I Once Longed For The American Nuclear Family, But Now I Know Better
I thought I’d left intergenerational living behind when I immigrated, but the pandemic showed me its value.
I’m finally hitting a decent stride on my latest assignment when I glance at the time, and see that the school dismissal bell will ring in 10 minutes. My husband is upstairs, and if the voices filtering through the closed bedroom door are any indication, his Zoom meeting is getting heated. I decide not to hesitate. “Appa!” I call down the hall to my father. “Would you mind getting the kids today?” And just like that, the problem of pickup is solved. I return guilt-free to my work, knowing our sons will be thrilled to see their grandfather at the school gate again.
I won’t lie, what I just described was some pretty idyllic sh*t. If you’d walked into our home a couple of months ago, you’d have faced a vastly different scene. Arguments over “Whose turn is it to do that?” happened on a daily basis between my husband and me. Regardless of who was working full time or part time or handling the children, everyone was equally done by bedtime. Around the world, the pandemic has taken parents’ already frazzled nerves and sharpened them to a razor point. Two years into this, it’s fair to say Covid-19 has altered us all.
What I didn’t foresee a virus changing, though, were my long-held views on the superiority of the American nuclear family.
Growing up in India in the ‘80s, a joint family structure was almost primordial, a national way of life. In recent years, children co-existing not just with parents and siblings but also grandparents (and perhaps an extra aunt or cousin) is gradually becoming less common, especially in larger cities. I’ve always thought this was a step in the right direction. Growing up, my father’s parents lived with us, and… oh, how can I put this politely… I hated it. I blamed my grandparents for our religious, highly restrictive lifestyle. I couldn’t take a step without getting an earful about what I should wear (nothing short, fitted, or without sleeves), who I could meet (no one remotely interesting), and how I should behave (perfectly, obviously). I couldn’t wait to become an adult and move out — alone.
And move I did, quite literally to the other end of the planet. Memories of my initial days in the United States are vivid: The sounds! The sights! The smells! But most of all, what struck me about America was how few people there were. Choosing to walk rather than drive to our suburban grocery store a month after my cross-continental move, I saw maybe two other pedestrians. Trudging home a half-hour later, my milk and eggs exploded onto the sidewalk like a cheap Jackson Pollock knockoff, and I marveled that not a soul was around to laugh at my stupidity. It would have been easy to chalk up my reaction to the fact that India is teeming with humans, but this felt more personal. I was 22 years old, and for the very first time, there wasn’t a barrage of opinions about a dumb choice I’d made. It was a giddy euphoria.
Love of my newfound independence was also what helped me ignore how quiet our Bay Area apartment community was, day and night. Neighbors seemed busy, and while every family I met was polite enough, they were also remarkably self-contained. No one lingered too long or said too much. Rather than worry about culture shock, I decided to take notes. These lives I glimpsed, smiling parents with their (usually two) smiling children, driving away together in cozy four-seater sedans, became the goal. This was what it meant to be an independent family unit in America. I’d received the memo, and it was all going to be fine.
Over the next two decades, my husband and I made friends, found jobs, moved cities, and had kids of our own. And “It’ll be fine” became the line I clung to, the lie I fed myself. It’s fine, I’d say as I prepared to celebrate yet another Hindu holiday or festival without the energy to recreate the fanfare that typically accompanied it. It’ll be fine, I’d repeat when I was homesick, or just plain sick, in bed with the flu and no one to fuss over me. I’m fine, I’d mutter between clenched teeth when child care fell through while my husband was out of town and I had to grade papers between making meals, folding laundry, and pacifying two screaming toddlers. Yet, my opinions on the advantages of nuclear family life remained unshaken… until the pandemic.
While our fuller house has experienced its share of bumps these past weeks, I can only see how much my parents’ presence enriches our lives. It’s also helped recast my own childhood in a new light.
