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5 awesome (and 4 not-so-awesome) things about multigenerational homes

Anna Luce spent her life thinking she was a Taurus only to find out at 35 she was an Aries this whole time. She likes gardening, The West Wing, and playing Crazy 8s with her son. She lives in Evanston, IL with her family.

From free babysitting to near-constant surveillance, living with your kids’ grandparents has highs and lows

When I first met my in-laws (before they were my in-laws) one of the things I liked about them was that they lived far away in a beautiful place I was happy to visit, but was not accessible by direct flights. They were lovely and kind people, and I didn't mind that we had close to nothing in common. My husband said they talked to each other on major holidays, visited when tickets were cheap about once a year and happily lived their own lives.

Perfect, right? Things worked out that way for a few years. Then we had a kid.

My mistake was marrying an only child, whose retired parents were only too eager to sell their lake house in Montana and move in with us in Chicago so they could be around the grandchild. After a few months sharing an apartment (and one bathroom) with my in-laws, we moved into a two-flat just outside the city and became one of the growing number of multigenerational households in the U.S. since the Great Recession.

I’ve been living with my in-laws for five-plus years, and we now have another grandchild for them to dote on. If you’re considering a similar arrangement, take heed from these lessons learned.

Here are five awesome (and four not-so-awesome) things about living with your in-laws.

Awesome: You can share expenses.

  • My in-laws helped out generously with the down payment needed to buy our building, and we split monthly utilities 50/50. When we first moved in together, I told them I didn’t watch much TV and didn’t want to pay for cable. They definitely wanted cable, because sports. So now I get free cable, which, it turns out, is pretty sweet.

More: Adolescence across the generations

Not-so-awesome: Your in-laws will see your house when it’s messy.

  • You know what I’m talking about: dining room table heaped with laundry, teetering pile of unsorted mail in the front hall, 743 matchbox cars dumped out by your toddler in the middle of the floor. At first, I tried to be a better housekeeper and constantly have my space company-ready. That proved to be a lot of work, and there came a day when I gave up the relentless tidying. There was no helping it; my fastidiously neat in-laws would see the cluttered way we normally lived.
  • You know what happened when my in-laws saw the mess? Nothing, really. They didn’t snatch their grandchild up while shooting me looks of disgust and take him upstairs to their impeccable, white-carpeted apartment. They didn’t make any judgmental comments — or even any passive-aggressive comments — something I feel sure members of my own family would not have been able to resist. They sat happily in our messy living room and vroomed toy cars around with my kid. Turns out they don’t care too much how clean our apartment is, and worrying about it so much was really just my own issue. (Now I can use all that time I used to spend cleaning reading articles about how messiness is a sign of intelligence.)

Awesome: You develop new empathy — and perhaps respect — for your spouse as you imagine what his upbringing was like.

  • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought, “So that’s why you’re like that.” I know now why he thinks plain buttered noodles constitute a complete meal (his parents hate to cook) and why he leaves his dirty socks next to the bed (his mom will come pick them up and wash them for him. Yes, still.) Understanding the origins of his quirks helps me appreciate how far he’s come.

Not-so-awesome: You end up sharing information you would otherwise keep to yourself.

  • My in-laws know whenever I leave the house. I would not normally share with them that I’m heading out for drinks with friends at 9 p.m. on a weeknight, but alas, it’s an old building and sound travels; they hear me leave. They also can’t help but know about everything that comes into the house, meaning every box from Amazon, every article of clothing I order online, every night we order takeout for dinner. Again, they don’t make judgmental comments, but they’ll say, “So nice you are getting out with friends,” or “Boy, you guys get a lot of packages.” It’s hard not to feel self-conscious, when you are, in fact, being watched.

Awesome: Free babysitting.

  • And not just free occasional date-night babysitting, which alone is amazing, but free after-school babysitting so you can put in a normal workday and free spur-of-the-moment run-to-Target-for-diapers babysitting. And we all know a run to Target by yourself is basically better than a vacation.

Not-so-awesome: Your spouse might retain some, um, adolescent-ish anxieties about marital activities when his parents are awake and in the building.

  • Alas, it’s an old building and sound travels. Let’s just say some of the spontaneity is gone.

Awesome: You might be able to sleep in.

  • We’ve arranged with our in-laws that on Saturday mornings we can send our 5-year-old straight upstairs when he wakes up, still in his pajamas. He crawls into bed with them to play bear cave under the covers, and my husband and I sleep in, together. (At least, we used to, until we had another baby, but pretty soon she’ll be old enough to go straight upstairs on Saturday mornings too, right? Right??)

Not-so-awesome: Special treats you only get at Grandma’s house become everyday treats.

  • If your kid sees his grandparents occasionally, it’s easy to let them indulge him in sweets and other “sometime foods.” Living together changes this completely, and to be honest, it’s an ongoing struggle in our house. My mother-in-law believes any breakfast with fruit present somewhere is a healthy meal, and my son has told me of many mornings when he enjoyed “half a banana surrounded by whipped cream” to start his Saturday morning. My view of what is nutritious is drastically different from my in-laws’, and I go through phases where I try to prepare almost all of my son’s food myself, even when they are doing a lot of the child care.

Awesome: Your kids will develop a close relationship with their grandparents.

  • My own mom passed away before I married or had kids, so perhaps I’m more sentimental about this than some, but having present grandparents is an amazing gift to give your children. My in-laws are incredibly supportive and spend a lot of time and energy helping take care of our kids. My son respects and adores his grandparents upstairs. They have private jokes and little routines that come from being in each other's lives day in and day out. Nothing but good comes from having more people around who love your children unconditionally.

More: Tips for successful grandparenting

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