SAN MATEO, California (RNS) — For one year, my wife and I are living 2,700 miles apart.
She lives in a one-bedroom apartment here, south of San Francisco. Each weekday she walks two blocks to the home of our middle son and his wife, where she cares for their 9-month-old son.
“Granny nanny” is what they call this phenomenon. Once maternity and paternity leaves expire, grandparents across the country are moving close to their adult children, maybe into their homes, to provide child care so both parents can pursue their careers.
A six-hour plane ride away, I am back in our Manhattan apartment, where our youngest son, age 23, is living at home until he lands a job in the worst job-finding environment since the Great Depression.
Our oldest son, meanwhile, is adapting his country house to become a multigenerational household next year, when my wife returns east. I have already had a taste of caring for their 8-month-old daughter, and it is wonderful.
It seems we have joined a growing trend toward sharing living space: three generations (grandparents, parents and children) or two generations (parents and adult children).
Once common in America, and still common in most of the world, multigenerational households fell out of favor in the years after World War II. Prosperity made it unnecessary on financial grounds, and new suburbs catered to “nuclear families,” not extended families.
The financial picture has changed, as more young adults marry later and find it difficult to get launched in careers, and as older adults live longer on reduced retirement incomes.
Child-rearing is changing, too. Soaring costs for housing and education make two incomes necessary. Day care can be expensive, often canceling out one partner’s paycheck, and difficult to find, such as the one-year waiting list that required my wife’s temporary move.
This rediscovery of the multigenerational household isn’t exactly new. Pew Research reported in 2010 that, “Since bottoming out around 1980, the multi-generational family household has mounted a comeback.”
What I see is that, in addition to hardship factors like job losses, many families are choosing the multigenerational household for social and personal benefits.
They want a child reared by family, for example, rather than day care and after-school care.
They want grandparents around to share the load of home duties, such as cooking and property maintenance, while young parents pursue careers.
They want to provide an alternative to nursing homes when late-in-life aging kicks in.
Years before our children were married or siring, my wife and I built the “house of our dreams” in Durham, N.C., with multigenerational living in mind: a master bedroom suite on the first floor, bedrooms and a living room on the second floor, multiple options for entertainment and home-office space.
We weren’t alone. On our four-house cul-de-sac, a young couple was caring for her parents, one with Alzheimer’s, and an older couple bought a house for their adult daughter to share with them.
Immigrant families, meanwhile, are maintaining the multigenerational expectation they brought with them, Pew reports.
Based on my experience thus far, multigenerational living requires patience, never my strong suit, and clear boundaries in parenting and in space. It helps to have enough rooms to escape each other.
As early Christians discovered in their bold experiment in communal living, multigenerational living requires putting the other first, not oneself; approaching decisions with humility; an attitude of gratitude; and paying special attention to the vulnerable. These, of course, are countercultural values, but God is in them.
The good news? The benefits far outweigh the burdens. No one has to do it all. Young children are surrounded by love. So are we all.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is morningwalkmedia.com.Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)