When the U.S. finally opened its borders to Indian visitors last November, it had been three years since I, like many immigrants, had seen my parents. Driving to pick them up at the San Francisco airport, I wept for lost time. We’d agreed they should stay with us for a few months — 11 weeks, to be exact. Pre-Covid, their visits usually lasted a month, broken up by short trips to see other friends and family. The idea of almost three months under one roof should have had us breaking out in hives. We’d cultivated our own tidy little family of four over the years (Subaru hatchback included), and it suited us well. But while our fuller house has experienced its share of bumps these past weeks, I can only see how much my parents’ presence enriches our lives. It’s also helped recast my own childhood in a new light.
My father and our 8-year-old take long daily walks together, and I think of Thatha, my grandfather. From 1986 until his passing in 1996, Thatha conscripted me as a partner in his doctor-ordered exercise routine. Five days a week once I finished my homework, we’d drive to Chennai’s Marina Beach and walk along the shore, chatting about everything and nothing. On Fridays, I’d feign sleep on the ride home and Thatha would park at the popsicle stand, humming a tune and counting the seconds until I popped up, laughing, from the backseat. He was the one that greeted me on the porch every afternoon when I returned from school. On days when I seemed broody or preoccupied, he’d announce, “Watch out for our girl today!” as we walked in together. Back then, this felt like infringement, an annoyance. But time has burnished this memory, distilling it into something that only makes my heart ache.
Watching my mother and her grandsons work on LEGO or craft projects for hours reminds me of my own grandmother, Lakshmi mommamma. I’d sit cross-legged on the cool mosaic floor of her bedroom as she retold stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharatha, unflinching in her eye for detail. On special occasions, she’d make us her famous gulab jamuns, unrivaled to this day. But from my fractious childhood vantage point, she was still a tyrant, the woman I held responsible for most of the “No’s” in my life. Once, when just the two of us were home, I locked Lakshmi mommamma in a bathroom and pretended not to hear her for much too long before reopening the door latch. I’m filled with shame whenever someone reminds me of this incident, but now, once the guilt fades, what’s left is only gratitude. For the time we had. For the way the five of us shared lives, butting heads and noses, helping and hurting, but always finding our way back to one another.
The longer I am a parent, the more I realize how much we stand to gain from being a little more dependent on one another.
Our own home feels just as crowded and noisy these days. My father begins his day preparing steel tumblers of lemon-honey-turmeric-pepper water for everyone, followed by mugs of ginger tea in the afternoon. He does endless rounds of Sudoku on his iPad and hoards a stash of sweets on a back shelf of the pantry that he prefers not to share. My mother lays out bowls of sliced apples for the kids, just as she did for me growing up, only now with blobs of peanut butter on the side. She returns from the library with armfuls of books each week. My husband rolls his eyes at her insistence that the kids will catch deathly colds if we keep towel-drying their hair so poorly. In the evenings, she and I take turns cooking, and my dad does the dishes. Our two boys wrestle and tumble with their father in the minutes gained from sharing household chores.
Cohabitation breeds understanding. We’re learning to find the spaces in our togetherness, to adapt and accept each other’s quirks, rather than feeling relieved that we don’t have to deal with them. Living with someone means that after a while, the veneer you’ve built up for the world begins to strip away. You see them for everything they are, and let them see your mess in return. There may have been a time when I built a moat around my independence and guarded it fiercely. But the longer I am a parent, the more I realize how much we stand to gain from being a little more dependent on one another.
As much as I now dream of giving my children what I once had, joint family living isn’t in our immediate future. My parents love being with us, but they have no desire to live here permanently. We’re making the most of our remaining weeks together and trying not to think of what happens once they return to Chennai. I also know we are lucky to have other family members — siblings, cousins, nephews, and nieces — living nearby that we genuinely love spending time with. We have way too many opinions about each other, and we definitely don’t agree on everything, but they are our lifelines, the people we turn to over and over again.
The pandemic may have pushed us to keep others at a distance; for me, though, the real lesson has been keeping extended family close. What if it’s too close for comfort? whisper-shouts my 20-year-old self. Calm down, I tell her, it’ll be just fine. And for the first time in a very long time, those words don’t feel like a lie.