Friday, May 13, 2016

We Bought a Farm: Multi-generational living

In September of 2013, my husband's parents moved in with us. We spent one year living together in a home in the Azores. We then spent a second year living together in a home in middle Tennessee. And we are now in our "permanent" situation. We live on a farm together. They have their own small home, but we share most of our meals, and we have the washer and dryer and other "bonus items" here at the main house.

I have had many, many, many people ask me what this looks like. Oftentimes they wrinkle their nose and say something like:
  • "So is that a good thing?"
  • "Kudos to you. I could never do that."
  • "How does that work?"
  • "Do you guys see eye-to-eye on everything?"
You get the idea.

Recently I stumbled upon a podcast discussing this topic. You can listen to PART 1 and PART 2 of this podcast by clicking on the links. 

One of the key points this couple (who live with her husband's parents) pointed out was how much this trend is GROWING. They quoted a statistic that in 2014, 57 million (or 18.1% of people in the USA) are living in a multi-generational setting. This is double what it was in 1980.

Reasons for doing this vary. One of my friends messaged me. She and her husband decided to do it so that they could afford a house with a yard. They split costs 1/3 and 2/3. Another friend did it because her parents were aging. Yet another due to the financial situation of the parents.

I put a post on Facebook and asked for people's questions on this topic. Here are the questions and answers:

1. What is the single most important part of this arrangement?
Actually I could not come up with one answer. I had to make this a two-part answer. To make this work, I believe there are THREE main ingredients:
  • The House: When we lived in the Azores, we had a HUGE home there. Dad and Mom had their own floor. While we shared a kitchen, other than that, we had separate living areas which made things work great. Upon returning to the USA, I was adamant about the fact that we had to get the right house to make this work. Specifically I felt that we must have two master bedrooms. When I say that I mean, you should have two bedrooms with bathrooms IN the bedrooms. In our case, we found a house that fit those specifications. In addition, I made the decision to give my in-laws the bigger of the two rooms. I truly think this was the wise move. The grandparents are the ones who want to be able to escape from the grandchildren and have their own place to go. Their room was like an apartment. For me, my bedroom is not a place I am going to be spending considerable time. Giving it to them was a no-brainer for me. Going beyond that, if you can find a place that living on separate floors and even, possibly, separate kitchens, it is even more ideal. Living in too small of a house is a recipe for disaster! Now that we are on the farm, Dad and Mom have their own small house. Even though our lives still overlap quite considerably, this is now not a big issue for us.
  • The Communication: Outside of having the right house, the other key ingredient to making this work is to communicate, communicate, communicate. I cannot stress this enough or make it more of a big deal. You must talk about any and all issues -- even a tiny one. I think the younger generation understands this more and can be quicker to embrace this. We have very regular family meetings where we discuss small things that are bothering us or are not working. At first, my father-in-law wasn't so sure about me making him talk all the time, but he now says he totally gets why it is important. Getting these small things off your chest prevents misunderstandings, resentment, and bitterness from surfacing. 
  • The Love: I don't mean this in a corny way, but you simply must have a lot of grace, kindness, and love as you work to combine two separate families. 
2. How do you divvy up household expenses?
So this is one question that I cannot answer simply because this will vary from family to family. Every situation is going to be different based on the circumstances. This boils down to what works for both sets of people and what the arrangements are. But let me tell you this by repeating what I mentioned previously.COMMUNICATION IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS. You must all be on exactly the same line of the same page as to how this will work and have regular meetings to discuss nuances. It is much better if we get out a little thing like "Why did you buy more bananas?" then let it fester and cause problems. In our case, we have specific guidelines for how things work in our house. We know who is buying what and who is responsible for what. Occasionally we will have something come up that doesn't quite fit into a category. An example is a refrigerator that broke the other day. We simply sat down and discussed this and developed a strategy for how this particular thing will happen in the future.

3. How do you handle privacy?
During the two years that we shared a house, this was something that was very important. Honestly, I was blessed by very wise in-laws who recognized our need to still have family time. Every night after dinner, unless we all agreed to sit and watch a movie together or do something together, they would retreat to their "apartment" and give us the run of the house. I didn't think this was necessary, but I have since come to realize that this was a very smart thing they were doing.

