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Grandma Helping With The Baby: Dream Or Nightmare?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms or dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

And today, we want to talk about one of the most wonderful and stressful times in a parent's life, and that is when that baby actually comes home - exhausting, overwhelming and for many families, it is just understood that parents or in-laws will move in for a while to change diapers, warm bottles and in general pitch in. But according to new research, when for a while becomes forever, it can be a problem.

A new study found that some new mothers who live in multigenerational households actually show higher rates of depression compared to those who don't. And this is a pattern that held true with both married and single mothers and mothers who were rich, poor and middle-class. And it found that Latina single mothers were especially likely to experience depression if they lived in multigenerational households than if they did not.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called on the author of the study, Joy Piontak. She's a research analyst at Duke University Center for Child & Family Policy and a mom of one. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOY PIONTAK: Yeah, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us for additional perspective are Eliana Tardio. She's a mom of two and a blogger for the parenting site Babble.com. Eliana, welcome to you.

ELIANA TARDIO: Thank you for having me today.

MARTIN: And Yesha Callahan is a staff writer for The Root - TheRoot.com and a single mom of one. Yesha, welcome to you. Thank you for coming as well.

YESHA CALLAHAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Joy, let me start with you. This study fascinated all of us because it contradicts, you know, the lore that many people have about this. I mean, your research, as I mentioned, found that married and single moms in multigenerational households actually show higher rates of depression, but that moms who live with their partners but are not married and had one or more grandparents in the house had lower rates of depression. Why do you think that is?

PIONTAK: Yes, so that was kind of a surprising finding. We have a couple ideas about why that might be the case. In the United States, we have really strong cultural expectations about what married couples should do and the households they should form. And one of those is being economically independent. And so it could be that these strong cultural expectations cause there to be extra pressure on these mothers.

Another thing that's important to note about the study is that we just looked at one point in time - their first year. So it could be that - so we can't really discern the causal relationship. So it could be that mothers who are more likely to experience depression in that first year are less likely to move out of the household. Or it could be that living in these multigenerational households contributes to depression.

MARTIN: Yesha, why don't you tell us your experience 'cause you lived - you had - you lived with your mom when your son was first born...


MARTIN: ...Correct?


MARTIN: And then she lived with you. When you moved into your own place, she then lived with you.


MARTIN: So you kind of had both - does this ring true to you? What is...

CALLAHAN: I think it was stressful when I lived with her when my son was first born because we were kind of butting heads when it came to different parenting styles. You know, she's older. She knew - you know, she raised four kids. So she knew what was best.

And so when you're trying to learn things on your own, and you have someone basically undermining you at times, then I can see where the stress would come in and also probably aspects of depression. But then like she said, it was the first year of the study. I would be interested in seeing if those women in that study, were they already suffering from postpartum or things like that because...

MARTIN: What about you, though? What was your experience, and did you find it different when your mom was living in your house?

CALLAHAN: It really wasn't that different because she still took over. (Laughing) You know, she's very, you know, very demanding, very, you know, overbearing at times.

And when my son was older, we both had different styles of parenting. So our styles clashed. And that, you know, not only was I stressed a bit, but it kind of stressed my son out 'cause he didn't know, you know, who to listen to. It was like having, like, you know...

MARTIN: Two different bosses.

CALLAHAN: Yeah, two different bosses. So he was confused. He was stressed.

MARTIN: Did you find that your friends didn't get it? Did they think you were just living the life of Riley, having your mom there, built-in babysitter and that you had to explain to them...

CALLAHAN: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Why it wasn't nirvana?

CALLAHAN: Exactly, I still had to beg her to babysit. (Laughing) You know, I was like can you - you know, I would beg for a break here and there. And she's like, you know, I'm not your built-in babysitter. She would use those terms exactly. And then, you know, when I did want her to babysit, I had to, you know, pay her.


CALLAHAN: So it wasn't something that - it was - her services were not, like, you know, a nanny, you know. But she still took on that role as another head of the household, making rules and things like that.

MARTIN: Eliana, what about you? Your in-laws lived with you when your kids were born. Tell us about that experience. How did that go?

TARDIO: Right. Well, in my case, my mom passed away when I was 15.

MARTIN: Oh, I'm sorry.

TARDIO: So I was - grew up by myself. So for me, it was, you know - I have been always grateful for their support. But at the same time it was stressful because when you grow up by yourself, you have your own rules, you know, and you want to learn things by yourself. So it was kind of stressful.

And you have all that support in there. My child was born with Down syndrome, so it was different, too. I wasn't used to someone telling you what to do or what is going to be best for your child. So I think everything comes from that side, in my case.

MARTIN: Did you find it stressful? It sounds like it.

TARDIO: It was. It was stressful because on the other hand, I was new to United States, and I was trying to learn how to raise a child in a different culture. So for them, it was like I was kind of crazy because I was changing all the beliefs of being Latina, and I was following all the instructions from the pediatrician.

