How to live harmoniously with extended family
The family home takes on a whole new meaning when three generations live together. As Pauline Harris, mother of four and grandmother to five, explains, sharing a house can work on many levels – when the right foundations are in place.
As the cost of housing increases, families have begun to think creatively about their living arrangements. Sharing with grandparents, whether long term or for a season, is an option that has many potential upsides. Everyone can benefit from the enlarged pool of skills, income, physical capabilities and wisdom when the generations get together. The whole family stands to benefit from the flexibility that comes with extra pairs of hands and people at home during the day to deal with sleeping babies, sick children, pets and the arrival of tradesmen. Babies and older children have an opportunity to bond closely with their grandparents and to thrive on the attention of more people in their daily lives who love them fiercely and unconditionally. Parents are able to share household costs, and the tasks involved in caring for children and looking after the house. Grandparents gain the satisfaction and sense of purpose that comes from helping with the most important job on earth – raising the next generation.
But how do you reap the benefits while avoiding strained relationships, or an actual disastrous falling-out? Each family has different circumstances and a unique collection of personalities, but it is possible to devise a game plan that will work by doing some preliminary thinking and talking before committing to the idea of sharing a house. The first step is to come up with one or two goals you agree on. Start with the question: What do we hope to achieve by moving into the same house? Here are some of the common motivations for creating a three-generation household:
⭐ To make more disposable income available for everyone by renting one house instead of two.
⭐ To enable the young family to buy their own home by saving on rent and putting the money towards a deposit.
⭐ To give the young family or grandparents somewhere pleasant to live while their house is being renovated.
⭐ To give a young family a temporary home when they have just returned from overseas.
⭐ To enable the family to live on one income until the children reach kindy or school.
⭐ To help a parent or grandparent transition to life without a partner when they have been widowed or separated.
⭐ To give a daughter or son a home when there is a surprise baby.
⭐ To share the load when someone in the family is sick or injured or has a disability.
⭐ To enable one of the parents or grandparents to complete a course of study or re-train for a new career.
There are so many possibilities, but whatever you want to achieve by living under the same roof, each adult in the family needs to be 100% on board with the overall goal; don’t proceed unless this is the case. Beware of ‘guilt-tripping’ mindsets – the word ‘should’ is the red flag that signals you are being motivated by some faulty sense of obligation. Question the truth of statements such as “Old people shouldn’t live in rest homes, they should live with their families”, “Babies should be looked after by their grandparents, they shouldn’t be in daycare”, “I’m being disloyal to my son, daughter, mother, father or grandchildren if I don’t have them living with me”.
If you are all sure that you are not being influenced by such underlying mindsets, you can move on to the next step which is to examine the goal itself. How achievable is it? What would be a realistic time frame? This could be weeks, months or years. Then commit to reviewing the arrangement if the goal isn’t reached within the time frame. This is to ensure that nobody feels they are stuck with the arrangement forever.
Once you’ve agreed on what you want to achieve, each family member needs to think about what they can bring to the table to help reach the goal and run the household, and for how long they are prepared to make this contribution. For example, the grandparents might be willing to have their son or daughter’s family living with them rent-free for a year, but thereafter expect a contribution towards the upkeep of the property. A young couple might be prepared to open their home to a grandparent until his/her family home is sold and a new house is purchased, this being expected within a time frame. The young family and the parents might even be prepared to sell their own houses and pool their resources to buy one larger house that is suitable or can be adapted for three-generation living.
Contributions that are not quite so money-focussed are also valuable. A grandparent might anticipate with pleasure helping care for a newborn, taking their grandchild to kindy, helping the young couple develop their garden, or helping with shopping and cooking. A young parent might be very happy to mow lawns, help with home improvement projects, sell items on Trade Me, or look after the grandparents’ pets while they’re away. Everyone has a contribution, even the physically limited, for example, reading stories, rocking an unsettled baby and folding laundry.
Most of these contributions will be more than welcome, but some will not, and this is the time to clarify what’s what. A good strategy is to identify who is in charge and who is in the role of ‘helper’ in the area you are talking about. For example, the couple who owns the garden should call the shots on what to plant where, with the helpers only making suggestions. Check that your great idea meets with wholehearted approval before getting out the chainsaw or weed sprayer. Avoid making over-enthusiastic offers to completely take over a task. The person who loves doing laundry might be depriving someone else of the pleasure of being alone outside and listening to the birds while hanging out the washing.
Now is the time to think about your own expectations, and for the other people in the family to decide whether they can meet them. One young mother had struggled all her life to control her weight and had, through hard work, achieved a healthy body size. She found that the only way she could maintain this was to not have any sweet treats in the house. It was essential for her that the other adults in the house respected her wishes, which meant that the grandmother, who loved baking, had to refrain from whipping up cakes and batches of biscuits every week.
As well as discussing individual non-negotiables, each person needs to say how they expect to benefit from the three-generation living arrangement. You might be surprised to learn that some things are more important to your parents/offspring than you thought they were, and some are less important. This will also flush out unspoken expectations and give everyone a chance to respond by saying that what is expected is not going to happen, is totally do-able, or only do-able within limits. Assuming that grandparents will take on full-time childcare while both parents work is probably not a realistic expectation – certainly not without careful planning. The trick is to communicate instead of presuming that other people will fall in line with your vision.
Best to address
It is best to address any reservations or fears you have about the arrangement at the start. For example: “I’ll lose my independence”, “My wife will be run ragged looking after the grandkids”, “We’ll lose our privacy”, “I’ll feel more stressed out when my children misbehave”. Sometimes the reservation is felt on behalf of someone else, eg “My parents will get sick of kids’ messes”. Even if you’re not comfortable with voicing these concerns, at least identifying them will help you and your partner work out how important they are, and what could be done to mitigate them.
The purpose of this game-plan-developing exercise is not to devise a set-in-stone rulebook for determining who does what; it’s to serve as a reality check and to help each person decide whether or not they’re up for three-generation living. The plan will always be a work in progress because circumstances change – grandparents reduce work hours, babies become toddlers, health improves or deteriorates - but everyone needs to be willing to review the situation from time to time and adjust the game plan accordingly.
If the call is made to move in together, the most important ingredients for happy living are to be totally committed to one another’s welfare and to be flexible. An accepting, loving, uncritical spirit will go a long way to ensuring that everyone benefits the way you hoped.
Communication is key
What if you already live in a three-generation household and things are starting to unravel? Communication is obviously needed, but you’re frightened that bringing up the subject will result in a blowup. If you can’t bring yourself to speak directly, show this article to your family members and say you’d like to know what they think. Hopefully this will lead to a productive discussion. If a hard copy is sitting around, it’s more likely they’ll pick it up again and give it serious thought.
Remember that living arrangements don’t last forever, but family does, for better or for worse. Sooner or later it will be time to move on. Giving each other permission to call it quits without recriminations, and knowing when it’s time to do so, is very important to preserve the love and avoid the feeling of being trapped. If you can say to your family that your relationship with them is the most important thing and you don’t want it to be sacrificed to solve a temporary problem, and they accept that reality, then all will be well. You’ll be able to look back on a precious time when your lives were enriched by the three-generation daily interaction. And your children will have an enhanced sense of security and self-worth from the experience of being wildly loved by grandparents.
Pauline Harris has had many roles in her life but says nothing comes close to being a mother and a grandmother in terms of what it has demanded of and developed in her. Pauline finds her children and grandchildren endlessly entertaining, and takes great delight in other people’s children as well.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 40 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW