big grin. Behind her, I could see my father coming up the walk, his arms full of letters from the mailbox.
“Excuse me, young lady,” he said as he wiggled his way past her.
It felt to me like this poor woman had just entered the set of a Noël Coward play, one of those weekend farces in which a stranger innocently arrives at a country estate and suddenly has to deal with the eccentric relatives.
“This is my parents’ house,” I blurted out. As if on cue, my mother and father introduced themselves, along with my brother.
“So where do you live?” she asked me.
I felt my face go red.
IT’S been two years since that sudden move back to Michigan and into my parents’ basement. But in spite of much upheaval for us all, a situation ripe for family melodrama (think “Dallas,” without the money) has become more of a modern-day Waltons (minus the group echo of good night in the hallways as we fall asleep in reverse generational order: oldest to youngest).
Our domestic arrangement, which was supposed to be temporary, has ended up becoming an unexpected test case of multigenerational living that we now have grown to accept. Though we initially tried to tiptoe around my father and mother (now 81 and 78, respectively), we soon realized it was impossible with our noisy teenagers leaving a chaotic trail of sports equipment and backpacks.
And though we tried at first to give each other “space” — with my immediate family moving into the basement rooms, and my older brother moving upstairs to the second-floor guest room near my parents’ room — it quickly proved a futile exercise.
Why eat separately if we could save time and money dining together? Why buy an extra car if my father could do the post-school pickup? Why live separately, we all asked one by one, as we found more permanent employment, if we could live much more cheaply and better as an extended family?
Suddenly, Daniel and I, after experiencing built-in teenage supervision and dog sitting, couldn’t imagine once again hiring help when we had to travel for work, which in both our careers can be quite often. My parents and brother routinely offered to pick up the children from the myriad American extracurricular activities they had enthusiastically signed up for, allowing Daniel and me more time for work and less for chauffeuring.
As for my parents, who were starting to feel lonely and overwhelmed by the upkeep on their underutilized house, our living together has given them not only a cheerier future but also a way they can stay in their beloved home. As we weighed the options, a bit of research helped us decide to stay put. It turns out that the traditional family has, in fact, been dying a slow death long before we thought of pulling the plug.
A Pew Research Center study, “The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household,” published long before the most recent, even higher census figures, revealed that in 2008 a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1 percent of the country’s population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation.
Those figures, according to that Pew report, represented a significant trend reversal that started right after World War II. In 1940, about a quarter of the population lived in a multigenerational home (my mother-in-law, in fact, grew up sharing a house with her aunt, uncle and cousins), while in 1980, only 12 percent did.
Seeing that the future for all of us looked far bleaker financially and emotionally apart than together, we managed to come up with a way to buy my parents’ home last December, and now plan to add on, with any luck, a master suite on the ground floor with a study and separate entrance, all with wheelchair access, anticipating that they will not always be as spry as they are now, nor will we.
My children did not want to leave their grandparents, who give them firsthand accounts on history homework and a nonjudgmental shoulder to lean on. Nor did my parents want to lose the tech support (the children have taught them to use e-mail and Skype) or their link to the latest lingo (I almost died when my mother said “junk” instead of “privates” when discussing the Anthony Weiner scandal with me).
I don’t know if my confirmed-bachelor brother will stay indefinitely, but I also don’t see why he would leave. Like a Victorian-age family, we cook and clean for the oldest male sibling, while he contributes to the household bills, calmly teaches my children how to drive and plays basketball with them in the driveway on weekends. I now see how smart multigenerational immigrant families have been throughout history.
So when we watch family shows like “Modern Family” and “Parenthood,” we wonder why they don’t just all move in together and get on with it. They are with one another all the time anyway, and it makes a lot of sense in these trying times.