How I've tried to adopt a multigenerational mindset, part 1
I wanted to increase the odds that my kids and (future) grandkids will have a village
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So I have a theory: You have to live close to your family if you want a village.
Two things have led me to that conclusion.
First, historically that’s more or less how it tended to worked. In England before the Black Plague in the 1300s, for example, entire communities were often dense with people who were related to some degree or another. The basic family unit tended to be nuclear, but those nuclear units might all set up households next door to each other. In 15th century Italy, France and Germany, “stem” families — or those in which an adult son lived with his parents until they died and he inherited the estate — were also common.
Arrangements varied over the ensuing years, but even through the early American period intergenerational households were widespread. And what I glean from all of this is that over a long period of time, proximity was the secret sauce to both village and family life.
My own experience supports this theory, and highlights the perils of a lack of proximity.
When I was growing up, I had cousins living in a neighboring state. I loved visiting them during the holidays, and always thought my aunt and uncle were among the coolest people in our extended clan. But as adults, my relationship with that side of the family is minimal. I like them, and we see each other at weddings and funerals. But there’s no sense of community. Our kids will probably never know each other’s names. Our grandchildren will never even be aware of each other’s existence.
Improving our chances of having a village
That’s sad on so many levels. And as I transitioned into becoming a parent I began to wonder if I could not only build a better village for myself, but also increase the odds that my kids and grandkids (and so on) would have one as well.
And so with that in mind, we decided to move.
When my daughter was born almost three years ago, we were living in LA. We’d moved there so I could take a job as a breaking news reporter with BuzzFeed News. It was a cool job that involved covering big stories all over the world, and I ended up really loving Los Angeles.
But because we didn’t have any family in LA, when I got a new job that allowed for remote work we started looking at new cities. We ultimately opted for Salt Lake for one reason: It’s where we had the highest concentration of family.
We ultimately settled in one of the Salt Lake’s older core neighborhoods, and so far it has been great.
Theory becomes reality
There were plenty of practical considerations that went into our move, but fundamentally, it was also an attempt to make theory real and answer a question: Could we have a village if we lived closer to family? Is proximity actually key?
And the answer to that question is… sort of.
Here’s what I’ve learned thus far:
• We do in fact see family more, and our relationships are better. I have two siblings and a sibling-in-law who live within walking distance of my house. We typically see them at least once a week. It’s fantastic. We also get together often with a broader family group that’s spread across the Salt Lake Valley. My siblings have watched my daughter many times. We help each other move. If we bake too many cookies, they help us eat them. My daughter is only two and a half but knows her aunts and uncles by name and has conversations with them.
• We may still be too far away. We chose our Salt Lake neighborhood because we wanted to be able to walk to shops and restaurants. But my nearest sibling with kids lives 25 minutes away by car, and my parents are 45 minutes away. That’s not close enough to randomly pop in, or to ask them to watch the baby for 10 minutes while we run to the store. It’s not close enough for my daughter to ride her bike over when she gets older. It’s not a village. Urban planners sometimes talk about the “15-minute city,” or a city in which you can get everything you need within a 15 minute walk. I suspect a similar principle probably applies to the family-village concept.
• Money still matters. Even if we did all live closer, the demands of a wage labor economy are still working against us. I’ve written previously about how wage labor helped create our modern idea of the nuclear family, then collapsed and led to the rise of duel-income households, among other things. The practical impact of this is that almost everyone in my extended family is working a day job. And a village doesn’t function if it’s actually a bedroom community that every single person leaves all day. As much as I’d love to live on a family compound, at this point it might end up being a ghost town most of the time. The fact that the Victorian period also imposed strict boundaries between things like “childhood” and professional life also means that most of us can’t realistically multitask and raise children in our workplaces.
• Families need “vertical” integration, not just “lateral” integration. This is maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far in this experiment. By “vertical” integration I mean family members who are of different generations working together. So, for example, grandma and grandpa helping their adult children. By “lateral” integration I mean people of the same generation working together. So, siblings. My family has relatively decent lateral integration. But because all the siblings are in similar stages of life, our various commitments and responsibilities mostly overlap. In order to be an effective multigenerational family, we’d need people who have different commitments. For example, teenagers might be available to babysit at times and for amounts of money that wouldn’t make sense for working professionals. Grandparents might be retired, freeing them up in the middle of the day when parents have to work.
