How to Thrive in a Multigenerational Home, According to 5 Asian American Families
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Until I was a teenager, I was raised in a multigenerational home, with my parents, brother, and paternal grandparents, and, on occasion, an aunt or uncle or cousin who used our home as a waypoint on their immigration journey. My parents’ decision was largely based in economics, as the decisions of first-generation immigrants often are: A multigenerational home allowed for a pooling of resources and division of labor in a new country. It was also a familiar way of life — multigenerational families were the norm in India when they left the country in the 1970s (although that has changed, especially in urban centers and among the middle class).
Almost three decades later, I returned home to live with my parents, after my then-husband and I separated and I undertook full custody of our daughter. My decision wasn’t an economic one — although my bank balance has benefited from the arrangement — but more a social and emotional one. I didn’t want to live alone at the time, and I wasn’t prepared to take care of my daughter without help. At the time, I wasn’t sure how long I’d stay with them; five years later, we’ve settled into a rhythm, pandemic notwithstanding. It’s not perfect — no family situation ever is! — but it has been good (so far) for my daughter and me. She has the physical and emotional support of three loving adults, and I have a fulfilling professional, creative, and social life, despite my outsized parenting responsibilities.
I’m one of many. Sixty-four million people, or 20% of the U.S. population, live with multiple generations under one roof, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center analysis of census data. The census defines a multigenerational household as including two or more adult generations, or including grandparents and grandchildren younger than 25.
Economics (again!) and growing racial and ethnic diversity helps explain some of this rise. The number and share of Americans living in multigenerational households increased sharply during and immediately after the Great Recession. Additionally, the nation is rapidly becoming more diverse: The U.S. population is far less white than it was even a decade ago, and families of color are more likely to live in multigenerational households. Also, foreign-born Americans are more likely than native-born Americans to live with multiple generations of family.
Among Asian Americans specifically, 29% live in homes with multiple generations of family members. To mark Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I spoke to several Asian American peers about their multigenerational families. Their experiences are both culturally specific and universal, and each portrait offers takeaways for others in, or considering, such a living arrangement.
We can strengthen cultural and familial bonds.
New Jersey teacher Ammylou Daludado’s in-laws moved in after their retirement. Daludado and her husband’s split-level home has allowed his parents privacy and autonomy, but also proximity — both physical and cultural. Daludado and her husband are immigrants: Daludado emigrated from the Philippines as a tween; her husband as a toddler. They wanted their three children — 14, 11, and 10 years old — to be grounded in and appreciative of Filipino culture. Her children are now deeply connected to their grandparents: They’ve been exposed to multiple Filipino languages and have an appreciation for the ways in which elders are treated and honored in Asian families. “There’s also Filipino food from morning to evening,” Daludado added, laughing.
While she and her husband have had minor conflicts with her in-laws over parenting styles and permissibility, food choices, and finances, she appreciates the invaluable richness that multigenerational living has given her children. “They get a peek, a window, into their grandparents’ lives and culture, and see their lives and beings reflected, like mirrors, and make connections that might have been lost,” she said.
We share household responsibilities.
Phung Guo’s widowed mother-in-law moved into their New Jersey home after the birth of Guo’s first child, who is now 11 years old. It’s customary in many Chinese families — Guo’s husband is Chinese American; she is a Chinese immigrant, by way of Vietnam and Malaysia — for a parent (or parents) to live with their eldest son in their old age, and the family has enthusiastically embraced this tradition.
Each member of the family has benefited from this arrangement, Guo explains. Her tween daughter has acquired some Chinese language skills from her grandmother, and Guo is grateful for the extra help in the kitchen, especially during the pandemic; her mother-in-law makes breakfast and dinner daily. And from Guo’s perspective, her mother-in-law — who had been living alone — is healthier and happier in their multigenerational home. “She eats better when she’s with us,” Guo said. “She has us to talk to, and having that social life helps her mentally.”
Our kids embrace lessons of caregiving.
New York City-based economic development professional Loren Nadres has lived in various family configurations: with her grandparents in the Philippines, with her in-laws in the U.S., and, now, with her 91-year-old grandmother on the Upper West Side. “I have such a strong emotional connection with her — she’s the most amazing person in my life,” Nadres said, and explained that COVID has upended care structures in her family. “I felt the need to ‘step up’ when she needed it.”
Eldercare is a laborious and emotionally draining task, and Nadres has two children under six years old and is pregnant with her third. “But [my children] are seeing the love and care you have with family,” she said. “My son walked past a newsstand and wanted to buy a Milky Way for his great-grandmother because he knew it would make her happy. These lessons of compassion and caring for each other are part of our daily life and are such a gift.” Nadres’s grandmother is also much more joyful, despite recent health setbacks, in a home with young children. “She’s more youthful,” Nadres says. “She reads to them, and it helps to keep her sharp and active.”
We find opportunities for socialization.
When Rachita Sharma Pate, who is Indian American, returned to school to facilitate a drastic career change — from lawyer to physician’s assistant — she, her husband, and their then-infant daughter returned to her parents’ New Jersey home for support. “It seemed like a really good place to land,” she said.
Five years on, her daughter has an incredible relationship with her parents. “They have a big hand in raising her; that is gold,” she said. “It may be at the expense of privacy or means of establishing our own routines or own space, but it’s of immeasurable value.”
She also reflected on the toll that COVID has taken on families and family relationships, and how thankful she is for her living situation. “Families took for granted that you could go see your extended family members,” she said. “We didn’t have to go through that. We were able to hold each others’ hands and feel supported. It was nice to have people to cook with and hang out with. That loneliness wasn’t nearly as hard to navigate.”
But we must set firm and transparent boundaries.
Let me be clear: Multigenerational living requires just as much communication and negotiation as any other family configuration. My mother teases that we argue often about minor conflicts over physical space and outside-the-home obligations. (I’m an introvert.)
“Intergenerational households can bring the added benefits that close familial relationships can bring, but it can also bring challenges that happen when we’re interacting with more people in close quarters, even if they are family members,” said Juli Fraga, Psy.D., an Asian American clinical psychologist in private practice in San Francisco.
Communication and boundaries are key to living harmoniously in a multigenerational home, said Clarice Fangzhou Hassan, a New York City-based licensed clinical social worker who works with many Chinese families, although she acknowledges that sometimes cultural knowledge and expectations can be a barrier.
“Maybe you’re living with your parents, and maybe they’re not first generation in the U.S., or maybe they are, but talking about feelings and settling problems like we do in the quote-unquote American culture is not part of their language,” Fraga added. In a collective, each member is still an individual, Fraga explained, and “each person may have different ways they want to talk about their feelings — or not. Each person needs to be seen for who they are and what they can bring.”
It’s also important to note that living with extended family isn’t for everyone: Families of origin can be toxic or abusive, and disengagement is best in those cases, Hassan said. Fraga acknowledged that this can be very complicated. “Some people can internalize the belief that ‘family no matter what,’” she said. “There’s a difference between being there for your family and we each having our family job and role, and not being able to lead your life and be in control.”