Think of the Portokalos family in the My Big Fat Greek Wedding films, and you get a glimpse of the joys and pitfalls of multi-generational living. The movie revolves around Toula, a middle-aged woman and her big, loud, and interconnected Greek orthodox family. There are hilarious scenes of chaos and fun embodied in shared meals, nosy relatives advising on everything under the sun, and generational tensions between parents and children. This light-hearted romantic comedy uncovers the challenges and beauty of inter-generational families as Toula navigates the cultural differences in her journey of self-discovery and love. The complexities of multi-generational families lie in balancing the individual and the collective.
Throughout the film, we see these nuances in Toula’s story as she navigates living and walking between vastly different worlds. Greek culture versus middle-class American culture; her own ambitions and dreams versus cultural traditions embodied by her parents and wider family. The communication clashes common in inter-generational living are captured perfectly in a scene over the phone where Toula and her mother discuss dinner for her family (nuclear) and her boyfriend Ian’s family. Her mother states that she’s peeling more potatoes, confusing Toula, who asks why she is preparing so much food for the small gathering? Her mother responds, “the family is coming”. Toula pauses, then nervously stutters, “the family…….you invited the whole family”. This classic miscommunication example is followed by a funny scene when Ian and his parents meet Toula’s parents… and about 30 other family members. Minus the romance and owning a Greek restaurant, the film’s familial themes echo aspects of my multi-generational living experiences.
Growing up in Tonga, living in a large and intergenerational household was normal. Both my parents grew up in big families and multi-generational households. Our family was no different. Mum and Dad were never short of babysitters when work or community engagements arose. And my grandparents would teach about life through stories and, funnily enough, through chores.
As a child, I would follow my grandmother around as she did her daily chores like weaving a fala (mat), using lou tofua, known as pandanus leaves, or weaving baskets out of coconut palm tree leaves. In helping with tasks, my grandmother would explain the purpose and utility of these items in our home and culture. She would reiterate that despite the laborious nature of these tasks, there is joy in putting one’s hands to the plough and sharing its fruit. Such as the completed woven mat can be used at family events, and woven coconut baskets carry tuberous crops from our plantations.
My playmates were siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. Our neighbours were extended family, which meant accessing cups of sugar, popping by for a meal or having an extra pair of helping hands was never far or few. This village-like setting continued when we migrated as a family to Aotearoa New Zealand two decades ago. My nuclear family would be amongst the dense cluster of my paternal grandparents and extended kin residing in the same neighbourhood, and living ten minutes from one another.
In Pasifika cultures, like my Tongan and Samoan heritage, living with the nuclear and extended family is perfectly normal. It’s also common in parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Multi-generational living is culturally standard, and socially acceptable. The collective underpinning of these cultures (similar to my own cultural heritage) locates the self, identity, and family living arrangements in kinship and family ties.
Differentiating between nuclear and extended family is uncommon and seen as unnecessary. I recall that attempts to fragment family lines were often met with my father reminding us of our shared whakapapa with kinship networks. He would also remind us of the importance of the collective and our responsibilities within the wider extended family.
Living in a multi-generational home has joys and challenges. Resources such as time, income and responsibilities are shared alongside life’s burdens. Caring for elders and child-rearing is divided among household members. Breaking bread as a family and sharing stories between young and old are some of the fondest memories of my childhood.
My grandfather’s love for storytelling would come to life at the dinner table. We’d hear tales of his childhood like him skipping school for a beach trip with friends and being caught by my great-grandfather. His punishment would be helping my great-grandfather plant coconut trees scattered throughout our home in Tonga, some of which remain standing today. We would hear accounts of our whakapapa and family history weaved in with Bible stories, and ask questions about family ties and cultural histories. In my adult years, these memories serve to remind me of the beautiful aspects of multi-generational living. The learning from and passing on of wisdom from older generations. The depositing and passing on of taonga such as genealogical and familial knowledge from older to younger generations.
A friend raised by his grandparents recalls how his intergenerational upbringing formed his understanding of wider kinship networks and his role in the collective. His grandparents would often emphasise the significance and importance of knowing one’s genealogy, cultural and family roots. Framing family ties through this lens meant individual roles and relational responsibilities became understandable.
Within Pasifika cultures, like many collective cultures, older generations such as grandparents (Kau vaivai/ Kau matu’a) are a source of knowledge and wisdom. They often share in child-rearing duties and are responsible for teaching younger members of the household about life. Life lessons and cultural knowledge are wrapped up in tales and life experiences shared over food, running errands with grandparents, and family devotions. Other friends described intergenerational living as fantastic for never being short of company but challenging for personal privacy.
