Thursday, July 22, 2010

Advice to Those Living on the In-Laws' Couch

I've hesitated doing this post, because ... well, because I grew up in the south, and those of us raised in the south made up that Vegas rule. You know the one ... what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. I was raised with the idea that we make sure our laundry is squeaky clean before it goes out on the line. Our family problems are our family problems, and those things that happen within the privacy of our homes, stay in the privacy of our homes. In some instances it's a very bad thing, especially in cases of abuse, but sometimes ... sometimes the absolute best answer is to keep the problem to yourself, until you're ready to work it out with the person who lives with you. In short, if you get into an argument with your spouse, your mother, your sister, you don't run off and tell the neighbor. You wait until every thing cools down, and then, you either pretend it didn't happen (this is what most do ;), or you talk to the person with whom you had the problem.

That's why I couldn't write the post, because for too long, it's felt like airing my dirty laundry, and it felt better to just pretend it didn't happen.

Unfortunately, that don't air your dirty laundry rule that I have (mostly) lived by for most of my life was violated by another person who was living in my house (notice the past tense), and as such, I now feel free to slap those dirty sheets right up there on the line and give them a good airing.

Several years ago, when I first started my journey down Doomer Road, and I started reading other blogs that focused on the topics of Peak Oil preparedness, the Queen of Doom herself (a.k.a. Sharon Astyk), posted a great article about sharing space. Her premise was that as the economy worsens, as Peak Oil becomes more of a reality, as people start to become displaced from their homes, they will start to depend on family and/or friends to help them out by offering a place to live.

After reading Sharon's post, I used to fantasize about how that sort of thing could happen for me. Notice the term I use here, too, because it's important - I say for me, because in my fantasy, it was a good thing. I loved the idea of multiple generations living under my one roof, and I imagined this, almost, utopian sort of enchanted home life.

I always imagined this wonderful community-type of arrangement, where we'd Kumbaya around the dinner table in the evenings, sitting around an oil lamp (to save electricity, because we'd all be deeply concerned about preserving the environment and conserving energy) and chatting about how wonderful our combined household was.

I imagined that we would share household responsibilities, and that everyone - at least all of the adults - would see a need, fill a need, that is, if Deus Ex Machina and I were out late, our housemates would make sure dinner was cooked. If the floors were dirty, they'd get vacuumed or swept and mopped. Mind you, I never pushed it to having them waiting on me (altough ... *grin*), and I never expected that, if we took in housemates, that they'd be doing all of the chores in exchange for us paying all of the bills. There are certain chores that I like to have done in certain ways, and I would be disappointed if they were done differently than I do them, and so I just do them myself. It's easier that way, and it makes me happier.

The point is that in my fantasy, everyone pulled his/her weight, no one ever felt taken advantage of, and no one ever needed to feel as if they were an imposition, because it was all cooperative. Things outside the house were tough, but because we'd all banded together to help each other, we wouldn't feel how horrible the world had gotten.

People who know me and Deus Ex Machina would not be surprised to note that I had that sort of Pollyanna image of what life could be like. We have a very cooperative relationship. If something needs to be done, it just gets done - by one of us. And our girls are helpful, too. They don't always notice when things need to be done (and in their defense it should be noted that none of them are high school-aged yet), but if we ask them to do something for us, they will do it ... usually right then, and they don't, often, have to be asked twice. They are very cooperative, and very willing to help us out.

Twice now, Deus Ex Machina and I have been on the giving end of the housemate scenario. Twice, in as many years, we have given my adult daughter and her family a place to stay while they worked out some financial trouble.

Two days into their first stay with us, my fantasy bubble burst in a stinking heap of disappointment, and I knew that my hopes of a cooperative existence were not ever going to be realized.

Neither time was a very positive experience for Deus Ex Machina and me. We ended up working harder than we normally do, because there were extra people in the house, which meant more dishes, more food to cook, more mess to clean up. Both times, Deus Ex Machina had to be out of town for a week or so on a couple of different occasions. When he goes out of town, I have to take up the slack for him, which means I feed and tend all of the animals and do the dishes, in addition to all of the other chores I do on a regular basis. With the addition of three extra people, my work load increased to a very difficult and uncomfortable level, but they were guests in my home, and I didn't feel like I could ask them to do my chores (I did ask them, a couple of times, to carry in some wood for the fire, and they did, but only when I asked them, and if I wasn't home, they wouldn't tend the fire. In fact, they couldn't even light the fire, and so they just let it go out. There were many times I'd come home, after a very long day, and have to light the fire, and then cook dinner, because they'd done neither - and we don't need a fire to cook a meal. They could have turned on the electric stove, and, at very least, boiled water for pasta).

