In January, the nation will get a new First Grandmother, and like 5.7 million of the nation’s 70 million grandparents, Marian Robinson, 71, may begin sharing a home (a very roomy white one) with her grandchildren. Michelle Obama’s mother was the primary babysitter for the family’s two daughters — Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 — throughout the presidential campaign. Now, Robinson is preparing to leave her Chicago home and move to Washington, D.C., with the First Family-to-be. The Obamas have not yet confirmed whether Robinson will actually live in the White House, but it’s been rumored that she will.
Unpack your baggage
“It can be a very healthy situation,” says Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, Calif., who has worked extensively with three-generation families. “There’s more love in the house to go around.”
Lieberman warns, though, that “grandparents and parents need to try to resolve unfinished baggage from the past before they can take good care of the grandchildren. Underlying resentments and jealousies can create a conflict-ridden atmosphere that is unhealthy for everyone.”
Grandparents move in with their children and grandchildren for a variety of reasons — to save money, to provide child care, or simply to avoid having a long-distance relationship with grandchildren. Lieberman says grandparents need to consider how they feel about the circumstances that bring them to their child’s home. “Some grandparents are angry that their children have burdened them with raising another family at this time in their life, whereas other grandparents become possessive of the grandchildren and want to take over the parental role themselves,” she says. “A three-generation household is a minefield of emotions. If everyone tries to be open, honest and loving, it can be an enriched environment. But at the first sign of trouble, seek professional help before conflicts are buried and allowed to fester.”
A “combined” family
As the families combine, everyone should get together on a regular basis to discuss the changes and challenges. That open communication needs to continue as the grandparent settles in. “It’s not just to talk about the negatives,” Goyer says. “Talk about what’s working, too, and what’s absolutely fabulous.”
A family’s attitude toward living together is crucial to the success of the move. “It’s best if it’s looked at as combining households, as opposed to the grandparent moving in with the family,” says Amy Goyer, senior vice president of outreach at Grandparents.com, who has worked with intergenerational issues and relationships for 25 years.
“I felt very scared when I moved in with my daughter and son-in-law,” says Marilyn Dayton, 64, of Mystic, Conn. She has lived with the family for two years, since accepting their invitation to move in after her divorce. “I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to work.”
Carving out some private space in her daughter’s home was crucial to making the transition work, Dayton says. She has an in-law apartment in the basement that includes a living area, a kitchenette, and a separate entrance. “Sometimes, I need quiet time. After dinner, I might say, ‘Grammy’s got to work tonight, or ‘Grammy’s going to watch a movie.’” Her grandchildren, ages 6 and 8, have learned that they need to ask permission before they enter her rooms, although she keeps a stack of toys for them in her living room.
Goyer agrees that personal space is valuable for live-in grandparents. If not a full apartment, she says, “it can be your own bedroom, or even a part of the home (living room or family room, for instance) that is ‘Grandma’s Corner,’ so you have a sense that it’s your home, too.”
For live-in grandparents, relearning how to share a kitchen often brings the most fun, and the most stress. “When you live on your own, you control meals, including what you eat and when you eat it,” Goyer says. As you move in, she advises, claim some space in the refrigerator, a shelf in the cupboard, and the right to boil an egg for breakfast every day, even if everyone else is having cereal. But revel in nightly family dinner, one of the best parts of living in a multigenerational household. “I’ll say, ‘How about I make dinner for everyone tonight?’” Dayton says. “I never get turned down, because it relieves the pressure on them. And the kids like my chicken Marsala better than their daddy’s!”
Whether it’s cooking, cleaning, or shopping, most live-in grandparents actively seek a way to contribute to the household. “Everyone feels better when they make a contribution,” Lieberman says. Of course, live-in grandparents are most often called upon to babysit the kids. If you’ll be watching your grandchildren often, it’s important to be on the same page as the parents in terms of rules and discipline. If conflicts arise — say, because a grandparent is willing to give a child soda but the parents have banned it, Lieberman says, “you have to defer to the parent. After all, it’s their child.” At the same time, parents can’t take grandparents for granted. They need to recognize that grandparents are more than just babysitters, and allow them to be grandparents, even if that includes a bit more spoiling than they’d like.
Everyone needs some time away
Having a grandparent around means that moms and dads can slip away to a quiet bed-and-breakfast some weekend, or run evening errands unencumbered by strollers. But grandparents also need time to go off and live their own lives. “It’s called, ‘Grammy’s running away,’” Dayton says. “I’ll go visit friends for a weekend, or spend time with my boyfriend.” She says she’s glad to get away, but even happier to come back home. “There’s something very special about starting the day with the kisses and hugs of your grandchildren,” she says.