Depending on how one’s household operates, the presence of older household members can serve as a safety net for parenting. Papa and Mama become a soundboard for new parents in develop- ing parental skills. Childcare is decided between grandparents and parents as both parties work out a feasible routine for all involved family members. Grandparents may help with the taxi driving to sports training, attend games and school productions, and help with childcare until parents finish work.
In some families, elderly household members may fill in the role of missing parental figures. For some parents, like a best friend’s mother, inter-generational living means having their single-parent child at home to help and share in the child-rearing. For her, inter-generational living provides as close an approximation as possible to a fully equipped, adequate, nurturing and loving environment for a child to be safe, loved, cared for, heard, and allowed to develop.
Living intergenerationally, she notes, also has challenges. Navigating the child-parent dynamic when one’s children have their own requires sensitive management and finding a balance between parent and grandparent. Having your own quiet space within a lively home with five grandchildren running a ruckus most days can be difficult at times. And, she adds, there are schedule clashes and miscommunication over school pickups, or grocery shopping can be inconvenient. However, living together with her kids and grandkids is more of a blessing, even when a chaotic household may feel cumbersome. The richness added to her and her husband’s life, and being close to her grandkids, trump the challenges inherent in multi-generational living arrangements.
Returning home after a long sabbatical from Tāmaki Makaurau, moving in with Mum and Dad incited a combination of feelings for me. For some people, this might be a joyous occasion—for others, a daunting prospect. For me, the idea of living at home while adulting naturally brought up the nostalgia of precious childhood memories and my upbringing. Feelings of both excitement and nervousness dawned on me as I considered the pros and cons of returning to the nest. I was excited by the idea of home-cooked meals, dinner table conversations, and banter. Conversations that often involved my father telling us about his day, weaved in with tales of his mischievous youth days, coupled with his subtle questions about life and what was happening in our worlds.
On the other hand, there were nerves around the new dynamics of a child-parent relationship whilst living at home as an adult. There’s the recalibration of independence, and time and space, to include more variables such as the rhythms of family life, responsibilities and a busy household. Like rescheduling plans with friends visiting for the weekend and letting them know (yes as an adult) my parents needed me to run errands for an impromptu family BBQ. And in this situation—family comes first, even if it means rearranging your social calendar.
Anecdotally, for some Pasifika there is a shift away from multi-generational living. I see this amongst some of my fellow Millennials. In part this is because urban living isn’t configured to accommodate multi-generational living. Look at the townhouses you see springing up in our big cities; they can barely accommodate two generations, much less three!
So paradoxically, being part of ‘Generation Rent,’ embracing this supposedly ‘old-fashioned’ inter-generational living actually makes economic sense. With rising house prices and mounting living costs, multi-generational living is a solution to alleviating financial stress. Temporary (or permanent) residence at home or with parents doesn’t equate to being less of a functioning adult. Living with parents and extended family is the norm in many parts of the world. Personal needs and growth, including the transition to adulthood, are negotiated and balanced within the broader family and village of support context.
Independence, including decision-making formerly done freely with fewer constraints when on your own, is now reevaluated. Individual choices now require a greater depth of consideration of dynamics, such as their impact on household members. Notions of individualism have to operate within the wider family/the collective.
Living with nuclear and extended kin is all I have ever known. Much like Toula Portokalos and her big Greek family, having a big interconnected family that includes extended family living close is my normal. Extended family structures and intergenerational living have their inherent challenges and are complex. There are tensions between individual needs and ambitions, familial expectations and obligations, diminished personal choice in paving your own path in life, less privacy and less mobility.
However, these tensions can be blessings in disguise. Resilience and stability can be found in the extended family structure. Family ties and relationships are strengthened in multi-generational homes creating a social interdependence that acts as a shock absorber for navigating life. More people share the peaks and troughs of life, such as an unexpected job loss, or the care of sick children and elderly family members.
Like most things in life, intergenerational living has its challenges. However, the joys far outweigh the challenges, from the added richness of human relations to one’s life, strengthening intergenerational bonds, shared meals, responsibilities, the extra pair of hands, never being short of company, and navigating life with others. Returning to the pandemonium and fun of shared holidays and birthdays with my family of 40 people and the unscheduled intrusions of family events and activities. As Toula Portokalos reflects on her big, interconnected and lively Greek family– “And wherever I go and whatever I do, they will always be there.”
In the case of my big, loud, and interconnected Tongan and Samoan family and intergenerational household, yes, it is chaotic, fun and complex all in one. But they are my family, and in them I see the highs and lows, the blessing and complexities inherent in multi-generational homes. Living across generations, sharing meals and lived experiences, help, companionship, these are the things that I recall.
More than that, though, I see the people who have poured into me; who continue to love me through all seasons of life, and who have shaped me into the person that I am today. Wherever I go, they are there.