It was my mistake not to ask for their help with chores.

Unfortunately, the second time they moved in with us, we should have set some ground rules from day one. We should have very clearly defined our expectations, to include things like what, if anything, they would pay us (they both worked full-time, and for the first month, I was providing free baby-sitting, too, but we didn't ask them for any money, and with the exception of giving us a few dollars for food - the equivalent of one week's worth of groceries in the four months they lived here, they didn't offer us any money either), and what their household responsibilities would be. We should have also set some very clear and well-defined boundaries, like don't use my razor, buy your own toilet paper, stay out of the girls' dance competition make-up case.

We should have, but we didn't, and that was our fault, but at the same time, they are adults, who had had their own apartment, and we, fully, expected that they were mature enough to know how to behave as housemates without having to have it all in writing. Remember, this is my daughter. I thought she knew better.

I really hated being wrong.

So, to all of those other sons and daughters out there who screw up their lives and/or finances and have to move back in with Mom and Dad, I offer the following advice:

  • You know that sign that often gets tacked to the walls in workplaces, the one that says, in effect, your mom doesn't work here. Clean up after yourself. If you're an adult, and you're living, for free, in your mother's house, she may live there, but she's not your maid. Clean up after yourself. Including your dishes, and for goodness sake, clean up after your own children. She may love her granddaughter, but it's grossly unfair of you to assume that she wants to clean up your daughter's poop, or your daughter's toys, and finding that half-eaten and now melted popsicle on the couch is not going to make your mom very happy. Really. You're the mom (or dad). It's your job to clean up after your kids. Don't expect your mom to do your laundry, either, not even the bath towels you and your family use, and especially not the clothes your daughter pees in and that you leave lying on the bathroom floor. If you're not comfortable using your mom's washing machine, then hand wash the items and hang them somewhere to dry. I'm sure she has a clothesline outside somewhere.

  • If you're going to be homeless, and your parents have agreed to let you move in with them, DON'T GO OUT AND ADOPT A PET. Seriously. That's just bad manners. Further, if you have pets, but they're not housebroken, find them a new home before you move into your parents' house. They agreed to let you move in with them with your spouse and child, but expecting them to housebreak your dog and clean his shit off their carpets is really too much. Actually, if you're going to be homeless, and you know you're going to be homeless, and you're depending on the kindness of your relatives to give you a place to live, don't expect them to take in your pets, too. Find them a new home before you are homeless. You'll actually be doing your furry friends a favor.

  • But if your parents (or family members) are kind enough to allow you to bring your pets with you, do everything in your power to make sure that those pets are not a burden. Clean up after them, and make sure that there is never a pet odor. Make sure you are providing them adequate food and water, and don't depend on your hosts to do this for you. And even if your hosts have the same pets, BUY YOUR OWN DAMNED PET FOOD. It's your pet. You're already burdening your relatives just by being there. Don't make matters worse by forcing them to feed your animal and their animal. That's just rude and horribly inconsiderate.

  • While it may be true that your mom is a better cook than you are, that's no reason to assume that she is interested in cooking all of your meals. Yes, it's her kitchen, but really, cooking dinner for eight people might not be her idea of a good time, especially if two of those eight people are adults who are hiding out in their room watching television while dinner is being made, and not offering to lend a hand, not even to set the table, but as soon as the dinner bell is sounded are the first people at the table, and are always willing to eat their share. You eat. You should, at least occasionally, offer to either cook a meal or at least offer to help out with the meal that is being cooked. Even just offering to set the table is a huge help.

