Multigenerational households can thrive

I am 34, married for 12 years. My husband and I have two children, ages 11 and 6. My mother is 62, and widowed three years ago. She wants to move from her home in Minnesota to Las Vegas, and she asked if we would consider her living with us. My mother is in good health. She enjoys her grandchildren and has historically a respectful relationship with my husband. But we are both very nervous about this idea. My husband said it best when he said, "I don’t know if we should say ‘yes’ or how we could say ‘no.’ " Do you know of modern family households including grandparents? Do they work?

— S.M., Las Vegas


You make me think of the popular 1970s television series "The Waltons" about a family in rural Virginia during the Great Depression. A mom and a dad. The dad’s mother and father. Seven children. All under one roof.

Each episode had a signature ending. As the family retired for the night, lights would systematically extinguish in each of the bedrooms. And from the privacy of those bedrooms, various family members would finish short dialogues of the day and say "good night."

"Good night, Ma … good night, John-Boy … good night, Gramma … good night, Elizabeth … good night, Jim-Bob … etc." My friends and I made satirical sport of this, laughing, wondering how on earth a married couple living with the man’s parents managed to produce seven children in a house where sound carried this clearly.

I think of "The Waltons" because your question reveals a very recent, severe and historically unprecedented shift in cultural prejudice. To wit: Modern middle-class America is, with few exceptions, convinced that "the nuclear family" living in the "single family dwelling unit" is heaven’s default model for family. It’s what family is.

What we tend to miss in this shift of cultural prejudice is the way it fiercely excludes the elders. Don’t get me wrong. Healthy psychosocial differentiation (healthy autonomy) is a good thing. But fierce, prejudicial exclusion belies healthy differentiation. Modern children and child-rearing tend to be without rich, present, contiguous relationships with grandparents. And mean, awful grandparents notwithstanding, this fact is an impoverishment of what family means. It’s a societal loss.

I’m saying, S.M., that less than 100 years ago, nobody was asking the question you’re asking.

Which is not to be critical of your question. Modern economics, vocation, suburban architecture and preferred ideas of individuality don’t lend themselves to multigenerational lifestyles. So here is my answer to your question: Yes, I do know of modern, multigenerational families that work. But they involve logistic, economic and interpersonal complexities that were not part of the equation in days of yore.

In the end, for me, it comes down to values.

I assume that, if I enter into an emotionally committed relationship with a mate, that my commitment should and does include a commitment to the well-being of my mate’s extended family. And hers to mine. Now, make no mistake, my expectations of myself and my mate would be that any household decisions regarding extended family would never be made unilaterally. Presumptively. The decisions would be made together, founded upon the primacy of our commitment to each other.

But, for me, part and parcel of my commitment to my mate is the possibility that we might someday include in our household an aging parent, a terminally ill relative, a sibling in need or one of our adult children in legitimate crisis.

Multigenerational households can and do thrive. The issues of privacy, expectations of togetherness and separateness, how we socialize, meals, equitable sharing of chores and whose turn it is to wield the television remote control are really no different than those same negotiations between a husband, a wife and their teenage children.

It would be important for the three of you to talk with radical forthrightness about those expectations. In addition, it’s important that everyone is clear about what parental authority your mother will rightly wield with your children (i.e., can she tell them what to do).

Your mother is not asking to be a guest in your home; she is asking to belong in your home. As family. I would urge you to tell her "no" if you cannot wrap your arms around this belonging.

Allowing an extended family member to be an indefinite guest in your home generally ends badly.

Originally published in View News, Oct. 5, 2010.

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