In addition, as I mentioned in #1, having the right home is of huge importance. Move rooms around and make sure that privacy and peace is available to everyone. Specifically, the following things should be considered:
  • A bathroom in each of the grown-ups bedrooms OR living on separate floors so that people have a place to not be fully clothed. (Just calling it like it is folks!)
  • A quiet space for the grandparents. You don't want their room bordering the playroom. They need to be able to get away from the noise. They've done did their parenting. They need to be able to be grandparents that get away from it all.
I also had a question regarding basic privacy. Reading mail, text messages, or emails, etc. Honestly this has not been an issue for us. I truly don't want to see anything personal from my in-laws. I imagine that they have sent an email or two saying "That Wendi! I'm going to kill her!" (Maybe not exactly but you get the idea.) I don't want to know that. They must have the freedom to vent if they need to. 

That being said, the fact is, our lives now intersect. That can't be avoided. Guests that I am having, vacations we are taking, playdates I am going to ... many of these things must be communicated. This is especially true in our case when we are running a farm that requires someone to be present at all times due to animals needing us. This requires me to divulge a bit more than I would probably like to. But it is necessary to keep things running smoothly.

4. How do you share a kitchen?
This actually can be a very big challenge. Firstly, I think if you can find a place with a second kitchen, this is ideal. But this is also not always possible. However, we always had only one kitchen, and it worked for us. In fact, there were some great advantages to this, and I actually think the food part of this arrangement can be the most advantageous if you let it. Why? Well ...
  • Instead of having 1 or 2 people who do the cooking, cleaning, and shopping, you have 2, 3, or 4 people who share these responsibilities. This is huge! This can be truly used to everyone's advantage. Food takes so much time. Splitting it in half is a wonderful addition!
Truly, I think the reason this worked well in our house is that I am very low maintenance when it comes to how things are done in my home. As long as things are organized and clean, I really don't care how it is done. There were a few things that I felt strongly about that I simply made a point to emphasize. My in-laws didn't necessarily "get" why I felt that way, but they respected that I wanted it done that way. Here were a few of my "musts":
  • I like my Tupperware put away with their lids. I feel very strongly about this. 
  • I also like my counters wiped with lysol wipes and not sponges.
  • I like to wash my dish towels very regularly.
Honestly, they didn't necessarily agree with these things, but they respected these things. In addition, they had a few things that they requested that I tried to respect. For example my father-in-law doesn't like meat defrosted in the sink, so as much as I could, I tried to respect it even though I didn't value it.

5. How do you handle parenting?
Here is something that is very important. I am the Mom. My husband is the Dad. Period. End of story. We are the parents. We make the decisions. This means that you have to have in-laws that keep their mouths shut. I know my in-laws do not agree with how I parent at all times. However, they very rarely say something. There have been a few moments that one of them have spoken up. Usually it was because they saw something that they felt was important information in how I am handling a situation. There have also been a few times that they have said something, and I have had to tell them I disagreed.

While we are the parents, and mostly I just want Grampa and Grama to be the fun people, the truth is, they are taking on more parenting roles than they would be if they weren't living together. Therefore, it would be irresponsbile of us not to give them power as they watched the children. We have clearly discussed what sort of discipline techniques we are okay with them employing. However, they know that if I am close by, I want them to hand off the problem to me and let me handle it.

Truly the grandparents hold the power on this. They must, must, must respect the rules the parents have set forth even if they don't agree with them. There were a few things that JB and I did differently than his parents did. Some I could let go. I specifically feel strongly about:
  • Input. The input my children receive (grown-up language, TV shows, and themes that I don't think they need to be exposed to). 
  • Food. I'll give you an example of this. JB and I have decided that we are not going to let our children drink soft drinks until they are much older. I am not preaching this to anyone, but for us, it is a huge thing, and we are adamant about it. We have told JB's parents this and they understand that this is a no-compromise position for us. I don't think they completely agree, but they agree to respect it. 
  • Safety. We have some basic farm rules that we feel strongly about. Most of these are common sense and the grandparents see it the same way, but it is important to make sure everyone is on the same page with these.
  • Sleep. The sleep they receive. I know when Grandma watches the kids they'll probably stay up a bit later. This is okay as the exception. But if she is watching them for many days in a row, our routine needs to be maintained for everyone's well-being.
6. Do you set boundaries regarding time alone, etc.?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is that this will look different for every family. Especially when we lived together, we really tried to create an ebb and flow to who was going where when. Not in exact specifications but in a more broader sense. As I mentioned previously, Dad and Mom would head up to their room after dinner each night in order to give us privacy.