  • Once dinner is eaten, leaving the table and disappearing into your room without offering to help with clean up is rude. Don't do it. When Deus Ex Machina and I go to his grandmother's house for dinner, we ALWAYS do the dishes after we've eaten. Deus Ex Machina's mother has six siblings. All, but two of them, have at least one child, and most of those children have children. There are a lot of people at these dinners, but we still do the dishes. We don't even live there and never have. If you're living, for free, in your parents' house, and they are cooking your meals for you, the VERY LEAST you can do is offer to wash the dinner dishes.

  • If it's winter time, and your parents heat with wood, occasionally check to see that there is wood in the wood box. If you're cold, put a log on the fire. But complaining about being cold, and failing to even take the most simple steps to remedy the situation (like making sure there's wood in the woodbox or that the fire doesn't go out) really is not very useful.

  • If you move into your parents' house, no matter what you feel about the way they live, you have to remember that it is their house and you need to respect that it is their house. If they ask you not to throw soda bottles in the garbage, is it such a difficult thing not to? If they ask you to close the windows in your room and turn off your electrical equipment (to save energy) when you're not there, do it. It is grossly unfair and incredibly self-centered to act offended and self-righteous at those requests, especially if you are not contributing your fair share to the smooth operation of the household. In short, if you're not paying the bills, you really have no say.

  • And while we're on the topic of respect, make sure you respect their property, including their furniture. Don't walk into their living room, their public community space, and treat it like your bedroom. If you're tired, and you don't feel like you can sit up right, go to bed. You may be living there, and perhaps you treat your own couch like a bed, but it's not your couch. Have some dignity ... and some respect.

  • If you want to be treated like an adult, act like an adult and take some responsibility for yourself, and one hint: hiding out in your room while your parents do all of the cooking and cleaning is not taking responsibility for yourself. In other words, if you're living with your parents, but they are doing all of the household chores and paying all of the bills, you're not acting like an adult, and they will, likely, not treat you like one. Minors, that is children under the age of eighteen, are expected to mooch off their parents, and they rarely have the same decision making power as their parents. If you want to be able to make decisions, you should, at least, do as much as is in your power to heft your own weight. If you can't pay the bills, fine, but you should be prepared to do a little more around the house.

  • If your parents own a house and are paying their bills without any help from anyone else, they are doing something right. Perhaps you should pay attention to what they are doing, instead of thumbing your nose at their lifestyle in the belief that you have all the answers. Newsflash: If you're moving into your parents' financially stable home, because you can no longer afford to live on your own, you do not have all of the answers, and frankly, you're screwing up. It's time to admit you have, basically, f*cked up your life. Stop blaming the rest of the world, shut the hell up, and pay attention to the lessons your parents tried to teach you when you were a teenager, but were too full of hormones and hot air to listen. Maybe if you listen this time, there won't be a next time.

  • Whatever you do, don't, simply do not even consider, calling your mother a fucking bitch to her face in her own home where you have been living for free for the past four months. Even if she really is a fucking bitch, don't ever, simply do not, say it outloud, to her face, in her home. No good will come of it, and you might feel better for a second, but it's kind of like being a kid at Halloween and eating your whole bag of candy before November 1. It might be fun for a minute, but after that, you're going to be really sick. Some things can't be unsaid. In addition, even if you had a valid complaint, once you slander your mother's character with profane epithets, you've pretty much negated any hope of having your concerns rationally considered. Oh, and at that point, you should probably find someplace else to live ... even if she doesn't slap your fresh little face and kick your ass out the door.

Unfortunately, my experience with having housemates has soured my lovely fantasy. The saying is once bitten, twice shy. I hope none of our other relatives or friends ever need to ask us to share our space with them, because after the experience we have had, the answer is more likely than not going to be no, and that's very sad to me. Letting go of our fantasies is difficult - like being forced to accept the popular opinion that there is no actual, flesh and blood Santa Claus. It's a hard lesson.


Pajamaed children, early to bed,
"Or Santa won't come," they always said.
Excitement mingled with a dash of fear,
Would he visit with his eight reindeer?

Young eyes soon close to sugar plum dreams,
But open too soon in the streetlight beams.
Quietly creeping down the endless hall,
On cushioned carpet her footsteps fall.

Peek around the corner at regal tree,
Reveals a visitor. Is it he?
Streetlights illume a glowing, white beard.
Heart races, rabbit's square dance, in her fear

Small feet scurry back to bed.
Warm, down quilt over young head.
Morning, at last, "Rise and Shine!"
Runs to the tree. What does she find?

