Imagine picking up the kids at school after working a long day at the office. You arrive home and unlock the door, bags slung over both shoulders, trying to focus on your youngest child chattering about her day.
You enter your home and find it already humming along. Greetings are exchanged. The house is picked up and the laundry folded. You and your family gather at the table for another home-cooked meal—with your mother-in-law, who made it all possible.
For many Americans, that’s where this pleasant scene screeches to a halt. Living with extended family members, or even seeing them every day, seems intrusive at best and dysfunctional at worst. Some grimace at the thought of gathering with extended family for only a day or two over the holidays.
In other American homes, however, families have never known another way. Everyone sacrifices personal space on a daily basis to pitch in and help one another.
Though a multigenerational family structure sometimes happens out of necessity—when Grandma can no longer live on her own, for instance—for many families it’s cultural, not situational. These families can’t imagine life without three generations under one roof because that’s what a successful, loving family looks like. And even if the grandparents don’t live down the hall, they may be heavily involved in child-rearing and consulted on major decisions.
Third-culture kids won’t have the same childhood their parents did, and they’re going to have different points of view.
In North Texas, joint family networks come in all shapes and sizes, rooted in cultures that span the globe. Often the broader culture of independent, nuclear families co-exists with a traditional culture of extended family interdependence.
Andrew Nelson, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Texas, studies joint family networks among refugees from Nepal and Bhutan. After resettling in the United States from the mid-aughts to the mid-2010s, the refugees have worked hard to save money and buy large, suburban homes together, sharing them with five to 13 extended family members.
“For many South Asian groups—Indian, Nepali, Pakistani and so forth—there’s a perception that something must be wrong if people are leaving their parents’ houses and setting up their new, separate houses,” Nelson says. “This goes back to a very South Asian or cultural notion of the joint family being stronger.”
Nearly every day when Veronica Garcia Stigers comes home, her mother, Isabel Garcia Smith, is there to greet her, usually with dinner in progress.
Stigers’ parents immigrated to Texas from Mexico, but even after she was born they remained close to family, visiting Mexico five or six times a year for every vacation and holiday. There, extended family members live near one another—on the same street or within walking distance—so they can easily help one another, Stigers says.
Now she’s replicating that system with her own family: She and her mother don’t live together, but they both live in Farmers Branch, and they soon will live even closer.
A single mom of two and tech start-up guru, Stigers recently bought a second home on her street that she’s renovating. When she and her teenage daughter Amber move into that house, Smith and her husband will move into Stigers’ current home, which has also been renovated. (Stigers’ older daughter is away at college in Austin.)
“It’s always been the plan to have them as close as possible to me,” Stigers says. “I just think it’s going to be easier for us to live on the same street.”
Although some parents shudder at the thought of sharing a street, much less a home, with their in-laws, the inconveniences of joint family life—such as sacrifices of privacy or personal space—pale in comparison to the benefits, says Ling Xu, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Texas at Arlington who studies multigenerational family structures. She has firsthand experience: Her husband and their three children share a home with both maternal and paternal grandparents, who alternate six-month-long visits from China.
“When the children come home at 3pm they can stay together and have some fun time, and I don’t need to worry and get home early,” Xu says.
The grandparents staying with Xu do “the best they can” to contribute to their household, she says. For the two busy, working parents, the grandparents’ help keeps life running more smoothly. “Cooking is a big thing,” Xu explains. “It’s different from … hamburgers and sandwiches that are easy to prepare. Every day we have to cook different dishes for dinner, like five or six dishes. That’s really time-consuming, so they will prepare that, and they will do laundry and housework.”
Having extended family members who are heavily involved in the day-to-day functioning of the home may run counter to the independence at the core of the traditional American nuclear family. But on a practical level, living close to or with relatives dovetails well with American parents’ working lifestyles, making it possible to spend less on child care and maybe share more home-cooked meals together.
With a full-time job in Irving and her daughter attending school in Mesquite, Stigers’ days are packed with commuting. So her mother comes over almost every day to pitch in, and to help make their home feel more like, well, home. “She picks up around the house, then also gets dinner started,” Stigers says. “She’s there to greet us; she basically welcomes us home.”
The fact that her mother knows Stigers and her daughter so well makes her even more helpful. For example, if Amber has a school project, Smith might ask if she should set out the craft materials at home. “I don’t even know if that’s a cultural thing or if I just have the world’s best supermom,” Stigers says. “I joke around with the girls that I hope someday I can be half the Isabel.”
The closeness that develops between kids and their older relatives is one of the special, nonpractical benefits of joint family living. But it’s not automatic, especially when the kids are not fully steeped in the culture of their grandparents.
For example, Xu worries about the language barrier between older and younger generations. When grandparents speak only Chinese, they can feel disconnected from grandchildren who are more comfortable in English or don’t know Chinese. Xu’s children speak Chinese, but engaging their grandparents in their language takes patience that’s often difficult for children, especially teens, to muster.