Now that we live in separate homes on the same property, we still have some guidelines in place. Some of the things that we have decided:
  • Prior to about 8am and after dinner, no one, including our farm hands, come in our main house except for me, my husband, and my children. Of course there are exceptions to this. There are nights we all choose to stay together and watch a movie, but mostly we try to protect that time so that our family has time together. Dad and mom rarely linger after dinner. This is to give them time and to give us time.
  • We have chosen to eat our meals together. We all prefer this. I really prefer this because someone either (a) cooks for me (b) watches kids for me while I cook or (c) cleans for me. This is especially nice because my husband's job means he misses dinner about half the week. However, we have all said that if there is a night we just want to eat as an immediate family, we are free to express that. This allows me to know that when I feel the need to have "just us" time, it will be respected.
  • Even though we are sharing the washer and dryer, it is understood that I am sort of the "owner" of it. Mom is very thoughtful in asking me if it is a good time to do laundry. I know this is probably not a perfect situation for her, but it works for us. 
  • I try to be very careful about times I ask Dad and Mom to rescue/help me with children. I respect the fact that they love my children but do not want to be built-in-babysitters. I try to avoid inundating them, and I have found another babysitter so that they can feel free to just say "no".
  • We have chosen to attend separate churches. This gives us different communities which I think is a good thing. 
7. Doesn't it bother you to "share your domain"?
I really believe this can be where everything comes to a head. I am a wife. I have a husband. I have children. I want those things for myself. I don't want to share my husband or my children or my home. I do believe there needs to sort of be a "queen of the manor." Someone needs to sort of be the "head" of making decisions. In this case, I think that it is me. In each of the three houses/farms we shared, it was understood that the house was sort of mine to make the final decisions on. Dad and Mom respected that we were moving into my space. However, I was very respectful of how that looked for them. Anything that bothered them, I tried to really think about whether or not I needed to stick to my guns. (This could totally happen in reverse if kids are moving into the grandparents home.) 

I do believe that there are two very important dynamics that must be recognized:
  • The grandparents are giving up a bit of their freedom by choosing to live with their children. They are having to return to noise and chaos of long ago. This can be a good and bad thing, but it must be understood that they will grieve some of this and need to be given their space.
  • The in-law child (which is me) truly is the major player. The son or daughter will most likely do well with their parents. (Or at least have a communication style -- good or bad -- that works for them.) They won't struggle as much with hurting each other's feelings and fighting. But the in-law, truly has to be able to work with the parents. They must have a working relationship. The only way this can help is to have great communication, love, and a lot of grace on both sides.
8. How do you adapt to new relationships gracefully?
Living together changes the dynamics. You were the daughter. But now you are a parent. Honestly this has to be done in two main ways:
  • Being in the right house with the right space! You can't be sharing a room with people and living in too tight of a quarters and expect this to go as well for you as it has for me. You have to have space.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. (Did I mention you should communicate?)
9. How is your relationship with your husband affected by his parents being present?
JB and I have had a lot of people live with us over the course of our nearly eighteen years of marriage. We have one basic rule. We do not change how we do things for the sake of other people. If we reach an impasse and need to argue, we do it. Right then. We don't hush each other and wait for another time. Of course, there are some arguments that need closed doors. But generally we try to keep living our life the way we regularly do. We feel that editing creates headaches.

In addition, we try to not involved the other party in our disputes. We don't say "What do you think?" or "Do you agree?" We stay out of each other's arguments.

