How Moving in With My In-laws Became a Launch Pad and a Lesson

As parents, we teach our children they can always lean on us. But before we could pass that lesson, we had to learn it ourselves.

A multigenerational Black family in the home

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Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I sat on the edge of our bed in a small one-bedroom apartment, contemplating if we should give up our independence and move in with his parents. We were raising a one-year-old daughter and had a baby on the way, and although we were both college grads, employed, and making ends meet, we weren't saving any money. But I was more optimistic than my mother-in-law, who said we could never save enough to buy our own house while paying rent.

I didn't want to admit she was right because I didn't want to be attached to the stigma of "failing to launch," moving backward, or relying on others to shoulder our responsibilities. We believed we should be able to do it on our own. But I'd learn their offer would connect us back to a Black tradition of help from loved ones who know the difference between a handout and a hand up.

Black families, including mine, have always supported one another. They shared resources as a community and do their best to set up the next generation for success. It is also a way for Black families to stay close to one another—first for survival and later for emotional, financial, and cultural support. As parents, we taught our children they could always lean on us when they needed help. But before we could pass on that lesson, we had to learn we weren't failures for getting support from our family. 

"Black families had to be flexible," says Dr. Mia Smith-Bynum, a professor of Family Science at the University of Maryland College Park, when discussing the shifts in the Black family post-antebellum slavery. She explains one of the effects of the destabilization and separation of the Black nuclear family was that other members would have to step into parental roles. Dr. Smith-Bynum says the economic situation for Blacks in America has also necessitated role flexibility for centuries.

 Both my husband and I were raised in a Black middle-class household and had the privilege of going away to college. We got the message that moving back in with our parents was an admonition of failure. We knew they had already invested so much toward our success. We were supposed to do better than our parents. At the time of my in-law's offer, I didn't consider that our parents didn't have student loan debt as we did. Similarly, we were unaware of the widening racial wealth gap between white and Black college graduates that’s fueled by student loans. What we didn't know we needed was the time and space to recover from living check to check to make ends meet. We were in a cycle and didn't know how to break it. However, the benefits of multi-generational living went well beyond a shift toward financial security. 

 I forgot that, although less frequently than in the past, many Black families chose intergenerational living to be in community with relatives at different ages and stages of life. Dr. Smith-Bynum says this decision helped families share in the child-rearing, pool resources, and help children living with older relatives learn respect for their elders. "Even the first Black family in the White House was a multi-generational family," she says, referencing Michelle Obama's decision to have her mother live with the family was consistent with cultural norms for families of color. And studies prove that living with parents or grandparents increases social capital and survival. 

Our children are much older now. But we've spent their lives demonstrating how our time living with my in-laws improved our circumstances. After a few years as empty nesters, we decided to continue that model and move in together again. I know our children don't see themselves as failures, like I did, for returning home. They see it as the best chance for upward mobility. But there's so much I wish I could tell my younger self about that decision over two decades ago.

 I wish I had considered all the benefits for myself and my children when I first received the offer from my mother-in-law. My children had the opportunity to live with their grandparents, get additional hugs and kisses, and learn from them. As a new mother, I got the support of another mother with more experience who was always willing and able to help. As a couple, we had a substantial financial burden taken off our shoulders. And as a family, we grew closer by learning more about one another and supporting one another as a community. By agreeing to spend a year living in my in-law's house, we provided another set of caregivers for our children, benefitted from the wisdom and guidance of an older generation, and gained the launch pad toward our goal of owning our own home.

Dr. Smith-Bynum says having a plan for how to use this time is important. "Whether it's a year or an indefinite amount of time, the goal for the living arrangement should be clear." She warns that tension and disappointment will follow without clarity. There is a current rise in more Black families returning to intergenerational living. With a clear goal and mutual respect, it's an arrangement that could turn out for the best. 

Thanks to my in-laws, we were able to purchase a home after a year. I learned there is more than one way to bridge a gap, and I realize now that it was an invaluable gift we had been given. I am grateful for the opportunity to recreate this model for my children. 

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