I don’t think that word even exists, and I’m not even sure exactly what I mean by it. Just that recently I’ve been thinking about multi-generational families, shared parenting models, and what culture’s got to do with it.
My mother lives with us. The ratio in our household is three adults and one toddler (+ a dog and two cats). It’s a full house, and feels happily so most of the time. My mum is our self-appointed chef and general tidy-upper. She’s more concerned with cleanliless (in general) than we are, and often says that we’re busy with E., therefore, she can fill the domestic gap and tidy up the kitchen, loungeroom, etc, for us. It’s partly that she wants to ‘contribute’ to the household and this is her way of doing it, and it’s also probably because she doesn’t want to have leftovers the majority of the week (which is what would happen if we were in charge of the kitchen/meals). She has a regular role as carer for E. during the week (mostly in the mornings), and she’s always ready as an extra pair of hands/eyes should we need to dash out or get something done. Given our tendency to leave our laundry till it’s a teetering pile, we sometimes come home to a stack of a perfectly folded, clean clothing. Mum especially likes to do E.’s laundry, and I must admit to sharing a furtive glee in folding little-person-sized shirts and pants (E. does own dresses and, er, one skirt but the current rate of dirt/activity attraction makes pants much more practical and less hindering). So, she does most of the cooking and kitchen stocking, has a regular share of the childcare, is often the one who feeds and cleans up after the pets, tackles our laundry once in a while, and takes care of the house if we’re off on fieldtrips or mini-holidays. Mum’s fantastic to have around the place and invaluable in terms of making our life a happily chaotic one with the baby, rather than a stressed, chaotic one.
When I’ve told people that we live with my mother, the responses range from consternation (along the lines of “OMG, how can you live with your parent?”), to envy (“Wow, can she come live with us?!”), to a plain nod (I think this is the “of course you would”). The latter response is sometimes the most interesting because I don’t know if it’s totally ‘understandable’ in terms of my being Chinese and, therefore, it’s only to be expected that we’d have a multi-generational household, OR is it a broader support for the idea of multi-generational households as an alternative family model?
We all get on well in the household, so I guess that’s a big pressure that many may assume is there and it isn’t (i.e. the everyday grind of having to maintain a good relationship on the homefront). I know I’ve listed the tangible domestic activities that make having my mother around rather blissful, but it’s the intangibles that make it an arrangement I love. Having her involved in the everydayness of our lives, and especially E.’s, is fantastic. For me, knowing that she’s got a space in which she’s comfortable, stimulated, safe and busy is a huge weight off my mind. I couldn’t imagine her living elsewhere in Melbourne, alone, even if she was close by. It just wouldn’t be the same. She’s over seventy years old now and still in pretty good nick. She takes care of herself well and regularly gets check-ups (which is more than what S. and I do). She’s currently planning another overseas trip.
A big part of the workability of our arrangement is, of course, S.’s amenability to it and his accepting, open manner with all kinds of things. I’ve seen other dynamics around where the Asian mother-in-law takes advantage of the (often non-Asian) son-in-law’s good nature and it sometimes makes me angry because I think it’s disrespectful to allow your partner to be treated like that. If your mother wants to passive-aggressive you into doing things and you’re fool enough to do it, that’s your bag. Your partner shouldn’t have to inherit that pathology.
I think people assume S. is of Asian descent, given our household arrangement, which is kind of funny.
I was telling S. about the number of Chinese Australian nursing homes / care facilities there were, and of the priorities of many community associations in setting these up. He’d commented that he didn’t think there would be as much of a demand for these kinds of services because of the filial/familial impetus to look after one’s elders rather than put them into care. I think there’s something to that, and I don’t know what the figures are, but obviously it’s a growing need that these services are meeting. People working too much? Inability to take time out to be a carer?
I have some friends of Asian descent who are amazed that it all works out well; living with their mothers is their idea of hell (mostly because it would be full of unspoken obligations and pressures). Our greatest danger is of taking my mother for granted; that’s something about which we need to keep reminding ourselves. I’d like to think there’s a level of honesty in our relationship, and it helps that my mother is sensibly ‘modern’ in her outlook. I love that E. is getting so much from the relationship with her Pohpoh. My own Pohpoh (my mother’s mother) lives in Penang and we haven’t seen her for some years. She was always a more benevolent grandmother, however, than my father’s step-mother (Ah Poh). Our most enduring collective memory of Ah Poh is how she used to stab our hands with her chopsticks if we reached for food before it was our turn.
All in all, I’m grateful that we’ve got this situation at this time in our lives. Even if we have to put up with Andre Rieu / Michael Crawford concerts 24/7 on TV (damn that Ovation channel on Foxtel…).