Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Multi-generational living and the American ego

Americans don't "do" multi-generational living.  It's not in our DNA.  Independence, self-reliance, striking out on own's own, becoming a self-made man, pulling oneself up by her boot straps: these are values we Americans cherish and revere.  Moving in with our parents because life has dealt a difficult blow?

It's a sign of weakness.

Despite my best efforts, I walked the trail of shame back to my childhood home in Cleveland three years ago.  After my husband, Greg's, 1.5 years of job searching yielded little more than a bank account emptier than it had been when the search began, I grudgingly entered the world of cohabitation, cooperation, and dependence.

This return was not joyful.  It was a return smeared with anger, anxiety, embarrassment and worry.  I spent the first 12 months in Cleveland laying low, hoping people wouldn't find out I was living with my parents.  I was a cheater, a failure, a pretender.  What if someone discovered my life was a sham?

One year of cohabitation eased into two, then three.  As my husband and I slowly worked to rebuild our lives, confidence returned.  The result?  The financial crisis and its effects ceased to define who we were.  We were freed to enjoy what we did have, and the unexpected joys of multi-generational living revealed themselves.

I still marvel at how much easier managing life is when family members live in the same house, not several states away.  Raising children is hard work, and having grandparents around eases the strains and demands that modern families face.  I can work at odd hours because I have caretakers at home.  My children are exposed not only to ideas from my generation, but my parents' generation.  Nana is cultivating a love of piano.  She teaches us 1,000 ways to use a piece of paper so that nothing is wasted.  She introduced the children to her mom's delicious vegetable soup, which I am too lazy to make.

And I am the cook, part-time caretaker, and computer and television guru.  Mom doesn't love cooking, so I make most meals.  I offer my mother a social outlet by looking after dad, who suffers from Alzheimer's, so she can flit to her lunches, meetings, and weekend retreats.  And I help unlock the benefits of cell phones, computers, and televisions, whose constant updates baffle my aging parents.   In the summer, I enlist Greg to install the heavy air conditioners, vestiges from the 1970's.  He winterizes the house and fields financial questions.

Multi-generational living was not in my life plans, but I've learned the value of letting go of those plans to see good in the present situation.  It makes life's difficulties easier to manage.

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