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|January 22-28, 2009
The changing American family
Figures indicate family size is growing for first time since the early ’60s
Lynn Fielder moves haltingly between the kitchen island and the cupboards in her Palo Alto, Calif., home, intent on preparing a pot of coffee for her mother, Sondra Erickson, and a guest.
In a nearby alcove, Fielder’s jewelry-making workshop is cluttered with her work. A guitar on the wall belongs to Fielder’s 16-year-old daughter, Maya, who is asleep in a room off the kitchen. Erickson’s mother, 94-year-old Alice Roberts, is out back.
This is not a special holiday gathering. All four women — all four generations — are home.
Even as Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, makes headlines as the “First Granny,” returning extended-family life to the nation’s most famous house, a quiet revolution is beginning to transform America’s families, as the “traditional” nuclear family becomes less universal.
After nearly half a century, the chronic shrinking of the American family has stalled. Fueled by more extended families living under same roof, the nation’s families may be growing for the first time since the early 1960s. The trend is particularly visible in areas that combine high housing prices with high numbers of immigrants, like Silicon Valley, where the average Vietnamese, Filipino or Mexican family already has more than four relatives sharing a home. The Census Bureau defines a family as a group of people related by birth, marriage or adoption who live together.
But while Asians and Latinos still have the largest families, average family size in the United States grew most among whites and African-Americans since 2000, according to new data. The change corresponds with a surge in the number of parents like Sondra Erickson and Alice Roberts living with their adult children.
“It wouldn’t work for everyone,” Erickson said of their four-generation living arrangement. “But it works for us.”
Immigration, housing prices and the economy are all factors in the expansion of families. But some demographers and sociologists say other social changes are pulling generations closer, and broadening the template for the American family.
“There is a rediscovery of intergenerational ties,” said Stephanie Coontz, director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families. “I think it’s a very significant shift in family life.”
For Lynn Fielder, 46, the four-generation household started as an economic arrangement — a common story due to the Bay Area’s housing prices. At a time when she worked for a nonprofit agency in San Jose, she and her husband, Kurt, were able to afford a neighborhood where the residents include uber-techies like Steve Jobs and ex-49ers star Steve Young by building a bungalow behind her grandmother’s house.
Then came Maya, and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease for Lynn Fielder. Wanting to be close to their new grandchild and help their daughter, Sondra Erickson, a retired nurse, and her husband, Jim Erickson, a contractor, returned to the house where she had grown up in the 1950s.
Jim helped convert the house to be handicapped accessible. He and Sondra live upstairs, and help care for the generations — younger and older. Lynn, Kurt and Maya live on the ground floor in the main house, with great-grandmother Alice moving to the bungalow out back.
Her parents are “a big help with a disease like this,” Lynn said.
Families like the Fielder-Erickson-Roberts clan are becoming more common. There are about 3.4 million parents sharing a home with their adult children in the United States, according to Census data released in December, up from 2.1 million in 2000.
There also has been an increase in the number of adult brothers, sisters and other relatives including cousins, aunts, nephews or in-laws living together.
Charles Wong, who was born in Vietnam, is part of a four-generation household in Milpitas, Calif. He lives with his mother, his 33-year-old daughter, her husband and their two children, and the arrangement feels normal. The average Vietnamese family has more than four people in Santa Clara County, Census data show, compared with 3.03 people for whites.
“In Vietnam, we usually live together with the parents, unless we have different jobs that are far away,” Wong said. In California, it’s also a way to share culture, especially home-cooking, “so we don’t have McDonald’s every day,” he said. It made sense, Wong said, to take in his daughter and son-in-law when they had job problems.
Wong, a real estate agent who wants to retire but whose income helps to support the family, views the arrangement as temporary.
“I want to help my daughter for awhile, until they are able to move out,” he said. “At my age, I want more quiet.”
California has the second-largest family size in the U.S. at 3.52 persons per family, behind only Utah.
In California, family size “is certainly driven more by immigration than by economics, but they are both responsible,” said Hans Johnson, a demographer with the Public Policy Institute of California.
Following World War II, the average American family peaked at 3.72 persons in 1966, before dropping steadily through the 1970s and 1980s. Family size reached an all-time low of 3.13 persons in 2003. But average family size has not declined for the past five years, for the first time since World War II, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.
Meanwhile, a Census Bureau survey that covers a much larger share of U.S. households indicates the average American family is actually growing — particularly white and African-American families. Contrary to stereotypes, average family size for Latinos and Asians is shrinking.
In Washington, the Obama family has determined that Michelle Obama’s mother will live in the White House.
“Mrs. Robinson has been a rock for the Obama family and an active grandma for the girls especially over the last year while their parents were campaigning,” said Katie McCormick Lelyveld, a transition spokeswoman for the family. “Mrs. Robinson will be coming with the family to help the girls get acclimated, and she will determine in the coming months whether or not she wants to stay in D.C. permanently.”
A century ago, extended-family households were common in America. Today, beyond economic stresses and immigration, other forces are also reshaping American families.
With young people waiting longer to marry, and parenting styles becoming more “democratic” over the past 30 years, baby boomers’ adult children are likely to have closer relationships with their parents, Coontz said. More young adults get to know their parents as equals.
The increase in extended-family households is a well-developed trend, “but people haven’t recognized its implications,” said Coontz, author of Marriage, A History.
Even the Fielder-Erickson-Roberts family struggles to explain why their arrangement works.
“For the married-ons, for the husbands in our case, it takes a great deal of understanding to live with your in-laws,” Sondra Erickson said. “I think it takes a special person to do it and be comfortable with the situation.”
Sitting at their dinner table, Lynn Fielder, a Planned Parenthood executive in San Jose before Parkinson’s forced her to retire, agrees.
Recovering from brain surgery in October to stabilize her motor function, Fielder can focus on creating her jewelry in part because her mother drives Maya and her to appointments. Just now, she is working on a Parkinson’s fundraiser this month at Vino Locale, an art gallery in downtown Palo Alto.
Because of the family’s closeness, Maya gets to have special family experiences like playing music with her great-grandmother.
And Roberts, a vibrant nonagenarian who rides an exercise bike, quips that she won’t break up the family.
“I love it,” Roberts said of her living arrangement. “I promised Maya I would be around for her high school graduation, so I have another year to go.”
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