How to Live in A Multi-Generational Home

A number of years ago, I read an article saying that with the economic downturn, and the burst of the housing bubble, “American couples won’t be able to see home ownership as a right, and the number of multi-generational homes will increase.”

I read that and laughed. Multi-generational homes? In America? I remembered hearing about that being the norm in some cultures, in the context where the young wife was expected to take grief from her nitpicking mother-in-law and never say anything. This was because the mother-in-law herself had to take grief as a young woman.

I could never imagine this in American households. It seemed very weird and shameful to me. Since then, I have met a slowly increasing number of young adults living in multi-generational homes. I have even lived in a couple of them. Children live side by side with grandparents and perhaps live-at-home aunts and uncles. (Another chalk-up to the changing economy). And somehow, it seems to work…well, more or less.

It has been my observation that these things have their share of working out the kinks. But once these elements settle into a more or less comfortable rhythm, that multi-generational households can work. There seems to be a certain balance that must be struck. And out of necessity, traditional roles are modified, but not eliminated.

A grandmother, for instance, may become the head mother in the house, but does not lose her grandmother status and the privileges that come with it. As long as this is handled with some grace and proper understanding of boundaries, the mother and the grandmother, can function together, and not trip over one another’s roles. It is a fine balancing act that requires the grandmother to allow the mother to parent her own way, or even make mistakes, yet still be confident that the child, or children are receiving proper care.

The mother, likewise, learns to respect the grandmother’s opinion, and incorporate it as necessary, without insulting the grandmother’s sense of values. Sometimes such a fine balance cannot be struck in a household. The mother, or parents, may ask the grandparents to refrain from expressing their opinions at all. “I give 100% to my kids everyday,” one young mother said to her in-laws.“If you don’t like it, I can’t do any more, so I don’t want to hear it.” While this may seem harsh, it works in some families.

A live-at-home aunt or uncle becomes more interested in the child’s daily routine, but retains his or her own life and independence, and refrains from becoming another parent. Between the real parents and the grandparents, rarely is an additional authority figure necessary (or appreciated). The parents must learn, however, not to view aunts and uncles as on-call babysitters or expect them to be anything other than single young adults. However, such aunts and uncles, must remember to keep the home family-friendly, and refrain from inappropriate behavior with the children around. He or she would also be well-advised to, from time to time, take an interest in the children and invest in those relationships.

Typically, between the males in the household, there is a bit of confusion regarding the traditional role of male as the breadwinner. The grandfather may have a difficult time with the son, or worse, son-in-law, under his roof. Such males should learn to tread lightly around this, and financial integrity will go a long way toward bridging this gap. The young man should be employed at all times, and show good financial habits, such as paying bills on time, particularly with rent paid to the household. The grandfather should show grace, and focus instead on building a positive, uplifting and loving relationship with the young man.

Another issue that frequently surfaces, regards marital problems. Boundaries should be set regarding relationship conflict in a multi-generational household. When it happens, it may seem natural for a couple to talk their family/roommates about it. However, this must be handled with care. It is crucial to household health, that parents, or sisters or brothers not interfere. When prompted, they may offer their opinions in confidence. But in the end, they must let the couple work things out.

The couple will likely makeup in the end, but the wounds created by nasty in-laws may never heal. Likewise, the marriage partners should avoid throwing their family into the conflict. Loaded statements such as, “I think you should do this, and so do my parents…” should be avoided.

Some seasoned communal living couples have adopted the policy of never saying a word about their relationship to an outsider. They may have a confidante that they can trust, but if someone else says anything about their spouse or relationship, true or untrue, they simply smile and walk away. “After all,” they reason, “In a communal living situation, your marriage is all you have that’s uniquely yours. If you let other people in, you have nothing for yourself.”

At the very least, the couple should be courteous when handling their conflict. Conflict should be dealt with quietly, behind closed doors, or away from the home. One couple would request a walk together when the tension between them got too hot. Another couple, nervous about the lack of privacy in the house, would have difficult financial discussions at Starbucks.

They may have key phrases such as “let’s go sit in the car,” that communicate to their partner private discussion should be had. Usually, the couple will seek out places in the home, such as an outdoor seating area, that becomes a private place to spend time together—both positive and negative. The family, likewise, should be considerate and use common sense to give them relationship privacy.

Household chores become another hot button issue. The young couple should be active in taking on household chores, particularly if they have young children contributing to the mess. Typically, bathrooms should be picked up daily, and scrubbed once a week. Living and dining areas should be picked up and vacuumed daily, or mopped weekly.

A couple or family’s bedroom is their “mini-home,” and should be regarded as sacred to all other household members. As long as the space is not a pest/vermin magnet, how it is kept should be up to the occupant. On the other hand, the couple should be mindful of the value of the home, and treat it with respect and care. The kitchen should be cleaned with each meal, and everyone who ate must clean until the job is finished.

Especially in a larger household, a laundry schedule is particularly helpful and prevents traffic jams on the laundry machines. Laundry should be done once a week, except in cases where a work uniform must be laundered more often. Towels and bedsheets should also be done weekly, particularly if they belong to the household and not the couple. In cases where there are infants, a laundry schedule of two or three days half-days a week can be set (I.e. Mon, Wed, Fri mornings). But the young mother should not monopolize the laundry machines outside of her set time. It is customary for the couple to provide their own laundry soap.

Food and cooking can be particularly problematic in multi-generational households. There are different arrangements here, but a free-flowing policy tends to work best. Rent money paid by the couple entitles them to virtually any food in the household, save for some specified items. Likewise, if the couple wants something particular, they may have a separate shelf or cabinet for their own items. It is advisable, for the couple to informally help with the groceries. (If the family runs out of butter or eggs, the young couple may offer to get them and foot the bill. Or they may buy something and share it with everyone). If the young couple is receiving assistance, such as food stamps, some couples surrender the food stamps to the household, in exchange for free reign rights to household groceries. However, a penny-pinching attitude toward groceries can be toxic and create relationship damage that can last for years.

In other families, a more formal grocery agreement is reached, where the couple pays a specified amount. A common complaint, however, is that the amount, in addition to rent monies, burdens the young couple. Parents must take care that the amount is reasonable and in proportion to the couple’s income, family size, and average food use. It is also customary for the young wife, or young couple, to periodically cook for the entire household. The frequency and type depends on how the family takes its meals and the cooking abilities of the young couple. But a weekly or monthly meal can endear the young couple to the family.

Again, many times these boundaries are achieved through argument and resentment. But, they don’t have to be. With grace and mutual respect, these multi-generational homes can grow naturally, and can actually be beneficial to all involved.


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