Modern Life: A Three-Generation Household

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Photography by Amy Postle

Necessity is the mother of reinvention. Jennifer Conlin and Daniel Rivkin, foreign correspondents with posts in Europe and Africa until 2010, felt it was time to return to the States with their children. But after two decades of living abroad, they realized that the transition would be tricky—especially in the middle of a recession. A move to Michigan with Jennifer’s parents and brother turned out to be the winning solution. Jennifer shares her multigenerational you-can-go-home-again experience.

Describe your family in three words.
Hilariously thriving together.

How did your living arrangement come about?
The simple answer? It was a combination of being homeless refugees dodging a revolution and returning somewhat jobless to America to ensure our family's safety.

We moved in with my parents full-time in late August of 2010, having lived in Cairo, Egypt, the previous year. We sensed the country was about to go through a difficult transition by the increasing restrictions being imposed on journalists working there (our livelihood), and decided to leave at the last minute before the next school year started. Six months later, the first revolution occurred.

My children knew Ann Arbor well, having spent part of every summer of their lives at my parents’ rambling colonial home, so they felt comfortable in the house and already had bedrooms here, as did Daniel and I.

Harriet was starting her first year of college in England, so she didn’t move in with us. Daniel didn’t arrive until late October, since he had to move us out of our home in Egypt and finish up his job there.

How do most people react when you tell them about your situation?
Shock. They tell me that if they lived with their parents there would be a homicide within months. But then, after they come over and see us all together they get very jealous. They see the wisdom in it, the love, and what a great time we all have together.

What was the transition like?
Enormous. We were used to living overseas, as we had for 20 years (the children had never lived in the States and were mostly raised in London). As a result, we were accustomed to having zero family nearby. Suddenly, we were all under one roof, my older sister was just down the street, and I also have dozens of cousins in town. At first it felt rather smothering because we were so used to being fiercely independent. But we needed family.

Our transition was harder outside of the house, where we were all trying to adjust to living in the U.S. for the first time as a family. Inside the house, we could break down when we faced difficulties. My parents and brother gave lots of hugs and advice during those first months when we all felt like complete foreigners despite all being American.

Have you reverted to old family dynamics now that you’re living with your parents and your brother?
Yes, but in a good way. I have always been close to my mother and father, and we never argued much when I was growing up and still don’t. Also, because I lived so far away, our visits usually lasted about a month, whether they were coming to visit us overseas or I was going to stay at their home with the kids. But I do find myself tiptoeing into the house if I come in late, like a teenager, not wanting them to know I stayed out past midnight. My brother and I were close growing up, but we also always teased each other a lot and still do—I tease him about women, he teases me about staying in shape because we were always very athletic together.

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Photography by Amy Postle

What is the biggest reward you get from your arrangement? What is the most challenging aspect?
By far the biggest reward is that there’s always someone here to help out, whether it is cooking, babysitting, dog sitting or helping with homework. My mom and dad both still drive, so they helped pick the kids (now just Charles) up from after-school activities when I had to work. I never have to turn down a work trip with them here to watch the children, and they have us to help them take care of the house, get to doctor’s appointments and entertain. They love having people over but it was getting too tiring for them, as was keeping up the house. My husband and I love to entertain, so we have a lot of multigenerational parties and dinners now.

The most challenging part is that we ended up buying their house three years ago, since we decided our living situation made us all better off economically. But Daniel and I would really like to make some decorating changes. Given that my mother was an interior decorator, she has a lot of opinions on how the house should look. She is pretty classic in her style and a lot of our things are fairly exotic because we’ve lived all over the world, so we don’t always agree. We only finally got our belongings out of storage six months ago, and a lot of them went straight to the attic. It still looks more like my parents’ house than our house.

How do you divide the household duties?
My brother always takes out the trash; my father orders all of us around the garden, telling us what to cut back and weed; my mother is obsessed with vacuuming the house and dusting. I do most of the cooking and shopping, and my husband is like Mr. Clean. He sweeps through the house every night, putting everything away and making sure the house is spic-and-span for all of us in the morning. The kids do next to nothing, I hate to admit. But they have zero time. One of the biggest shocks we had moving to the States was how full-on American childhood is: sports, extracurricular activities, community service and then huge academic pressures. They clean up their rooms….once in a while.

What does dinnertime look like?
This year we’re eating together less often, with everyone busy, but we still sit down at least twice during the week for dinner—and nearly every Sunday night. My mother acts as sous chef for me, chopping things and setting the table. I love to cook so we eat very well, but it’s not always to everyone’s liking. We have serious food issues here. My dad thinks every meal should be meat and potatoes, Florence is a vegetarian, Charles hates tomatoes, my mother has lots of allergies (including garlic!), and my brother is slim but eats a TON of food (though, thankfully, anything). Daniel and I like grains and fish and eat lots of trendy health foods, like quinoa and farro, that my father thinks taste like dust. But I don’t cater to anyone—what you’re served is what you get!

How are your children benefiting from living with their grandparents? And how do their grandparents benefit?
The children are now so much closer to their grandparents, obviously, but they are also wiser for the experience. My dad is a World War II history buff and my mother was an English major (she won the same fiction writing prize at the University of Michigan that Arthur Miller won while he was a student here). Between them they are great homework helpers. They also love to tell stories of their childhood to my kids. Charles, an avid piano player, has learned to play Cole Porter, Gershwin and a million musical theater songs thanks to my parents, who bought him a book of their favorite tunes. My mother has had her granddaughter, Florence, in town and learned all about modern feminism from my activist daughter. She will soon have her other granddaughter, Harriet, here direct from England, as she is moving into our home in January. My mom is a huge Anglophile, so having Harriet around to watch Downton Abbey with her will be a treat. My parents have little time to feel old with so many of my kids’ friends around all the time. And their friends love my parents. I came home the other day to find two of Charles’ friends sitting watching football with my father. Charles wasn’t even here! They stayed anyway to hang out with my dad. It was the cutest thing ever. And my parents have 24-hour tech support, since they can barely operate a television, let alone the computer.

What is your advice to others for making it all work?
You have to have a sense of humor, lots of patience and be able to compromise. But you also have to communicate well and say what you feel when you feel it so things don’t boil over into an explosion. You have to really love each other but also give space when it’s needed. Sometimes we need time alone with our kids, and my parents have to leave so we can have our own family time. And sometimes they need time alone and need us to go out so they can relax without chaos.

Privacy can be the hardest part. As my kids say, they will never be able to throw a party we don’t know about. For that to happen they’d have to have five adults out of the house all at the same time. Good luck with that!

What is the most surprising thing that you’ve discovered about living in a multigenerational household?
How economical it is—we can all live so much better together, sharing costs, than apart. And how mentally helpful, not harmful, it is—all of us are there for each other if someone has a bad day. Plus we have lots of different viewpoints on how to solve problems if someone is facing something difficult.

Please share a funny moment that has come out of all this.
When we first moved in, Florence had a new friend over and her mother came to pick her up from our house. I answered the door, having never met her before, and could see her looking around at all these antiques, floral couches, chandeliers, etc., wondering about my old-fashioned taste. But it was my mother’s taste, of course. I’m more Pottery Barn than Laura Ashley.

Then my brother suddenly came up behind me. She assumed it was my husband, and I had to tell her it was my brother. Then my parents waltzed into the room and she was even more confused.

“Whose house is this?” she suddenly asked.

My face went red and I had to say for the first time, “All of ours.” She soon became a great friend and we laugh now at how awkward I was admitting for the first time that I was living in a multigenerational home.