La Familia and Independence

Ah, la familia. Mothers and fathers. Sisters and brothers. Cousins, aunts, uncles. Grandparents. Godmothers and godfathers. “Aunts” and “uncles”. The friends who feel like family. In Spain, there is a saying, or perhaps more of a refrain: Madre, sólo hay una. You have but one mother. If I’ve learned anything about Spain—and oh, there is much to learn—family is important. And mothers … well, you’ve only got one.

The stereotypes are (somewhat) true: Spanish children don’t leave the nest as early as those of us in Anglo-Saxon countries. The average age for leaving home in Spain is 25.2 years old (source). This is not seen in a bad light here; it isn’t shameful. In fact, even if a 20-something does have a job, they may choose to stay at home with Mom and Dad, just because they can. After all, why pay rent when you can stay at home rent free?

I know plenty of people my age who lived at home for a time after college before getting a job. Not everyone was able to get a job right out of college, so it made sense. After all, if you’ve got student-loan payments and no viable source of income, how are you going to shell out $500 for rent every month? (Let’s not even get into what it might cost to rent on the east coast or in California.) But usually these people moved out once they got a job.

There are usually two points of view on this subject, both of them equally judgmental and, in my opinion, both of them equally flawed:

  1. Spanish youth are lazy. They just want their mother to iron their clothes and cook their meals for them. As long as they can get away with it, they will.
  2. Anglo-Saxon/northern-European youth don’t care about family. They move out as soon as they can, because family isn’t important.

I read those sorts of thoughts a lot, and my hackles always go up, because these sorts of opinions are overly simplistic, and they can do a lot of harm. In my case, I was expected to go away to college, even though college in the U.S. is absurdly expensive, and living away from home only made it more so. And I was ready for the adventure! It was exciting to live in a dorm and to have roommates. (This roommate enthusiasm would soon fade, however.) After living in a dorm for a few years, I got my own apartment. My brother did the same—first a dorm and later an apartment. We moved away from home. Did this make us not lazy? (No.) Did this mean we didn’t  care about our family, because we chose to live farther away? (No.)

Many—if not most—Spaniards choose to go to college close to home. That way, they can continue to live with their parents, and they save a lot of money on housing and food. Some do go away to university, as evidenced by Mario’s choice to study at the University of Granada—not exactly a hop, skip, and a jump away from Zamora! But a lot do elect to stay close by. They may eat lunch at home, their moms may do their laundry, they may not have to do any housework. Many would be ready to judge this as “lazy” or “shameful,” because they don’t even try to understand where Spaniards are coming from.

In Spain, family is important. What does this mean for them? La comida, lunch, is almost sacred. Why would you choose to eat a sandwich at the university cafeteria when you could have a home-cooked meal and time at home? Why would you choose to live in a dorm in your city when you could live at home with your parents? Independence is not as highly prized, not because they are lazy, but because being with your family is essential.

Some Spaniards I’ve come across have told me that, in the U.S. and other Anglo-Saxon countries, we don’t care as much about our parents. I can’t deny that being close to home is not as important. But I do take issue with the idea that, because we choose to become independent earlier or live farther from home, we don’t value family. I haven’t missed a Christmas, even though I’ve lived in Spain since 2009 (basically). My mother’s side of the family still gets together every holiday, though all the grandchildren are grown and off having families of their own. We make an effort to be together—no matter what. The distance makes it difficult, but it has brought with it myriad opportunities to grow, learn, and create a future for ourselves. I’ve been in Spain, perfecting my Spanish and learning more in five years than I thought possible. My brother is off in Nevada, working as an engineer, and spends every weekend skiing (winter) or hiking/biking (summer). We’ve seen a lot of the world this way.

So: conclusion time. No, just kidding—there isn’t one! In Spain, they value family; in the U.S., we do too … perhaps in a different way, in a way that is hard for some Spaniards to understand. In the U.S., we value independence; in Spain, they do too … yet again, maybe it’s a form of independence we don’t always get, but it’s not essential to understand it 100%. What is essential is accepting that everyone’s different, and that doesn’t make them inferior.

Have you heard either of these views espoused by someone you know? What do you think about family and independence?

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6 comments

  1. Great post, Kaley, and I’m glad you emphasized that the truth is rarely one of two crazy extremes…usually it falls somewhere in the middle. Sometimes we (Americans AND Spaniards) need to accept that other cultures aren’t *wrong* or *bad*…just different.

