After my son was born we needed help. Two kids, two sleepless parents, two more weeks before school started up again — it got real. Fast. So we did what many families do and asked my mother-in-law to come help. She moved into our two-bedroom, squeezing into our daughter’s room, and sharing our already cozy 600 square-foot space.
One might think that five would make quite the crowd. But here’s the thing: Another body gave our small apartment life some much-needed breathing room. The 6-year-old became a ball of happy enthusiasm; my wife and I found more time to bond with the new baby; dinner time every night became an event; and every evening ended with a sort of fireside chat about the past and present family — or a shared viewing of The Great British Baking Show. In short, our hectic life became grounded.
What was meant to be a two-week stay turned to four, then six. We kept pushing back the deadline with every new milestone (“but next week, school starts”; “stay for the one-month checkup”; “well, dad’s going back to work”). Thanks to a patient father-in-law and game mother-in-law, we were able to make the first few months of new parenthood a breeze. Then, one day, she made good on the train ticket and headed back home. We suddenly felt, well, alone.
Multigenerational families — or families made up of members from more than two generations living in the same home — are making a comeback. The 2008 recession gave rise to a massive uptick in them in the U.S. Due to financial issues, kids moved in with parents (or never left), parents moved in with grandparents, or all three moved under a single roof. The thing is, the rise never stopped. The latest numbers, from 2014, show a record 60.6 million people (one-fifth of the U.S. population) live with multiple generations under one roof.
“It’s something our country has gotten away from,” says Donna Butts, Executive Director of Generations United, a non-profit that advocates for bringing generations together under one roof. “But we’re coming back to that.”
If you go back far enough, to pre-industrial America, multigenerational families were the norm. How else could you run the family farm other than with a packed house of kids, parents, and grandparents to divvy up the chores? And as our country became more industrialized, people started moving away from one other because they could. The way Butts tells it, that’s when there was a philosophical shift about living at home. “At some point, we came up with this belief that there must be something wrong, there was a weakness if they had to depend on each other.”
But where, exactly, is that weakness? I’m not so sure anymore.
Today, multigenerational households are everywhere, but usually go unappreciated or unnoticed. Remember Mrs. Robinson? She helped take care of Sasha and Malia while Barack and Michelle tended to the country. Yes, the previous White House was perhaps the highest profile example of a mother-in-law making a household run by moving in with the family.
“It was a multigenerational household that allowed the President and Mrs. Obama to fulfill their duties without being worried their kids were at home with just the Secret Service,” says Butts.
The two most powerful parents in the world were outspoken in their appreciation. On The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon just before leaving the White House, Michelle Obama gave a shout-out, saying, “I couldn’t have done this without you, Mom. You are my role model.” She went on: “Having that multi-generational existence kept us all grounded because mom doesn’t really play — she’s not really impressed with any of us.”
This same groundedness took root in my household. It started with the talks Grandma would have with the six-year-old about the new baby and what it’s like growing up with brothers and sisters. The family history stories were there daily and with them, she was painting an important picture for the new big sister: Her parents had parents who had parents who had babies too. In other words, family is a lot bigger than just the four of us. “Part of the positive impacts that the multigeneration house has for young people is in how it provides them with roots; a history and stories,” says Butts. “They know who they are and where they came from.”
The thing is we, as new parents, were listening too. Grandma would give us practical support and practical advice, sure — from how to burp to that rocking chair sleep trick none of us ever came close to perfecting. But she also reminded us daily that we were part of something bigger, something that would keep going. And that was the biggest help of all.
Rules of a Multigenerational Household
If you live in a multi-generational home, here are some key tips to keep in mind.
Communication Is Key
“Talk about expectations and what the parties envision what it’s like,” says Butts. This means where you want help and where you don’t; how long you are envisioning the stay; and what house rules you would expect everyone to follow.
Embrace Different Parenting Styles
Grandma spoils, she skips math for more reading, and she is all about arts and crafts when your kids need to practice guitar. Let it be. Instead of guiding other members in parenting, lead by example — your authority isn’t being undermined, your kid is getting more experience.
Talk About Finances
There are many solid financial reasons to move in together: “For some people, mother and father moved in because they lost retirement savings; sometimes parents want to save and pay down student debt, go back to school, or save cost on caregiving.”
“It’s always easiest for families to move into a larger home together,” says Butts, and with your combined financial resources, you might be able to do just that. Look into building a pod or a separate unit on the property, put up a wall in the living room to create private space, or seek out a bigger home for everyone.
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