When we lived in Italy some years ago, our family of four would sometimes visit a family of more — a married couple and nonna playing with her grandkids in the garden, an uncle with a mental disability, and the brother who never launched, all living in a modest house of weathered stone.
They argued without filter, finished each other’s stories, and each took a turn at cooking, cleaning or bringing money and food into the home. It was charming, particularly at the big afternoon meal on Sunday, and, we thought, anachronistic.
During the lockdown of 2020, our nest has been a quarantined family of six — our daughter and her husband, their twin 1-year old boys, my wife and myself. It’s been exhausting, kinetic, cramped, and one of the few consistent joys in this awful time.
But as it turns out, three generations living under one roof is not anachronistic; it’s the future. Or, more precisely, a past brought back to mainstream life. Two years ago, the Pew Research Center reported that 64 million Americans were living in multigenerational households — the highest number on record, and an increase of almost 70% from 1980.
Last year, for the first time in 160 years, the average number of people in the American household started going up instead of down, to 2.63 people per unit. The pandemic has only accelerated the trend. An analysis by Zillow, a real estate listing company, found that 32 million young adults were living with their parents in April, a 10% spike from the same time a year ago.
The anachronism was Beaver Cleaver’s nuclear family, two parents and a pair of nonadult kids. This was the norm only for a small period in the mid-20th century. With six in our household, we’ve been living the norm of 1790. But that is closer to the way it was for most of recorded history.
Somehow, in a blip of conformity during the 1950s, the multigenerational family came to be stigmatized. To this day, there’s a whiff of class condescension directed at millennials and the younger Gen Zers cohabitating with the ones who brought them into this world.
I grew up in a family of nine, with one bathroom for the kids. Whenever I told somebody about my siblings, it was like the scene in “Good Will Hunting” where Matt Damon names his 12 brothers: “Marky, Ricky, Danny, Terry, Mikey, Davey, Timmy, Tommy, Joey, Robby, Johnny and Brian.”
One of my friends had 14 in his family. Hanging out at his house, kids would fly out of laundry chutes or pop from closets at random, and nobody would blink.
Then, the crowded households were mostly Irish Catholic, southern Italian and Polish. Now, the rise in extended families reflects the nation’s changing ethnic diversity: 29% of Asians live in multigenerational households, 27% of Hispanics and 26% of African Americans. Whites are at 16%.
At the other end of the spectrum, about 36 million Americans live alone, representing 28% of all households. It’s wrong to equate living alone with loneliness, but the forced social isolation of this pandemic has surely taken a toll on the solo.
Our newly crowded house, like that of so many others, came together very quickly. We were not trying to be demographically trendy. They were here, as a stop between moving from one city to the next, and then we had to shelter in place, indefinitely.
One day life was moving along at a languid pace, the next day every hour was assigned on a grid drawn up by my daughter and taped to the refrigerator. Somebody had to feed the twins — four times a day — change their diapers, cook the main meal, shop, clean.
And because we all had day jobs as well, every square foot of our 115-year-old house was precious, and potentially a makeshift Zoom closet. I marveled at the person I still thought of as my little girl, drawing on the same kind of instinctual strength that had guided my sleep-deprived mother through many a hard day.
The tiny humans learned how to laugh and to make us laugh, danced to three-chord guitar songs, and tried mightily to trash our house. They have no sense of gravity, and would as soon walk off the deck into thin air as eat a dirt clod. Seeing the world through a toddler’s eyes, you marvel at clouds skidding across the sky, a raven’s caw, how good it feels to run through a sprinkler.
Holding both of them while they squirmed was like trying to keep a grip on a pair of newly landed king salmon. The fact that they had no idea that we were living through the worst public health crisis in a century was a palliative to the pain of the pandemic.
And then they left, a week or so ago, moving a thousand miles away to a different time zone. We lost an intimacy that most of the world had known since people formed family units. Our house is still and aimless, three generations back to one, and we are left to wonder how so many of us can live like this.
Timothy Egan, winner of the National Book Award for “The Worst Hard Time,” is a Seattle-based opinion writer for The New York Times.