You know, and for someone who is experiencing having a child, of course they have their own ideas, their own rules. And I was starting again, and I really needed that privacy and that peace, you know, to get used to the idea that I have a newborn. And I also have a child with special needs, so it was kind of stressful.

MARTIN: So I want to go back to this because, Joy, in the study, as I mentioned earlier, the pattern held true for both wealthy, low-income and middle-class women. But the findings really varied by race, with Latina single mothers faring particularly poorly in multigenerational households, that Latina single moms were six times more likely to experience depression if they lived in multigenerational households in the child's first year of life than if they did not.

So, Joy, can ask you first about this? And then, Eliana, of course I want to hear your perspective. So, Joy, what do you think?

PIONTAK: Yeah, so we don't really know why Latino mothers fared particularly poorly in the study in terms of depression. But we expect that it has something to do with cultural expectations varying between groups. But there simply isn't a lot known about multigenerational households in general. And so, yeah - so we can't speak...

MARTIN: Can't really speak.

PIONTAK: ...To exactly to why that might be.

MARTIN: So, Eliana, I'm going to ask you to speculate - not ask you to speak on behalf of all...

TARDIO: Of course.

MARTIN: ...But asking you to speculate from just from your experience because I think that people have this stereotype that, you know, this is just - this is one of the strengths of the Latino community, is that people are willing to live in multigenerational households...


MARTIN: ...That they kind of pool their resources, and this is actually kind of a strength. And then this study finds that there's a cost.


MARTIN: And I just wondered if you have a theory about why that might be.

TARDIO: I think what happens...

MARTIN: I mean, do you think maybe the expectations on you were really high?

TARDIO: What happens is that sometimes it is not your choice, right? So when something is not your choice, of course you are going to struggle and you may be frustrated because you are not making that choice. And in my case, it was not my choice obviously because I was new to United States. I was starting a family, a life.

So you get depressed, and you feel that, I'm here. I'm stuck in here, and this is all that I have right now. So you have to do your best. And I guess that's the same with the study, right? That probably, these moms, they are living with their parents or with their in-laws because they have that need. So it's not that they choose to go there and live with them and have, you know, like, a, big family around. So I guess that's all about.

MARTIN: Yesha, what do you think? I mean, the - one of the hypotheses here is that there is this - in this country, there's this really strong kind of expectation that you're going to make it on your own. You know, you're going to have your own place, that you are going to kind of be your own nuclear unit, you know, parent and child, and that even though, you know, culturally there's a lot of, you know, history behind people kind of living in multigenerational household, somehow that it still feels a little bit like you're failing. Do you feel like that is part of the stress?

CALLAHAN: At first, I understand - I felt that, you know, because I was finished with school, but I was still at home. So, you know, I was wondering what did I do wrong, where did I go wrong, you know, as far as, you know, not being prepared enough to live on my own and having to live with my mother.

But then after I realized that it was beneficial to me in the long run because even though she did stress me out, I was able to, you know, save money to eventually move out on my own. But then of course she did move in a couple years later.

MARTIN: Well, she didn't just sneak in, did she? I mean, presumably she discussed this with you.

CALLAHAN: (Laughing) I mean, she did.

MARTIN: Did she just, like, show up one day? How did that happen?

CALLAHAN: She moved in because she rotated to Maryland for a job transfer. So, you know, no one else wanted her. (Laughing).

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. OK, we're going to have to get her perspective on this.

If you're just joining us, we're talking about new research on multigenerational households and depression in new moms. The results might surprise you.

My guests are Joy Piontak. She's a research analyst at Duke University who conducted this study. And our other guests are Yesha Callahan of TheRoot.com and Eliana Tardio of Babble.com. They're talking about their personal experiences, both having lived with parents or in-laws when they had new babies.

Joy, talk a little bit more, if you would, about - you know, you said that it was surprising. I think it is. I think the findings are surprising to many people because on the one hand, we do have this kind of cultural expectation of independence, setting up that nuclear household.

On the other hand, we have a lot of romanticism, I think, about having grandma, grandpa living with us. I mean, there are a lot of TV shows where grandma, grandpa are there, you know, kind of - generally, kind of reading the newspaper and imparting wisdom from time to time. But I think we have a lot of warm feelings about the idea. And what you're saying is the reality is actually quite different. Any thoughts about why that is?

PIONTAK: Right. Yeah, no. And I feel similarly. When I first became interested in this project, it was through interviewing single moms. And really, what stood out to me in doing so was that there's such diversity in their living situations, and we don't really capture that diversity when we study families usually.

And so - but I did expect that, you know, these extra hands would sort of be helpful in terms of how well mothers were doing. But they're actually a lot more complicated than that. And...

