SHARING A HOME WITH EXTENDED FAMILY isn’t easy, but it’s good. I know, because our family lived like this – for seven years. We wanted to be close to grandparents, but we were priced out of the rental market in my hometown. We found a solution when my generous parents invited us to move in with them. My husband and I and our toddler sons would be upstairs in the medium-sized home of my childhood, and my folks would be downstairs. No need to commute from an hour away for visits and celebrations – we’d be together 24/7, 7 days a week, for better or for worse, for the foreseeable future.
And it worked!
There were sacrifices, of course – as there always are for extended families sharing small spaces – but the gains were huge. Our boys now enjoy the closest relationship with my parents, developed over those years. Two more boys joined our brood during that time, with grandparents on hand to dole out extra love and cuddles … help with the heaps of washing and cooking … and provide comfort and counsel. Many special memories were created through the simple joy of a life shared. And lots of valuable lessons learned.
Here are Grapevine’s TOP-TEN TIPS FOR MULTI-GENERATIONAL LIVING – gleaned from our own trial-and-error, plus conversations with others, plus a bit of expert input. We’ve included tips from the various perspectives of four different families. And we hope these Top-Ten Tips will help your extended family (or one you know) “live together in perfect harmony” … under one roof!
Meet our Families:
Krishna (Krish) and Parvati live just outside of Wellington with their teenage son and daughter and Krishna’s elderly mum, Geeta.
Marcus and Sue are nearing retirement in Christchurch, and their daughter Emily (29) has moved back in with them following a difficult divorce.
Jamie (38) has opened up his Gisborne bachelor-pad to house his recently-widowed brother, Mike (35), and his three young children.
Tala and Lani and their kids lost their home in the Auckland floods and took emergency shelter with Lani’s cousin. So there are four adults and six kids coping as best they can in a 3-bedroom house.
Tip #1: SET EXPECTATIONS (AND KEEP COMMUNICATING!)
We all carry our own expectations – beliefs, hopes, and presumptions – into new situations, often without realising it. If we don’t talk about these things – especially if our expectations don’t match those of others in the household – conflict is bound to occur.
Discuss, find agreement, live harmoniously. Then rinse and repeat!
PARVATI: My grandmother lived with us growing up in Mumbai … She practically raised me and my sister. But my mother-in-law grew up with servants looking after the household. She expected a quiet retirement, I think, and didn’t plan on chores or childcare when she moved in with us. But once she realised how different life is in Wellington – and got to know the kids a bit better – she began helping out more of her own accord. She’s been a huge help to Krishna and me, as we work fulltime.
TALA: Our house-sharing situation began in an emergency, so there was no time to discuss expectations beforehand. We made do for a couple of weeks, but it was rough! Then we sat down together, all of us and the kids, to chat about dividing up the chores and sharing the spaces from then on. Once everyone had a say, things got a whole lot better.
Tip #2: SHOW GRACE
Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Try not to take offense. And avoid making blanket statements like, “You ALWAYS …” or “You NEVER …” Be gracious when others mess up. And give everyone the opportunity to grow, change and adapt.
“Love keeps no record of wrongs …” says a Bible verse that’s a wedding-ceremony-favourite. It encourages us to assume the best when it comes to family members. You’ll avoid a lot of emotionally draining conflict if you can brush over other peoples’ occasional bad moods and put your energies into getting along.
Tip #3: DIVIDE AND CONQUER
What household responsibilities can you divide or combine? Childcare and cooking duties can often be shared. And it’s usually easier to cook a big batch of whatever’s-for-dinner for the whole house, rather than trying to prepare different meals at the same time in the same kitchen space.
Be flexible and creative – see what works best – and adjust as needed.
MIKE: Jamie’s always kept a bit of a garden. Now he’s got my older kids involved with planting and weeding, and the littlest helps with watering. The tamariki are having fun watching things grow, and we’re all enjoying yummy stuff fresh from the garden.
TALA: Lani and her cousin take all the washing to the laundromat once a week, instead of managing multiple loads of laundry at home. There was never enough space to hang everything out, anyway. Just quietly, I think they enjoy the break from the kids when they’re at the laundromat!
SUE: Emily and I carpool into town for work; we share the cost of petrol and parking. Emily does her own laundry, but Marcus works from home, so he brings everyone’s washing in from the line when needed.
Tip #4: SET BOUNDARIES
Establish boundaries, and give each other emotional room. Speak up so you can all get on the same page. And remember to ‘stay in your lane’: if it’s their job or responsibility, let them do it how they think best. Parents (or other primary caregivers) get to choose how they raise their kids (as long as there’s no risk to health or safety).
SUE: When Emily lived with her ex, he used to help while she cooked – but at our house, Marcus does the cooking, and he wants everyone else out of the kitchen! We just leave him to it.
MIKE: My big bro Jamie helps keep things light and fun around the house. And he’s great at distracting the kids or giving them a gentle warning if they get out of line. But sometimes he challenges my rules or questions my decisions in front of the kids – and then I have to speak up and remind him that I’m Dad, and what I say goes.
Tip #5: CREATE SPACE
Being a big family crammed into a too-small place can be tough on everyone. Introverts want quiet spaces and times on their own to recharge. And kids’ desire for privacy increases as they grow. Try to accommodate everyone’s unique needs as best you can.
Think about how you use your shared spaces. Talk about it – and compromise.
