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Tips for surviving the multigenerational household

September 12, 2012 - Betsy Bethel
I recently had the experience of living with not only my mother-in-law, who has lived with us for three and one-half years, but also my mother, who moved in in April, and my stepdad, who moved in in July.

So for about six weeks (geez, was that all the longer it was?), there were five adults and one 6-year-old living under our roof, along with our cat, our puppy and my parents' pooch.

It was interesting to note people's reactions to our living arrangements. I got everything from "Wow, that's a house full!" to "Oh my gosh, how do you do it? I would never survive!"

Everyone sympathized. But I don't think many, even with today's poor economy and housing crisis, could empathize. It was a pretty unique situation — living with both sets of parents. Even I never imagined it would happen. I always thought it was awkward and distasteful in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" that both sets of Charlie's grandparents lived with them. But at least we have more than one bed and one room to share!

As of Aug. 18, the situation returned to normal, which means my parents and their dog, Molly, moved into the house they bought in Warwood. It's not as close as I would have liked — about 15-20 minutes away. It would be perfect if there were a bridge from Warwood to Martins Ferry, but still, it's a heck of a lot closer than the 10-11 HOURS it used to take when they lived in north Georgia and the 18 hours it took before that when they lived in Florida. And on the other hand, Warwood is certainly preferable to the bedroom next door.

In my opinion, the best and worst part of our situation was, oddly, the same thing: namely, our daughter, Emma, having so many loving, doting adult family members surrounding her. She had to learn to share the spotlight, which is great, but she also got to command the center of attention many a time. She got treated to a lot of special things, but she also had several extra sets of eyes and ears keeping track of her every mood swing and misstep.

Truth be told, it was difficult. It stretched and strained us all. I think we learned a lot about each other and ourselves! But it could have been so much worse. Everyone ultimately worked together, and we did it without killing anyone!

Because all of the parties involved are still alive (thank God), I am not going to go into any of the nitty-gritty detail about our unique living arrangements from April to August. But I do have some tips for families who have more than two generations living under one roof.

1. Don't assume. Ever. Be up front about everything, from what time dinner is, to what time you need the shower, to what brand of coffee you like, to what kind of dog food to buy, to what the child or children are allowed to watch on TV.

2. Provide personal space. Carve out a designated place in the house where each person can go to be alone, uninterrupted, for a reasonable period of time.

3. If you have only one bathroom, install another one. (I think if we had been able to install a second bathroom, it would have cut the tension level in the house by at least half.)

4. Personalities will clash. Expect it. Get over it. For some families, it's the in-law who doesn't "get" the way things are done. For others, it's the parent/adult-child relationship that may be difficult. If you prepare for and allow for the differences, you'll have a head start when conflict arises. And it will, no matter how well everyone got along before you all became housemates.

5. It's all about respect. I've said it before and will say it again and again until I die, the foundation of EVERY relationship, if it is going to successful or even tolerable, is respect. Is someone napping? Don't run the vacuum. If you're doing laundry, do everyone's (after you've checked to make sure it's OK with them of course). Don't agree with a parenting style? If the child is not in any physical danger, don't worry about it. If a member of the household has an addiction, don't engage in that behavior around them. If there are chores to be done, pitch in, or at least offer.

In most cases, the multigenerational household is not a permanent situation. Anything can be borne for a season. Having said that, don't let little irritations build up or your family will start coming apart at the seams.

Overall, I am grateful we were able to help out in a time of my parents' need. I am grateful to my husband for agreeing to it and helping my parents move not once, not twice, but three times in the past year (don't ask). I am grateful for the time I got to spend with my mom after 20 years of living in distant states. And I continue to be grateful for my mother-in-law, who still lives with us and provides a sense of stability in our household.


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