Our son Danny and his wife Cheryl have two children, four-year-old Gretchen and two-year-old Nate. When Danny and his family, who live in another state, decided to build a new home, he called and said they needed to live with us for five months while their new home is being built.
We are now into the second month and my husband and I are at our wits’ end. We are both retired, used to a nice routine of enjoying some separate activities and doing other things together. Before Danny and his family moved in, our home was quiet and relaxed.
Both Danny and Cheryl have jobs they can do by computer. They’ve taken over my sewing room and made it into their joint office. They work all day and expect my husband and me to take care of the kids. This is not really what we want to be doing, but we thought we could do it for five months to help them out. The main problem is Gretchen: she is whiny, demanding, uncooperative and fresh. Her parents also find her difficult to manage, but they shrug off her behavior and say she’s just going through a stage.
My husband and I are exhausted and not sure we can do this for another three months (and the construction of their new house seems to be a bit behind in schedule). We don’t want to start any kind of a family feud. Do you have any advice for us?
Your current situation of multi-generations living together is not unique. In fact, you are among the more than 51.4 million Americans of all ages – or about one in six – living in a multigenerational household. This number represents a more than 10% increase since the start of the Great Recession in 2007. Most multigenerational families are together because of financial considerations, while others, such as yours, choose to live together for other reasons. Not surprising, in a recent Harris Poll sponsored by Generations United 78% agreed that “At times, my family’s multigenerational arrangement can contribute to stress among family members.”
You attribute the main source of stress to your four-year-old granddaughter Gretchen. However, as difficult as interacting with Gretchen is for you, your husband and her parents, I suggest that Gretchen is a symptom of the real problem, not the source. The main problem that you and many other multigenerational families face is that you never put in place a plan once it was agreed to share living space. It is too easy to assume that things will just work themselves out, but, as you have learned, just hoping and leaving things to chance often do not work.
What’s required is a Plan for Living Together, including guidelines and discussion points. In this way erroneous assumptions can be minimized and realistic and agreed-upon expectations can be maximized. Although you are already two months into your young family living with you, it is not too late for you to initiate a plan. You and your husband can explain to Danny and Cheryl that you feel a discussion and a plan will help ensure the next few months are as comfortable and stress free as possible for everyone.
Below is a sample of such a plan. (Next to some of the discussion points I have included parenthetical comments for you.)
A Plan for Multigenerational Families Temporarily Living Together
- The plan should be in writing.
- The plan should be discussed and agreements reached before anyone actually moves in.
- When living together, there should be a weekly family meeting to review what’s working well with the plan, what is not working so well, and what needs to be done to address various issues and concerns.
- Family members moving in must respect and give top priority to the requests and preferences of the “host” family members.
Discussion Points of the Plan
1. Understand and discuss the reasons why family members are moving in and why the host family is agreeing to this arrangement. (I suspect that you and your husband thought you were being asked just to provide a temporary place for Danny and his family to live, but it sounds like Danny and Cheryl assumed that you would also be full-time caretakers for their children. Because this was not clarified, there was no discussion about the possibility of hiring a nanny for the children or enrolling them in any kind of a daycare or nursery program.)
2. Agree to a specific timeline for family members to move in, and when possible, to move out. (If there are long-term problems with the construction of the new home, you may want to discuss the possibility of Danny and his family moving into a furnished apartment. They may be agreeable, as it is probably difficult for them living in “your” space.)
3. Negotiate changes in furnishings, layout, and use of space. (Granted, Danny and Cheryl need work space, and it may be acceptable to you to give up your sewing room, but these kinds of changes need to be discussed up front. You may have preferred they take over the basement, or some other space in the house, or perhaps that they rent a small office nearby. Another important area for discussion is where the children’s clothes, toys and equipment will be kept.)
4. Discuss financial considerations and expectations. (This is especially important if you are on a tight budget.)
5. Host family members need to define areas of their space and/or aspects of their schedules, routines and preferences that they do not wish to change. (You and your husband may have activities, classes, or social engagements that you are unwilling to give up. These need to be posted on a central calendar making it known when you are available and when you are unavailable.)
6. Family members moving in need to make known their preferences, needs and wishes regarding space in the home, as well as their preferred schedules and routines. (Although Danny and Cheryl should be trying to accommodate you and your husband’s schedules and routines, they, too, should be clear about ways in which they would appreciate you accommodating them, if possible. For example, they may need the kitchen at a specific time to keep their kids on a schedule.)
7. All family members must be clear as to the help they would like from the other family members. (For example, if Danny and Cheryl are looking for help with the children, you and your husband need to be clear about how much time you will reserve to take care of the grandchildren and when; they need to be able to count on you.)
8. Behavioral expectations for all parties need to be discussed. (For example, if you are watching Gretchen and she is being unruly and fresh, Danny and Cheryl need to know that you may want to turn her over to them, even if they are working.)
This plan is offered as an example of format and content, but you, your husband, Danny and Cheryl have to customize it for your particular circumstances. The point of the plan is to provide a vehicle for talking about the specifics of what needs to happen to lessen conflicts and to make sure issues are addressed in a timely manner, e.g., the weekly family meeting.
Yes, Danny, Cheryl and your grandchildren are family, but they are also “guests” in your home. You and your husband need to take control of your lives and your space, and work out together with Danny and Cheryl how to live together comfortably. Otherwise, you may find yourselves feeling resentful, taken advantage of, exhausted and unable to enjoy this very special time with your grandchildren.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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