TALA: I put up some shower shelves and got extra bathroom storage so everyone could keep their own shampoos and things handy. having somewhere to put things makes life easier!
MIKE: We set boundaries early on. Jamie was used to having the whole house to himself – so we made his bedroom and the small lounge outside it off-limits to the kids. I’ve tried to remind the tamariki about knocking before entering the bathroom. And Jamie’s happy for them to take over the living room with their toys and games, so long as they tidy-up at bedtime each day. It’s worked out pretty good.
PARVATI: Our teens are working on their NCEA this year. My mother-in-law has friends around during school hours when possible, so the lounge and dining area is free for homework after school. Geeta can still watch TV there – Krish set up wireless headphones so she can hear well without having the volume blasting.
Tip #6: REDEFINE RELATIONSHIPS
Moving back in doesn’t mean resuming old ways of relating to one another. Now that you’re sharing a home – perhaps for the first time, as with in-laws or other extended family – you need to clarify your relationships. Change can be hard to accept – however, loving our family means being flexible about how we approach them – and being willing to adjust to a new reality. Respect goes a long way!
MIKE: We had a sibling-rivalry thing for years after we’d both grown up and moved away. But when me and the kids moved in with Jamie, we realised that our bickering upset the tamariki. We needed a shift. So we had a good kōrero together and sorted some things – which helped us get out of our old competitive habits and relate better as grown-ups. About time, I guess!
SUE: Emily and I were best friends and running-buddies before she left for uni a decade ago. We’d gossip and laugh and solve the world’s problems on the trails. But I’ve slowed down a lot since battling cancer, and I know Emily’s struggling to find new ways for us to reconnect now that she’s returned home. It’s hard for me, too. Emily’s back enjoying the young single life, dashing out to meet with friends at a moment’s notice or hurrying out after dinner – so I find myself tidying up after her. She isn’t the neatest person, and it’s been a big adjustment having our adult child and all her belongings back in our small house. Marcus wants us to have a little chat to figure out the whole tidiness thing, which I suppose is a good idea.
PARVATI: I found it difficult to adjust to all the career and parenting advice that Geeta kept offering me when she first moved in. And she often criticised our kids about playing when she thought they should be studying. She meant well, but we’d been on our own long enough to figure out what worked best for us. After a while she accepted that this was what we wanted, and that’s how life is in New Zealand.
Tip #7: ESTABLISH RHYTHMS AND ROUTINES
As nice as it is to just ‘go with the flow’, the more people who share your space, the easier it is if you have some structure. A general agreement about mealtimes, a curfew for younger family members, and out-of-home schedules can help. Rhythms and routines can give everyone a sense of predictability and stability, both of which can be in short supply when you’ve got a large family coming and going from under one roof.
TALA: Lani’s cousin put up a giant blackboard in the kitchen, so we could write everyone’s schedules up where they could be seen. Now we know when everyone’s work-shifts are, and we can keep meals for anyone coming in late. Helps us coordinate with fetching kids from after-school activities, too.
Tip #8: KEEP ‘MOLEHILLS’ SMALL – AND TACKLE ‘MOUNTAINS’ TOGETHER
Small grievances can grow out of proportion, and cause major conflicts – and even irreparable rifts. To avoid resentment and bitterness, try to keep your little relationship-wobbles in perspective. Conflict is bound to happen, but it doesn’t have to derail the family’s entire arrangements.
However, not every problem or conflict or challenge your household faces will be minor (a ‘molehill’). And you need to address any major challenges (‘mountains’) in a way that allows your family to focus on the problem together, rather than letting it come between you. Encourage family members to contribute and be part of the solution. And seek the help of a mature friend, pastor, priest, community leader or counsellor if needed.
MIKE: My kids were really struggling after losing their mum. Jamie’s been an awesome extra caregiver for them, but that doesn’t stop us all from missing my partner. And I realised that the kids and I hadn’t really dealt with our grief. I reached out to our GP – he’s a really good guy – and he referred us to the Wellness programme for some free counselling. Just getting our feelings and struggles out there has done us all a world of good.
Tip #9: BE GRATEFUL
It’s easy to take your nearest and dearest for granted, so make an effort to greet one another each morning and when people return home. It might seem trivial – or even feel forced, if you haven’t been in the habit. But acknowledge everyone’s contributions. And thank your housemates for passing the bread down the table … for cooking a meal … for tidying up … or even for helping to pay the rent or mortgage. You’re telling the people you live with, “You matter” and “I’m glad you’re here.” Never underestimate the impact those small gestures and simple messages can have on the family around you.
Being grateful is also about appreciating the advantages of living together. It’s about celebrating the small joys of having close family even closer. You may not be living together by choice, it’s still worth it – there are huge benefits to families who share costs, delights, challenges, and experiences as one household.
Tip #10: FORGIVE OFTEN
Things go wrong in even the best extended families. Even if you go to the trouble of setting out expectations … lavishing your family members with grace and respect … dividing up duties … appreciating every contribution … being flexible … establishing rhythms and routines … and working together to stop molehills becoming mountains – somehow, sometime (and without even meaning to) someone in the household will hurt the feelings of someone else. And when that happens, forgiveness matters – more than you’d imagine!
Forgiveness helps you avoid shaming and blaming and holding grudges – which only causes further unhappiness and isolation. And it frees you to move forward from past mistakes – yours and those of others! The opportunity to put things right and return to a healthy relationship is healing for both the offender and those they’ve offended.
Forgive one another – over and over again.