Parents too may feel torn between the way they have long defined “family” and the way it’s defined by their friends and neighbors. With greater financial resources and modern social services, some cultures with joint family traditions have come to prefer the space and privacy of separate housing for nuclear families, Xu says. In her studies of family relationships in China and Chinese immigrants in the United States, she sees a struggle to balance the conveniences of greater autonomy and the support system of joint family lifestyles.
This struggle is perhaps most reflected in their kids.
“Third culture kids”—those who are raised in one culture but surrounded by another—usually reflect a blend of cultural values, says M’Liss Stringer, a training coach with the missionary organization Pioneer Bible Translators. Stringer has worked with families who serve as missionaries around the world, helping them adapt to the challenges of living, working and parenting cross-culturally. Missionaries themselves, Stringer and her husband reared their daughters abroad, mostly in France, while coming home to the United States intermittently on yearlong furloughs.
Stringer, who now lives with her family in Richardson, says her teenage daughters won’t be French or American, but a blend of both. “Third culture kids won’t have the same childhood their parents did, and they’re going to have different points of view,” she explains.
This unique blended perspective is the so-called “third culture,” and while it affords benefits like adaptability and greater sensitivity to other ways of life, Stringer admits there’s a sadness parents can feel when they’re rearing third culture kids. “Sometimes, you think, ‘What have I done raising my kids in another culture?’” she says.
She describes a funny moment when a server at a local barbecue restaurant asked if her kids wanted a “frosty mug with that root beer,” and Stringer had to explain “frosty mug.” Other times, however, cultural knowledge missed by her children has weighed more heavily. “When they asked me who Abraham Lincoln was—that one nearly killed me,” Stringer reveals.
Angelica Granados was one of those third culture kids. She grew up in Nicaragua with her grandparents living at home. Her grandmother taught her how to do the dishes and other household tasks and was the primary disciplinarian—Granados says her grandmother overruled her mother’s overprotective tendencies, on occasion.
“I didn’t grow up with my father because he was here working, sending us money,” Granados explains. “But the love my grandmother gave us supplied that missing love from my father.”
When she was 13 years old, she moved to the United States to live with her father, learning English in American schools.
Now her own North Dallas household reflects the cultural blend of her childhood. Two years ago, her mother moved in. She cooks for the family and provides child care for Granados’ two young children while Granados and her husband work.
Granados is grateful that her children are growing up with their grandmother as she did with her grandparents. “They were great examples, who made me want to follow that,” she says.
But Granados’ family isn’t a carbon copy of the Nicaraguan part of her upbringing. Granados, not her mother, is the one who shoulders discipline. And she doesn’t expect her mother to insert herself when it comes to making decisions about the children as they grow—in part, she says, because of her mother’s personality. But it may also have something to do with that cultural mix of Granados’ upbringing. Instead of the intense interdependence that marked her early life in Nicaragua, she’s embraced some of the autonomy she found in the United States, at least when it comes to making decisions as a mom. After going through a divorce as a new mother, she took advantage of classes at The Parenting Center in Fort Worth.
“I wanted the best for my daughter, and I started to say, ‘OK, there are some things I may need to learn,’” she says. “It helped me so much.”
The Children Are Our Future
College senior Neha Husein always goes home for birthdays. Even if it’s a busy week at Southern Methodist University, she’ll drive 30 minutes to Carrollton for the midnight celebration. The party begins with a rowdy tradition: smashing a cake in the face of the honoree. (There’s also a cake for eating.)
“We will not miss each other’s birthdays for absolutely anything,” Husein says. “Everyone has to wake up. Even if you’re sick, it doesn’t matter.”
When Husein’s parents married, her mother moved in with her husband’s family, which is customary among those who practice the Ismaili religion, a sect of Islam. The family settled in Carrollton because of its large Ismaili community, and everyone in the household helped at the family’s convenience and dollar stores, stocking shelves and working the cash register. For the kids, there also was school in Lewisville Independent School District, as well as sports and Scouts.
But the family’s closest associations share faith and customs outside the American mainstream. They live in multigenerational households and faithfully gather at Ismaili places of worship. They practice rituals like drinking holy water in the mornings and praying with their shoes off and set behind them.
And, like their Ismaili neighbors, Husein’s family consults each other on major decisions.
“We make decisions collectively, so we think about what would be best for our family,” Husein says, adding that she thinks that’s why she and her brother, who attends the University of Texas at Dallas, ended up going to college so close to home.
Though their life so far has included a mix of elements from Indian and American culture, Husein and her brother plan to continue the family’s traditions. When and if Husein’s brother marries, he will stay with the parents and his wife will move in with his family. For Husein, it will depend on her husband’s family whether or not she moves in. Either way decisions about work, school and major purchases will be made together, and her husband’s parents will be on hand to help out—and celebrate birthdays.
Xu also hopes to follow in her parents’ footsteps of helping her adult children one day. She envisions a life of laundry, cooking, and housework, caring for her grandchildren—if that’s what her children want and need. Even now, the kids see the advantages of help from grandparents, and they’re grateful, Xu says.
When discussing the value of joint family structures, Nelson, the UNT professor, likes to quote a metaphor that’s widely known among anthropologists of South Asia: “One straw from a broom cannot sweep.”