The new extended family is here
The age of the extended family is over. Or is it?
There was a time in Jewish neighborhoods (and those of many other ethnic groups) when children, parents and grandparents all lived under one roof — each assuming some degree of responsibility for bringing home wages, cooking the meals, watching the kids and nursing the ill.
That was the immigrant generation. Then came the “Greatest Generation” that moved to the suburbs after World War II and Korea. Suddenly, the generations weren’t under one roof anymore. Still, they were usually a short drive away — close enough for grandma and grandpa to host Passover seders or for aunts or uncles to babysit.
Today, we’re in a new situation. For the most part, the generations no longer live under the same roof; neither do they live in the same town or the even in the same state. Relatives are scattered across the country, and sometimes around the world. Could it be that the farther apart we live, the weaker the family unit becomes?
I’ve thought about that lately as my father-in-law in New Jersey battles a couple different illnesses, while my mother-in-law shows tremendous fortitude in taking care of him and my wife laments how far apart we live from them.
So is the extended family a thing of the past?
Well, sort of.
Actually a new extended family — a technologically assisted one — is taking root. I notice it more and more as my wife “Skypes” with her parents in New Jersey, aunt and uncle in Chicago and her cousins in California.
I experienced it when my wife and her brother made arrangements for their parents’ 50th anniversary party when neither of them lived in the town where the celebration was held.
I’m exposed to it when my nieces and nephews spend a day at a museum and I can see the .jpegs and video clips almost immediately.
And I can feel it when I trade medical updates with my own cousins about our parents on Facebook, and, by the way, renew ties with other cousins I haven’t spoken to in years.
This is the new extended family, for better or worse. Better, because important moments in a family’s life can be shared in an instant; worse, because we’re no longer in the same town or house. We can’t go to synagogue together; we can’t sit down for family dinners (or prepare the meals together); and we can’t run household errands, show up at school plays, or just sit and talk with a relative when they need someone to listen.
We can’t draw from each generation’s strength. And that’s clearly an irreplaceable advantage of the old extended family.
But this new extended family comes with a lesson: Families need not accept the way things are; they can make adjustments, be resourceful, and find creative ways to stay close in an increasingly distant world.
(Lee Chottiner, the executive editor of The Chronicle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)