The extended family is making a comeback in this country, but it seems to be fueled less by tradition than by hard times and the meteoric rise in out-of-wedlock births.
It is single parents who are increasingly choosing this multigenerational family arrangement, the Census Bureau reported in April. And, whether it fosters togetherness or tension, the extended family does solve some basic problems for single, often young, mothers who cannot make ends meet on their own: It puts a roof over their heads and provides help raising their children.
"It's clearly an indication of how impoverished or in need these single-parent families are," said Steve W. Rawlings, a family demographer at the Census Bureau and author of the report containing the new statistics.
The government survey shows that the number of single parents living in households headed by others grew from about 859,000 in 1980 to 2.1 million last year. Some of that increase is due to technical changes in the way the Census Bureau counts these families, but even when those technical changes are accounted for, the number still grew by roughly 60%.
Three-quarters of these single parents are living with relatives, usually parents. The remainder are with boyfriends or other non-relatives.
To some extent, the increase stems from the explosion of out-of-wedlock births over that time period. Along with divorce, the increase in births out of wedlock has driven the number of single parents from 6.9 million to 10.1 million since 1980.
At the same time, housing costs have gone up, and young people, especially those without a college degree, have suffered economically--finding it increasingly difficult to land a job that pays a living wage.
"There's more doubling up anyway," said University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, "with housing prices fairly high and (welfare payments) and earned income for young people fairly flat."
Lisa Frankenfield, a 23-year-old single mother in Gaithersburg, Md., said she would have to earn twice her current salary to be able to live on her own.
"There's no way," she said.
Frankenfield was 19 when she became pregnant. She broke up with her boyfriend before their child was born. "Staying at home was my only option," she said.
Now she takes her 3-year-old son, Michael, to her baby-sitting job each day, then attends community college at night. That's when her parents--a schoolteacher and a businessman--take over child care duties.
The Frankenfields are truly an extended family, with Lisa's brother and his wife also living at home. It is a situation both wonderful and racked with tension, the family members said.
"I need independence," Lisa Frankenfield said. "I almost feel like I'm a teen-ager and I have to report to their rules." And sometimes there is the problem of double discipline, two sets of rules for one little boy.
At the same time, she said, her parents have helped her enormously, allowing her to attend college and prepare for the day when she can move out on her own.
On Saturday mornings, she said, her father gets up early with Michael, allowing Lisa to sleep in.
"I'm sure it was something kind of thrown on them," she said. "They're 45 and their kids are almost grown. It was like starting over again."
Lorraine Frankenfield, Lisa's mother, agreed that having a toddler in the house again has been an adjustment. But she said the family had talked about it carefully beforehand.
"We thought about how we were going to manage things between Lisa and me--what am I going to do so I'm not the mother. I wanted in the worst way to take over, to be the mother, because I've been the mother."