MARTIN: And I wonder if that's something to do with the fact that our lives actually do change quite a lot. I mean, one of the things that I think - you know, I've noted - and we do this parenting segment every week - is that many of us do not like the way we were raised.

I mean, we can respect our parents. We can love our parents. But there are lots of things we would like to do differently, including, you know, corporal punishment, including yelling, including, you know - there are a lot - the way we expect our boys and girls to behave. I mean, and - you think - Joy, do you think that could be part of it, that in fact our understanding of what it is to be a parent is changing so that's it's kind of - you're inevitably butting heads...


MARTIN: ...With seniors?

PIONTAK: Yeah, definitely. I mean, the way that we think about parenting has changed a lot, and so that could definitely impact those relationships.

MARTIN: Yesha, what do you think?

CALLAHAN: As far as, like you said, the whole disciplining, and you know - things change with time. You know, my mother was a hard-core disciplinarian, and I wasn't. So she was also a yeller, a screamer. And, you know, I always spoke to my son. And she didn't realize, well, why are you talking to him? You know, you're supposed to demand attention and things like that.

So it's - when people have different forms of disciplining in the household, then, you know, it can be a mess. So it's not always, like, you know, a walk in field of roses when you're living with other people.

MARTIN: Do you have any advice for somebody who - I mean, is there something you wish you would have told yourself then when you were just starting out as a parent? Don't do it.


MARTIN: I kind of feel like it's - don't do it.

CALLAHAN: Yeah, I guess I would've told myself to wait, you know, a couple of years later, so - but, you know, I'm almost 40, and my son is almost out of the house. So I'm still young. Now, in hindsight now, I'm like, you know...

MARTIN: Net plus, not minus when you think about it? When you're really honest with yourself, net plus, net minus?

CALLAHAN: I think it's net plus right now. Net plus.

MARTIN: Eliana, what about you? When you're really honest with yourself, net plus, net minus having had your in-laws living with you - or living with your in-laws when you came?

TARDIO: Net plus because I can tell also that they have been very supportive. I have to be grateful. But at the same time, you know, it is a reality that you want to set your own rules, you want to raise your child with your beliefs and you want to be the best mother that you can be or the best father. And it's really hard to achieve that when you have other people around.

MARTIN: Is there any advice that you would have liked to have heard when you were just starting out as a parent living with your in-laws? Is there something that you think would have made a difference that perhaps you could impart?

TARDIO: I think it is really hard, you know. It's not that anyone made a mistake. It's just the reality that it's hard to handle. It doesn't end well all the time because people see things different. And I will tell people, you know, that always getting prepared for having a child, for starting a family, is important because then you are going to have that ability to have your own place, set your own rules, to raise your child and don't have to go through all that.

MARTIN: Joy, is there any group that fared particularly well in your research when they lived with parents? And we mentioned that people who were unmarried but living with a romantic partner and a grandparent seem to do better. Any other thoughts?

PIONTAK: Yes. So, right. So cohabitating couples who lived with grandparents had lower rates of depression. The other group that had lower rates of depression was married moms who lived with a grandparent or grandparents for part of the year but not the entire year. So married mothers who maybe were living with grandparents at the birth of their child, but were living independently by the time their child was a year old had lower rates of depression than even women who had lived independently that whole time.

MARTIN: This seems to cry out for beach house. I feel beach house seems to be kind of the operating theme here.


MARTIN: Joy, do you have any advice based on this research, which as I said, surprised, I think, a lot of us when we encountered it? Do you - and I don't know if you feel comfortable...


MARTIN: ...Offering advice based on these findings about people who are contemplating this arrangement?

PIONTAK: Right, and I think what's important to remember is just that the American family is so much more diverse than it was 50 years ago. And so, you know, a lot more needs to be looked at in order to fully understand these relationships and how they can be beneficial to women and how we can help strengthen multigenerational households so that they are more beneficial to mothers and to children and to all the members, really.

MARTIN: One of the things you were pointing out, that there really isn't that much research on multigenerational households...


MARTIN: ..That's one of the - that there's a lot of interesting families, but not a lot on these family styles - kind of interesting about why that - what else would you like to research?

PIONTAK: Right, so I think it would be interesting to look at these families over time. I think it's interesting that you asked the mothers whether it was a net gain or a net plus because this was just one year in time. And to look at how these mothers fare over the life of their child, being able to rely on these multigenerational households at certain times - these are fluid relationships, so they generally don't last for the entire child's life at home - and so to really understand how it affects them in the long-term.

MARTIN: Joy Piontak is a research analyst at Duke University. She joined us from there. Yesha Callahan is a staff writer for The Root and a single mom of one. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Eliana Tardio is a mom of two and a blogger for the parenting site Babble.com. She was with us from Fort Myers, Fla. Ladies, thank you all so much for joining us.

TARDIO: Thank you.

CALLAHAN: Thank you.

PIONTAK: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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