There has only been one time that I can remember that JB and I simply completely disagreed about what had been said during an argument that his Dad overheard. We decided to ask him, together, what he heard, and he gave us an honest answer. (And I honestly cannot remember who was right!)

10. Do you like living this way?
I think there is a reason we are seeing this trend grow in popularity. There are a lot of positives to this kind of living. My list of positives include:

  • Help with costs.
  • Help with food preparation.
  • Help with household chores.
  • Help with childcare.
  • Companionship.
These are significant things and valuable enough to make this a positive thing in my life. No, it is not always perfect. Yes, there are times whether you wonder if this is the best thing. But in our case, we have no regrets.

I'd love to hear from you! Have a comment? Question? Something to add! Please share!


Jessie Adamson said...

What an amazing post. Thanks for sharing your wisdom! I agree that it all boils down to communication and space. I loved every word.

AW said...

I love this post! And honestly...since I was raised in Hawaii, where it was mostly an Asian or Polynesian influence, it still surprises me that multi-generational households are so "weird" here on the mainland. It was the norm where I grew up. It was expected that Gramma and Grampa lived at home with the kids. Almost always both parents worked and the Gramma was there when the kids came home from school. She had snacks ready, helped with homework, and dinner was at least started by the time the parents came home. Grampa almost always cared for the yard and helped with sports.

When I moved here to the mainland, it was a bit of a shock that not only does this not happen here, but it's looked down upon and discouraged. I was THRILLED that my in-laws lived just 10 minutes away. So they didn't live with us, but we very strategically purchased a home close to them because we WANTED to be close. We looked forward to our children having that close relationship with them partly because they were so close geographically.

Some years later, they both retired to their beach home 6 hours away and I'll confess: I haven't really forgiven them for it. I was hurt and angry that they choose to live so far from us and from their grandchildren. In fact, our relationship has become very strained now that they're further away than when they were close. We see each other a handful of times through the year and that's it. Yes. I'm still angry about it. :-(

Anonymous said...

If your in-laws would be willing, it would be interesting to hear their answers to the same questions! I do think that, as a society, we would improve ourselves if we leaned more toward multi-generational living, but like any relationship, I am sure it would take a lot of work. I definitely wish I lived closer to family!

MtnGirl said...

I would like to hear JB's and your in laws take on this also. Is there a chance that your parents or any of yours or JB's siblings will come join you on the farm permanently?

Wendi Kitsteiner said...

I actually had JB's mom read this post. I have asked her to write something but not sure if she will or not. She agreed with everything I wrote and added a few things that I added to the post.

At this point, we don't plan to invite anyone else to live on this land with us except for ONE house that we have that could possibly be occupied by a family or very good friends. Outside of that, if anyone wants to come, they'd have to find neighboring land. We are mainly saying this because of the nature of this property. It really doesn't facilitate a lot of people living on it with how little pasture there is.

TAV said...

Do you have thoughts about when multiple languages are spoken and how that affects communication (i.e in our situation, K and his mom would talk in Vietnamese and I often felt left out and not part of the conversation)?

Wendi Kitsteiner said...


While this isn't the case for me, to me this would fit under communication. This is not WORKING for the family and would have to be eliminated. Anything that is making one party not feel connected is not healthy. Inside jokes would fit into this. You can't do those things when you share a table and home.


Darian Denman said...

Nice read! We did something very similar. My husband and I moved here (Tazewell, TN, not far from you I believe) from Jacksonville, Fl in 2012 (bought the land in 2009, started building our house Jan 2013. My parents decided to move up the summer of 2013 and we built an "inlaw" suite onto our house. Its the size of a 1 bedroom apt, they have a small kitchenette but we do share our large kitchen and laundry room. Works out well, although definitely a learning curve. We now have my step son and his fiancée living in our small garage apt (what we lived in while building the house) and they are building their home on our property as well. :) Our main goal, slower less 9-5 life. I think I working harder now however I enjoy everything very much. We breed Nigerian Dwarf Goats; Large Black Hogs and Katahdin Sheep. Hogs and Sheep for our own consumption and selling as well. Nigerians sell for their milk, homesteaders similar to us and or pets and 4h. Loving this life in the mountains of TN. !