We’ll eventually have some teenagers, but unfortunately all the grandparents in our family live far enough away that seeing them is an event, rather than a part of daily life. It’s a great event when it happens, and it happens relatively often (I’m lucky to have both great parents and great in-laws). But that’s still not really vertical integration. And without fuller integration, the village is incomplete.
The good news is that I’m realizing this now, and can prepare for it. Though I don’t have enough money to singlehandedly relocate all the members of my family to one area, I can, for example, mentally prepare myself to coparent my future grandchildren later in life. In other words, I can try to adopt and refine a multigenerational mindset.
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Bonus: Headlines I’ve been reading this week:
Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene
Why do these parents need so much reassurance? They “are finding that it’s harder and harder to get their children through the eye of the needle”—admitted into the best programs, all the way from kindergarten to college. But it’s more than that. The parents have a sense that their kids will be emerging into a bleaker landscape than they did. The brutal, winner-take-all economy won’t come for them—they’ve been grandfathered in. But they fear that it’s coming for their children, and that even a good education might not secure them a professional-class career.
consider the quasi-commune
The single family home, and the standards of living that accompanied it, were once rare — but because they incentivized more consumption, they became aspirational. The dream was to escape reliance on or proximity to other people. Now the single family home is ubiquitous, but the dream that accompanied it has soured. We unnecessarily duplicate so much labor: every household makes dinner, does dishes, does laundry. We struggle to find affordable childcare, or find coverage for each other in the case of catastrophe or illness. Our safety nets are tattered because, at least in the United States, our government has neglected them — but we, as individuals, have as well.
Finding My Family's Bones
While my raising plays a part, I think all those empty sidewalks are driving my growing obsession with the home. The suburbs I grew up in didn’t have a shared story that linked one home to another. Our houses were our homes, our community was not. This meant we had single-family home cultures, but we didn’t have a Home culture.
There’s a Better Way to Parent: Less Yelling, Less Praise
People tend to think of the nuclear family as traditional or ideal, but looking at the past 200,000 or so years of human history, what’s traditional is this communal model of working together to take care of a child. For me personally, this is reassuring, because I don’t want to be with Rosy, like, every moment. Really, that’s not natural.
Family and Household in Medieval England (Social History in Perspective) 2000th Edition. Peter Fleming. 2000. Page 77
“The Myth of the Immutable English Family.” Zvi Razi. Past & Present, Volume 140, Issue 1, August 1993, Pages 3–44
The Family in the Western World. Beatrice Gottlieb. 1993. Page 15-17
One time in LA I went to a house show where some musicians were performing. I was sitting on the floor in the front of a small group of people when the singer stopped playing, looked at me, and said, “hey, I think we’re cousins.” It turns out were were related (I can’t remember how closely) and she had known my sister back in Utah. It was a fun serendipitous moment — one of my favorites, in fact — but I’ve also always wondered what it might have been like if a few generations back our families hadn’t drifted so far apart.
A smaller family circle means a lifetime of missed family dinners and boisterous debates. It means more emotional impoverishment and a lonelier existence. And it means more actual impoverishment. Because my cousins and I are spread out all over and don’t have much of a relationship, we can’t watch each others kids. Instead, we have to pay for childcare. We can’t open professional doors for each other. Twenty or 30 years from now, my daughter may need someone to watch her kid or give her the inside scoop on a job. Fifty or 60 years from now, my grandchildren may need the same thing.
I loved how I could go to weird comedy shows in tiny clubs and having an A-list comic randomly show up. I loved riding the glass elevators up and down the Bonaventure Hotel and feeling like I was in Blade Runner. I loved buying al pastor tacos on the street in the middle of the night.
Our decision to leave LA was prompted by many things, including the soaring cost of housing and the fact that our neighborhood — despite its awesome restaurants, venues, etc. — wasn’t really very kid friendly.
Call this what you want: privilege, luck, good fortune, etc. It was probably all of those things. I’m extremely fortunate to have found a good job that I enjoy and that I allows me to work wherever I want. I’m not suggesting everyone follow this same path because I know that’s not an option for most people. In a future post, I get into specifically why it’s not an option.
“Defining the 15-minute city.” Andres Duany and Robert Steuteville. Feb. 8, 2021.
These aren’t technical terms. I write about the business world, among other things, for my day job as a news reporter, so I’m borrowing that field’s terminology.
With the comment, “we still may be too far away”, I completely agree!! How close is close enough? Especially with time and gas being big factors. For me it feels like under ten minutes, which is so hard to obtain! It also makes me wonder if the COVID driven “work from home” will help improve some of this dynamic? I guess if it holds.