Being a parent is a journey of learning and teaching, full of life-altering experiences. One such profound learning curve was understanding how moving in with my in-laws became a transformative period, a life-changing learning experience in my life. As parents, we aim to instill in our children the idea that they can always rely on us. This concept, however, was not one we were born with; it was a lesson we had to grasp before we could pass it on.
My husband and I sat on the edge of our bed in a modest one-bedroom apartment twenty-five years ago, contemplating whether or not we should give up our independence and move in with his parents. While we were both college graduates, employed, and making ends meet while raising a one-year-old daughter and expecting another child, we did not save any money. But, I was more optimistic than my mother-in-law, who stated that we would never be able to save enough to purchase a home while renting.
I didn’t want to acknowledge that she was correct because I didn’t want to be associated with the stigma of “failing to launch,” regressing or relying on others to carry our obligations. We believed we were capable of doing the task on our own. But I would learn that their gift would connect us to a Black heritage of assistance from family members who understand the distinction between a handout and a hand up.
Black families have always supported one another, including mine. As a community, they shared resources and did their best to prepare the next generation for success. It is also a means for Black families to remain connected, initially for survival and afterward for emotional, financial, and cultural support. As parents, we taught our children that they could always rely on us for assistance. Yet before we could pass on this lesson, we had to realize that receiving family help did not make us failures.
“Black families had to be adaptable,” explains Dr. Mia Smith-Bynum, a professor of Family Science at the University of Maryland, College Park, while describing post-slavery changes in the Black family. She emphasizes that the disintegration breakup of the Black nuclear family necessitated the adoption of parental duties by other family members. Dr. Smith-Bynum asserts that the economic status of African-Americans in the United States has required role flexibility for generations.
My husband and I were both reared in a Black middle-class home and had the opportunity to attend college. Moving back in with our parents was interpreted as an indication of failure. We understood they had already contributed significantly to our success. We were expected to outperform our parents. I did not think that our parents did not have student loan debt when I accepted my in-laws’ offer. Similarly, we were ignorant of the student loan-fueled rising racial income gap between white and black college graduates. We did not realize we required the time and space to heal from living paycheck to paycheck. We were unable to break the cycle we were in. But, the advantages of multigenerational living extend far beyond improving financial security.
Although less prevalent than in the past, many Black families have chosen intergenerational living to be in a community with relatives of varying ages and stages. According to Dr. Smith-Bynum, this decision lets families collaborate in childrearing, pool resources, and teach children living with older relatives to respect their elders. “Even the first African-American family in the White House was a multigenerational family,” she notes, referring to Michelle Obama’s decision to have her mother live with the family, which was consistent with cultural norms for families of color. And studies demonstrate that living with parents or grandparents enhances social capital and increases the likelihood of survival.
Our children are now considerably older. But, we have spent their entire lives explaining how living with my in-laws helped our situation. We decided to adhere to this pattern and return to living together after a few years as empty nesters. I am certain our children do not feel like failures for returning home, as I did. They view it as the finest opportunity for advancement. But, there is a great deal I regret not telling my younger self before making that choice twenty years ago.
I wish I had weighed all the positives for myself and my children when my mother-in-law originally made her offer. My children could live with their grandparents, receive additional hugs and kisses from them, and gain knowledge from them. As a new mother, I received support from a more experienced mother who was always willing and able to assist. As a couple, we were relieved of a considerable financial load. We became closer as a family by gaining a deeper understanding of one another and supporting one another as a community. By consenting to live with my in-laws for a year, we offered another set of caretakers for our children, gained the knowledge and direction of an older generation, and established a foundation for achieving our goal of home ownership.
Dr. Smith-Bynum emphasizes the importance of having a plan for how to use this time. “The objective of the living arrangement should be clear, whether it is for a year or indefinitely.” Without clarity, she says, tension and disappointment will ensue. Increasing numbers of African families are reverting to intergenerational living. With a clear objective and mutual respect, this arrangement could be successful.
After a year, we could purchase a home with the help of my in-laws. I discovered that there are additional means of bridging gaps, and I now realize this was a wonderful gift. I appreciate the chance to duplicate this model for my children.