  2. A couple years ago, I mentioned to a friend from Seville that I’d see more homeless people within 10-ish minutes of walking through downtown Chicago than I saw the entire 7-ish months I lived in Seville. He mentioned that having a strong family is highly valued in Spain, they stick together so their loved ones will not end up on the streets (which was, sadly/sarcastically, an interesting concept to me).

    On a related note,,,the concept of the “dysfunctional family” seems much more prevalent in the U.S. than Spain. I wonder if family members tend to like each other more, if child-rearing and family relationships are drastically different, etc.

    1. hey, Chicago is really a vast city (Sevilla just a ‘big’ town) well you will not see many homeless Andaluces whether in Sevilla or any other part of Andalucia, the reason? perhaps Andaluces are the Spaniards with a stronger feeling over family so they stick together even more…also in Andalucia there are lots of Gypsies everywhere, and everyone knows how much they stick together, etc…..i think that it is easier to see a winged donkey in Sevilla than a real Sevillano with family left on the streets.

      also many homeless people you see in Spain (at least in very summer touristic towns/villages along the sea in Murcia, Valencia and Cataluña) are really foreign from other European countries….here in my hometown there are three or four people asking for money outside of supermarkets, and two of them are from Poland, i always see them with their backpacks, and i even wonder whether they are really homeless or they are just people who decided to leave their cold country looking for sun and beaches, choosing a life with no burden so they can get little money daily in order to survive while enjoying the pleasure of walking/living under the sun….it is really a mistery to me.

      anyway, i can tell you that in Spain and also in southern Italy we do have stronger feelings over family, but you cannot understand it nor can i explain it to you, for you were born and raised within a different enviroment…we are used to what we see round us….you wonder if child-rearing or family relationships have got something to do? well everything has got to do.

      the only way to understand it fully is to be born and raised in Spain or southern Italy, then you do realise how much important family is, whereas in other countries like the USA or Canada some parents seem to not care about staying much in contact with their children once they move out, much less about looking after their grandchildren as grandparents tend to do in Spain for example…i am not saying that in North America parents are worse (just different) it seems to me that parents do look after their children carefully at home while they are little boys, then they move out and are seen as a young eagle that has just left the nest and has got to begin its own future.

  3. I feel like my perspective includes both as the child of Mexican immigrants. After I went “away” to college (only 40 minutes, but a lot more with traffic so I live on/near campus for my years there) my mom wanted me to move back home. She reasoned it would be better for saving money, but I think it was also the norm in our family. A lot of my cousins didn’t move out of their parents’ houses until they were married. My siblings are still at home and one is 30, the other 35…

    My great-uncle in Mexico was scandalized when he found out I didn’t live at home. I was 24 and unmarried. This was totally unacceptable where he came from. After I graduated college and got my first full-time job, my mom suggested moving back to my childhood home. She reasoned I could save money (I could). I considered it for a minute, but then it just didn’t make sense with the commute.

    Last, the US view may be shifting a little with the influence of immigrants from cultures where ties to family and living at home as an adult are different.

  4. I always love learning about little cultural differences like these. In France I didn’t really pay attention but most of my husband’s friends, had moved out of their parents’ homes in their early 20s, but in Ireland I noticed that a lot of people will live at home well into their 20s, sometimes until they get married.

  5. People in the US don’t really understand the concept of living at home once you have a job if you can afford it. However in Spain there are so many factors at play. Most young people are unemployed, so how would they pay rent anyways? Or they are continuing their studies or they do have a job, but they aren’t paid well enough to afford rent. Or they simply don’t see the point of moving out until it’s time to start their own families. I take issue with the criticism that Americans don’t value family. I am fiercely close to my family, in fact I missed them them and my friends so much I moved back to the US. We also ended up living in the same town my mom grew up in so I saw my grandparents and extended family all the time.

    And the moving out right away doesn’t always end up working out so well in the US. I know of one person who moved out not long ago from his parents to live in NYC. He’s moving back in with his parents because he has run out of money. It’s why I’ve delayed moving out too, though I think I will start looking in the fall. Sister is actually moving out next month too. But we have both been living at home for awhile. You do what you feel is right for you and not what society at large thinks is best.

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