The “real” family: who lives together and why?

The “real” family: who lives together and why?

During the pandemic year, Amos* and I have been living with our families.

First, we stayed with his parents and adult brother.

Then, when mom’s cancer returned, I went to stay with my parents and their adult child, interspersed with time at my widowed grandmother’s house.

It feels odd, but I’m not alone. As Sarah Todd notes, a third of American twenty-somethings now live with their parents. Others report that 40% of young Californians live with family, including Latinos, and families facing low wages or high housing costs. 40% of Canadian twenty-somethings live with parents. 20% of Australian households have adult children living with their parents. And a quarter of young Brits live at home, again in response to sluggish income and high housing costs.

Most Anglo Americans have an image of family that goes: live with dad and mom until 18, move out, find partner, buy separate house, raise 1-3 kids in it, launch them at 18, live alone together until one of you dies.

But that nuclear family hasn’t been our only way to live:

  • Before state support for the disabled and unemployed, you stayed with family or rented a spare room.
  • Before social security, elders lived with the nearest relative who would take them.
  • Before minimum wage, immigrants and orphans traded labor for a room and a few meals.
  • When costs rose and wages flatlined, adults boarded with family or friends until could move out on their own.
  • And although we think of marriage as everlasting, divorce, separation, and early death were still part of the picture.

What does this look like? Well, here are some examples from our family, drawn from census records in 1850-1940. (View sideways on mobile!).

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Your family (and your idea of normal) may vary–if you have other examples from past or present, I’d love to hear them!


  1. Fascinating! As has happened in different variations in the past, last year for almost 6 months we had hubby, wife, youngest daughter turning 18, middle daughter and her husband both job hunting, hubby’s ex-brother in law in crisis, and homeless 20-something male from our community.

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