Two years ago, we invited my mother to come from Florida to live with us. There were a lot of reasons the invitation made sense. My stepfather had recently died and so my mother was alone in Florida without much family. But also, we needed the extra help. As a two-career household with very active (and highly-scheduled) children, it was getting more difficult to commute, do all the errands necessary to maintain our household, and shuttle two growing kids to and from school and dance and play dates and make sure the homework was done without every conversation between us being operational in nature. I also wanted my mother to be here to experience all the things with her grandkids she’d have missed being 1200 miles away.
Being Latino, it’s not too uncommon for there to be mixed-generation households. In fact, one could say that it’s an expected part of Latino adulthood. That being said, there were adjustments to be made.
My mother came from a very old-school, strict home. Hardcore chores and eating all the food on the plate were a few of the many things that were considered staples of childhood duties. My wife and I had made some conscious decisions to look at some of those traditions, and go a different route. For example, we both experienced the dreaded “eat everything on the plate” exercise growing up, and both decided we’d encourage healthy eating, but not force food compliance. Some of these differences have made for some awkward conversations.
In older generation Latino families, girls and women are expected to do a lot of the household chores, and to start and learn early. My mother would tell me stories of her having to iron all her father’s pants for work that he would wear for the week, including the pocket linings. She’s told me that growing up, she would have the duty of cooking dinner, bathing, picking up after her younger siblings, and making sure the house was clean before her parents got home. This led to my mom being a person who likes to rigorously plan ahead to the smallest detail. When she packs for a trip, her suitcase is ready two days before her flight, whereas my wife and I are morning-of packers.
During trips to the park or beach, my mother would get up practically at dawn, so that we’d leave early and get there before the crowds and pick the choicest spot. We’d have every possible need already thought of, from snacks and lunch to toiletries. We almost never had to go to a store to purchase anything. For my wife and I, plans to go to the beach are last minute, with friends and family members being added to the equation in real time. Packing is almost always done that morning, and we almost always forget sunscreen or something and have to make a stop at the drugstore on the way. We almost never get there before noon, when the sun is hottest and the beach or picnic areas are the most crowded. We take cash rather than food, yet still overpack with unnecessary items that never get used.
Doing this after my mom moved in was difficult. She would take it in stride, but she would be practically biting her own tongue off not to seem critical. Instead, she would just wake up early, prepare sandwiches and snacks, and not say anything. And it’s actually very much appreciated.
But it’s more than packing and scheduling. When it comes to discipline, my mother and I don’t see eye to eye. As a kid, I couldn’t watch any TV during the week. My kids, however, are on their phones in separate corners of the house watching YouTube and Amazon Prime, and we practically beg them to come sit with us to see a movie. The struggle over this new world of access to entertainment is new to all of us, but it’s especially foreign to older generations.
My mother would rather turn off all the screens and make them read. And, at times, we do that. But other times, I have to remind her (and myself) that the kids are actually quite active, are doing very well in school, and if binge watching Stranger Things or Dance Academy is how they wind down for a few hours, we are okay with it.
But there are some things that we have changed due to my mother’s influence. We pay more attention to the girls’ hygiene habits. Before my mother moved in, they were on an honor system. The honor system was not working. My mother was perhaps the best influencer in this change, as she showed the girls what happens when you don’t take care of your teeth in dramatic fashion — by opening her mouth.
Even I am paying a bit more attention to my molars than before. I also make my lunches for work more than I used to — it really does save a ton of money. My mom is also very creative: the kids enjoy her craft and decorating skills and often ask for her help on their projects.
The biggest challenge, for me, is now being the only male in a house full of strong, independent women, who all would like my attention, often at the same time. I’ve been in situations where there is a cacophony, and it takes me a bit to realize that it’s all directed towards me.
Each person wanting to talk about their day, discuss or plan the next, and get some personal time, from six-years-old to 66. To juggle those expectations without anyone feeling slighted is perhaps the hardest thing I deal with on a regular basis.
I do see this as a blessing as well. It sure beats a world where no one wants to deal with you. It was a fate my own father found himself in many years ago, and one I swore I’d avoid. And besides, I do find my quiet times in the mornings with a cup of coffee, or when I write or go to the gym.
In all, having an elder in the house has been a good thing. As long as there is constant and clear communication, and tones are set so that people don’t feel judged, neglected, or dismissed, you can usually smooth over any bumps in the road over a quick kitchen talk. As parents, we already know that half the time we are just winging it, so it helps to have some experienced perspective, while the older generation understands that we all want to build from what we know to make our children’s journey’s even better than the one we had. Even if we all pack for that journey at different times.