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Freer, Messier, Happier

These days, moms, dads, kids, grandmas—even neighbors—are sharing the work of family.
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Smith family photo by Lane Hartwell

Author Jeremy Adam Smith with his family: wife, Shelly "Olli" Mei-Jing Doo, and son, Liko.

Photo by Lane Hartwell for YES! Magazine

Extended Families Make a Comeback

But however equally moms and dads share the load, this economy is not easy on families as a whole, and parents are increasingly reaching out beyond their nuclear units to grandparents, neighbors, and friends. They’re building extended families based on both blood and affinity, and relying more and more on their communities.

As the Pew Research Center reports, “The multigenerational American family household is staging a comeback—driven in part by the job losses and home foreclosures of recent years but more so by demographic changes that have been gathering steam for decades.” Today, more Americans live in a multigenerational home than at any time in the past 50 years. According to Pew, this shift has been driven in part by the arrival of immigrants who prefer to live in communal situations—a way of life that research says helps them survive economic distress.

In a five-year longitudinal study, sociologists Ross Parke and Scott Coltrane compared how Latino and Anglo families in Riverside, Calif., coped with layoffs and money problems. They found that Latino families were astonishingly resilient, largely because they shared resources among a large network of extended family. Based on their findings, Parke and his colleagues argue that Anglo families have a great deal to learn from Latino families: “We often assume that immigration is a one-way process,” the researchers write in Greater Good magazine. “This is an oversimplified view that ignores the mutual influences between cultural groups.” In their view, the fusion of new, more equal gender roles with extended-family values like sharing and community can create a 21st-century family form “that is better anchored by extended kin, neighbors, and communities committed to the common good of our children.”

In my own community, I’ve seen their vision put into practice. My friend, Viru Gupte, grew up in India, where most marriages are still arranged by parents and communal life remains very strong. “In Indian cities, the people around you become your family,” says Viru, who was raised in Delhi. “The kids practically grow up in their neighbors’ apartments. You just walked in whenever you wanted, and they fed you.”

I met Viru because he had consciously attempted to recreate that way of life in our San Francisco neighborhood. He struck up a conversation with me one day at the neighborhood farmers market and then out of the blue invited me to an all-dad outing he had organized. “You have to work very hard to have a community here,” he later said. “It requires planning.”

Viru has taught me a lot about the relationship between family and community. I don’t think I’m alone: Motivated by a shrinking economy, native-born families are starting to integrate these attitudes and values into 21st-century family life.

My friend, Corbyn Hightower, is a bisexual, breadwinning mother, who has one child with her ex-wife Mimi and two children with her husband Larry, a stay-at-home dad. When she lost her job at the start of the recession, Corbyn and Larry decided to join forces with Mimi and her new partner, Patty. They sold their belongings in Texas and moved back to California, where Corbyn had lived with Mimi.

Today, Corbyn, Larry, Mimi, and Mimi’s partner all live within a half-mile of each other and, through many twists and turns in their personal relationships, all four have served as parents to the three children. As Corbyn writes in an essay for the site I help edit, Shareable.net:

“The agreement was always that we are in this together, and that our broken and vulnerable contingent would find strength and security in the tribe. Since that union was forged, more jobs were lost—and gained—but we weather those storms as a group, and not alone anymore. If one has a bill that cannot be paid, another is there to find spare change under couch cushions.”

Moms and Dads Speak Out

Corbyn’s family is surviving under enormous economic pressure, but she’s not getting much help from our political system. It’s never a political decision to love another person, but political decisions can support, or hurt, our personal ones. Banning same-sex marriage hurts some families, and it does nothing to strengthen heterosexual families. Fighting against paid parental leave or food stamps or health care in the name of “small government” makes life harder for all of us. It’s time for today’s families, in all our diversity, to find our political voice and reshape society.

It’s no secret what social policies could lessen inequality, nurture family diversity, and rebuild community: They include paid, mandatory leave for both parents on the birth or adoption of a child, universal early childhood education, and funneling resources to schools in poor and working-class communities. In countries like Sweden, decades of generous paternity leave have gradually leveled the domestic division of labor between mammas and pappas—and had a measurably positive impact on the health and educational outcomes of both kids and parents.
We will never realize such policies in the United States unless we as parents, both moms and dads, speak out together.

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I think the first step is to follow the example of my friend Viru, and begin by talking to the people you see in your neighborhood and beyond, and helping each other out with babysitting, casual work, and sharing stuff. Viru’s case illustrates the degree to which immigrants are infusing our neighborhoods with a stronger sense of interdependence.

We can make a difference by welcoming the insight and energy of folks like him. We can also form communities that include all of today’s families. For example, we can welcome fathers into caregiving situations or take the commitments of gay and lesbian couples seriously. As part of this process, we need to articulate to each other what values make us strong and what ideals we try to live by.

It can’t stop there: Building community is critical, but I think it’s equally critical to leverage the power of that community for social change. We can help each other by voting, marching, speaking out, and clicking for the policies that will nurture all of our families.

Being an activist parent is very different from youthful activism. Total commitment to the cause is not usually possible, at least when kids are young, because it competes with commitments to our partners and children. But raising a child has taught me many things about social change: to be patient and persistent, to try to see the world through the eyes of others, and to never give up on the people in my life.

Fatherhood in my family did not change overnight; it took three generations, and it would be silly to think that evolution will stop with me. We stand on the shoulders of the generations before us—and our children will stand on ours.


Jeremy Adam Smith wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Jeremy is a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University and the author of The Daddy Shift (Beacon Press, 2009), from which parts of this essay were adapted.

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