Adult children back in the nest
The economic downturn is one reason families are combining households.
Like most adults, Sara Tree never expected to move back home with her mother. As the parent of grown children herself, she had long prized her independence. But two years ago, after losing her job, she had nowhere to go but her mother's one-bedroom apartment in Santa Barbara, Calif. Although she has been employed since then, her most recent job ended in December.Skip to next paragraph
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"My mom has been extraordinary in allowing me to share her space," says Ms. Tree, who asks to be identified by her pen name. "I have no privacy, but I have learned to live with that."
It is a refrain familiar to many who must double up with relatives. As pink slips proliferate and foreclosures multiply, more families are rolling out the welcome mat – sometimes hesitantly – to give shelter and support to relatives in need. The American dream of living under a roof of one's own is being downscaled. Now some displaced residents long simply to have a room of one's own.
According to the 2007 US Census, 3.6 million parents live with adult children, up from 2.3 million in 2000. Almost 3.5 million siblings live with a brother or sister, up from 3 million. And more than 6.5 million people share quarters with other relatives, up from 4.8 million. Their ranks continue to grow.
In the process, families find that these arrangements require liberal amounts of patience, sharing, and compromise.
"At first, families feel the honeymoon stage," says Natalie Caine, founder of Empty Nest Support Services in southern California. "They get to practice true giving. They feel a new sense of purpose, which is enlivening. Then the differences arise. The downside is sharing space."
Closets fill with unfamiliar clothes. Damp towels compete for racks in the bathroom. Refrigerator shelves grow crowded with other people's food. "Space in the kitchen is always the biggest issue," says Amy Goyer, senior vice president of Grandparents.com
For Tree, space limitations require her to sleep in the living room. "I go to bed early and my mother goes to her room to read," she says.
Sometimes they eat dinner together. "I am mostly vegetarian and my mother is anything but, so that is sometimes awkward," Tree says. "I try to buy as much of my own food as possible, but I do not want to be rude and not eat what she has prepared all the time, so I adjust my diet now and then to make her happy."
Keeping everyone happy becomes easier when communication is open, family specialists say. "It's better to talk about things ahead of time if you can, and continue to talk about them on a regular basis," Ms. Goyer says. Issues such as finances, privacy rights, and the length of time relatives will stay are important topics for discussion. Family members also need to agree on who is in control. If there are children, adults must decide who is allowed to discipline.
"Learn the art of communicating, whether that is through Post-its, e-mails, or sit-down chats, or even walking and talking, which can be less threatening," Caine says.
How to live in harmony
Parenting expert Susan Newman offers these tips to avoid potential conflicts and hurt feelings:
•Make sure financial contributions are clearly defined so there's no misunderstanding. If a timeline is in order for when your financial help may stop, make one. This keeps everyone hopeful and moving in the same direction.
• Discuss everyone's expectations for how the new living arrangements will work so no one is disappointed. Say no to demands and jobs you feel would take advantage of you.
• Go over basics: Who will do the grocery shopping or the laundry? How much are you expected to baby-sit or car pool? Think a request through before you commit to it.
• Don't allow tension or resentment to build. If you are upset about something or someone seems annoyed with you, discuss it as soon as possible.
• Be wary of slipping back into the parent-child role, telling your adult offspring what to do or criticizing him or her. The same applies if you are the adult child moving in with parents.