The U.S. Department of Labor is reporting the hard news that our unemployment rate is just under 9 percent. If you think that's bad, take note of Spain, a country experiencing a 17 percent unemployment rate that's rising. But unemployed Spaniards aren't sleeping in cars and under bridges. They are moving in with family. Spaniards show more reluctance than Americans generally do to move away from family to take a job elsewhere - a fact that has been used to help explain Spain's less productive economy. But that same reluctance keeps them from facing the harshest effects of economic downturns …
Many white Americans commonly assume that once children and parents go their separate ways, they should keep those ways relatively separate. Good parenting is captured by mother robins that push their children toward independence by knocking them out of the nest. We encourage our children to move out and away and our parents to retire in the Sunbelt or in a community filled with other older folks. If they come back home, we interpret it as a sign that something has gone wrong.
Yet the autonomous, nuclear family is a rather new arrangement in the scope of history, and Africa, Latin America, the Mediterranean - as well as Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans in the U.S. - still practice extended family living, and are comfortable with extra adult family members coming and going. Recent trends in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom show more young-adult children moving back in with parents, and more parents moving in with adult children.
Our daughter Megan Anna and son-in-law Luke moved into our home this week for a yet-to-be determined time. They've just landed in Oregon after finishing a grad-school stint in the East, and are looking for employment and a life here. Right now they are choosing locale and family over career opportunity, which is a tad un-American for white folks, but I'm hearing college students of every hue singing the same tune.
Maybe this trend will make for a sluggish economy, but maybe it reflects some doubt that more, bigger, faster gives us a better life anyway. Maybe by the time our economy recovers, we will have discovered that choosing locale and people over career has benefits beyond giving us a place to land when the going gets tough.
I used to think of mother robins as providing a good parenting metaphor, but for the last decade have preferred to think of the nurturing images of parenting in Scripture, like the hen that gathers her chicks under her wings. I was once secretly critical of a friend who invited her adult son, wife, and grandson back home as enabling them. Now I see the richness and blessing in opportunities to nurture our extended families.
We're treasuring this time with our daughter and son-in-law. As a bonus, our home gets better used, and we have live-in bridge partners (a game that takes four motivated players - which characterizes us well). Luke and Megan Anna don't feel pressure to take a pizza delivery job to pay rent, and for this season we get to share each other's lives the way that Spaniards, Africans, and Latinos do.
Often hard times help us rediscover what we have lost. Extended family living may be one of those finds.