Extended family childcare: Take the help, table the advice

Extended family caring for children is almost always a welcome gesture for parents, but along with the help comes extra opinions in the mix.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, front left, her daughters Sasha, front right, Malia, right in the back, and Michelle Obama's mother Marian Robinson, left in the back, arrive at Capital International Airport in Beijing, China, Thursday, March 20.

Ever wish you had more than two hands? I do, especially since I live in a 3rd floor walk-up apartment. Every trip to the grocery store is a workout, and every laundry day has me sweating bullets. It would be so much easier if I had someone around to watch the baby or carry a few bags upstairs with me on a day-to-day basis, not just when my husband is around on the weekends. 

It would also be nice to have someone around to drink a cup of tea and chat with regularly. When my husband gets home after a long day at work, he usually isn’t interested in a couple hours of conversation – he just wants to quietly relax and recharge. Plus, tea isn’t really his thing.

Living with extended family members is the norm in many cultures, where families bind together to help each other in all phases of life, especially when there’s a new baby or elderly relative in the mix. Korean, Indian, Greek, Japanese, and many Latin American countries are among many cultures that actively embrace multigenerational living under one roof.

As for the US, the Pew Research Center reported that, in 2009, 1 in 5 adults age 25 to 34 live in multigenerational households in the US. 

From 2007 to 2009, the number of multigenerational households spiked from 46.5 million to 51.4 million, due in part to the economy. From 1980 to 2006, it had been increasing steadily by about 2 percent each year. Among the major ethnic and racial groups, Hispanics showed the biggest leap in growth from 2007 and 2009, at 17.6 percent. 

I got a taste of what multigenerational living would be like when a bunch of my family members came together in one house to celebrate my cousin’s wedding last week. It was so helpful to always have family nearby to hand the diaper bag to when unloading the car, happily play with my daughter in the pool, or distract her for a bit so I could play cards with my aunts. 

And anytime a stressful situation arose, such as when my daughter threw up all over her car seat for the umpteenth time, they rallied around me to get her outfit changed, clean the car seat, and give me a hug after dealing with it all. On a practical level, it was great, but more than that, they lifted my spirits and helped diffuse my frustration. 

I started to wonder, what would it be like to have extended family around all the time? 

In Mexico, where my husband is from, having many family members around all the time is totally normal. One or two people often make dinner for the entire family, and daycare is unheard of for many families. My uncle, who lived in Mexico for a few years with two young daughters in the 1980s, explained that when he told Mexican friends that he was looking for a baby sitter for an evening out, everyone gave him blank looks and said, “Why?” Most Mexican families always have an aunt, grandma, or cousin around to help with childcare. 

My husband’s grandma often took care of him when he was growing up, and their special bond shows every time we visit his Abuelita Raquel. She wipes away tears when we arrive and leave, and she always prepares a special treat for him. The first time I met her, it was cow brains, which he apparently has loved since he was little, though the smell made me a little nauseous. There was no way I was going to risk insulting the family matriarch, so I politely had a bite, though I think it must be an acquired taste. 

Anytime my husband calls her, they talk for hours. He knows all the neighborhood gossip because of her. He doesn’t really care about any of it – he just cares about her, so he doesn’t interrupt her ramblings. It’s sweet how he indulges her as a way of reciprocating all the patience and love she showered on him when he was a rambunctious little boy. 

When my daughter was born last year, my dad visited for a month to help us adjust to our brand new lives as parents. I sent him off to the grocery store just about every day, and he did more loads of laundry than I can count. His favorite way to help was holding the baby in the rocking chair, and he hardly cared at all when she cried. He just gently held her closer and asked with a frown, “Does this mean I have to give her up now?” 

We really appreciated the help, though we definitely still viewed ourselves as independent parents. One time, when he heard the baby crying late at night and knocked on the door, my husband and I were irked. We wanted to prove that we could take care of this baby without his interference – though now I can see that he was just trying to help us out. Still, I feel like nighttime is a sacred space for new parents, and even though my dad had pure motives, I would probably stick with my decision to turn him away if we had another fussy baby on our hands again. Daytime help, yes please, night time, not so much. 

As of 2012, 10 percent of all children under 18 in the US had grandparents living with them and their parents, a total of 7.1 million, according to Pew. That’s not a huge amount, but still, that’s 1 in 10 children. I can imagine there are lots of ups and downs for the parents. 

For some, it opens up a kind of Catch-22 – constant childcare assistance in exchange for not always welcome advice. I’d love the extra helping hands, but I definitely have an independent streak – I want to raise my child my way, so don’t tell me what to do unless I ask for it. 

Also, it seems like family members, while helpful in small bursts, like while on vacation, might not be all that interested in helping long-term. 

At the end of our recent vacation, everyone went their separate ways when it was time to return the rental cars and get on our return flights, even though there were a few of us taking the same route. I frowned when I realized our family members had left us behind, but then remembered that that’s the way things are often done in the US – every man for himself. In a way, it makes sense (no one meddling), but when you're lugging a bunch of bags and a car seat, any help offered would be gratefully accepted.

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