What's out: Live-in nannies. What's in: Live-in grannies.
In the case of my family, we lived hundreds of miles from grandparents, aunts and uncles. My parents owned a big house, with far more space than we really needed. My parents paid for child care, cooked our meals, and constantly exhorted us to clean the house. While this meant that we didn't have to deal with my grandparents, it also meant that we had to spend a lot of money and run ourselves ragged in order to enjoy a standard of living that they took for granted. Worse yet, it also meant that we never really got to see them beyond the occasional Christmas vacation or summer trip.
Assuming that this was more or less normal, I was amazed to discover that my father's generation was the first one to live without extended family. In my grandparents' generation (and every generation preceding theirs), children, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all lived together, with each generation contributing something to the care and upkeep of the family. To this day, my Aunt Libby's still tells hair-curling tales of family warfare, with members forming coalitions against each other, debating politics at the table, and arguing over slights both large and small.
On the other hand, Libby got to know her grandparents on a level that I can only imagine, and she still has relationships with an incredibly wide web of relatives. These people, most of whom are complete strangers to me, share an amazing sense of family and heritage. They immediately notice genetic traits (apparently, I'm a lot like my father) that seem invisible to me, and have a depth of history that boggles my mind.
Another aspect of living together was the fact that it lightened everybody's workload. Great grandma Margaret, by all accounts, was fantastic with children, and family members often had her watch the kids while they worked. She also helped in the kitchen and did her share of the housekeeping. Rather than while her days away in a retirement community or a nursing home, she was active right up until she died.
There are certainly some downsides to family intimacy, and I'm not entirely sure that I'd like to live with my mother-in-law for an extended period of time. However, a part of me envies previous generations, for whom child care was cheap and in-house, and family was large, immediate, and in-your-face. I wonder if, even as American society loses something in the current recession, it will be able to rediscover something even better.
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. Soliloquies about the past aside, living with his grandparents would have been a nightmare.