Saturday, March 17, 2012

What's working, part 1: the family house

This is part 1 of a series on things that are going well in my life. Maybe you'll read it and think, yikes, that would never work for me. But maybe it will give you a jumping-off point.

It's Saturday morning at our house. Jeff and Rick are huddled over laptops at the kitchen table working on a computer program for Rick's work. I'm settled in across the table with a mug of tea and a magazine. I haven't seen Suzie, so I guess she's at work delivering a baby. Stevie's girlfriend is visiting, and they haven't yet emerged from his bedroom. I can hear Alice tuning up her fiddle in the living room.

Jeff and I recently moved back with his family. The big Victorian house currently holds Jeff's parents, one of his sisters, one of his cousins, and us. Over the years the house has hosted au pairs, relatives, tenants, and lots of visitors. Jeff's other sister and her boyfriend live a few miles away and often drop in for dinner.

With more people, we get efficiencies of scale. We have five drivers and three cars (one of which belongs to Jeff's sister's boyfriend and is left here for storage and general use), so there's always a car available when you need one. If we were living in conventional mini-households, we might have four different houses and apartments for the six of us, with four dinners to be cooked every night. There would be duplicates of dishwashers, refrigerators, washing machines, and common living areas. By combining, we only need one of any of these. We spend less time cooking, cleaning, and shopping.

Lots of cookies

There's plenty of space for hosting parties, dinners, meetings, and dance practices. If you don't want to participate, you can always retreat upstairs. None of this is possible in separate small apartments.

It's cheap, too. Rick and Suzie would own the house regardless of who else lived with them, so we chip in for utilities and groceries and some of the upkeep on the house. It costs us less than half what we paid for a studio apartment.

Serendipity happens more with more people in the house. Yesterday the office manager at Jeff's work joked that she wasn't able to get a bagpiper for the company St. Patrick's Day lunch. “Do you really want one?” he asked, and called Stevie. Stevie came home, told me, and we were off to Jeff's office. Half an hour later:

Of course, there are tensions. In my first week here Jeff and I had an exhaustive analysis of just how snarky it's permissible to be with one's mother-in-law. And I wouldn't want to stay here forever, because Jeff's parents own the house and they definitely have the final say in how the place runs. But in general we enjoy each other's company.

This wouldn't work in all families. I wouldn't want to live with my parents, partly because of how we work together and partly because of where they live. Not everybody's parents decide to buy a big house in the suburbs of a city where their kids want to live. And people definitely give you funny looks if you mention that you live with your in-laws. But historically and globally, living with extended family is a very normal thing to do. For now, at least, it's going well.

Our room on the third floor

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