A giant, stuffed monkey (sibling's gift)
Perched under the tree, shiny, white mid-driff.
Was it this all along? A trick of the light?
Or did Santa sleep in her home last night?

~ Written by Wendy, 1992


  1. I'm so sorry for your troubles. There really isn't much to say besides that. I hope your ex-housemates grow up eventually.

    Life never turns out the way we think it will, even in our fantasies. Fantasies have a way of turning into nightmares sometimes. Stay strong and if you have faith, rely on Him now.

  2. Bravo for this post.
    I hope it helped you and I hope it helps others.
    My older brother had to ride my couch for three weeks last year. I didn't know what hell was.
    It's amazing how quickly people forget how they're raised. Ugh.

  3. Wow. You weren't kidding when you said "no regrets" didn't apply.

    I'm sorry your fantasy turned out to be just that. It's still a good fantasy, and should someone else need your help, you could try again. But with ground rules. Learning from the past means you aren't doomed to repeat it. You know that better than the rest of us! :)

    Thinking of you guys... between this and DeM's Aunt, you've had a rough spell.

  4. Great post Wendy. Sorry you had to go through such bad experiences with your communal living but it lead to great advice for everyone else that may find themselves in that situation.

    One thing that has always bothered me about survival groups is the idea folks have that everyone will be one big happy family when all 5+ families move into a single house and live together. As you've seen it's hard even with just 2 families. With multiple families comes multiple values, multiple diets, multiple habits, multiple personalities and multiple everything else.

    No matter how friendly and cordial everyone may be during a day long or even overnight visit, it's just not the same once everyone settles down and gets back into their normal habits and behaviors.

    Once everyone becomes comfortable with each other then tensions will rise and tempers will flair because people generally think about themselves over others. In a communal living situation you have to be thinking of everyone all the time or you will start to offend others and bad things will happen.

    Under normal circumstances you can just kick people out of your house but under SHTF circumstances it just won't be that easy. It especially won't be that easy if you're in the minority on thinking that something is wrong, even if it is your house.

    People really need to understand what they are signing up for with communal living and survival groups even if it's just them and their family. In some ways having it be family may even make it worse. Like everything else in real life, it's just never as easy or as rosy as we imagine it will be.

  5. You struck a nerve on that one! We brought someone into our home with much the same hope as you, that there would be extra hands to share the work and we'd live somewhat happily ever after.

    As it turned out, the whole person was a fantasy, and we wound up feeling threatened in our own home. We also discovered when it was time to ask this person to leave, that if someone receives mail at your address, or lives with you for over thirty days, that they can't just be asked to leave, they get 30 days notice. We were very fortunate in this case, as they left voluntarily--it could have been much worse, and the sheriff wasn't legally able to simply remove them.

    This wasn't a light decision, we'd known this person, or so we thought, for several years. We're still wondering exactly what happened a year later.

  6. Having watched communal living in my own family and how it can not work, I know how hard this kind of situation can be. So sorry you had to experience this, but you did come out the other side a bit wiser with very good advice to pass on. Hope the housemates learned a bit something as well.

  7. Sounds like you have a pretty good read on life at FAR Manor. The Boy and Snippet are >< this close to getting ejected for good, for many of the reasons you mention here… I'd have done it long ago if it were my decision.

  8. You air that dirty laundry, woman!

    So sorry that things didn't work out as you had hoped. I can't even believe that your own family would treat you that way.

    I have some experience on the other side of the equation, actually. I had to move home with my folks when Big Sprout was first born (single mom, and all). I was very lucky in that my folks were able to be clear about boundaries, and I never felt I was entitled to more than they were willing to give. Even then, there were quite a few times when tensions were high, but we were able to work things out and I left on good terms.

    Hopefully, the family relationships will not be damaged too greatly by this failed attempt at living together.

    Good luck!

  9. FARf - I'm sorry to hear that your experience with your "housemates" is so similar to mine, because I know how much it sucks. If The Boy curses at his mom, though, my guess is that you won't be waiting for permission to drop him on his ass at the front door.

    Caroline and Alyse - I'm sorry your experiences weren't good. Isn't it sad how quickly we can become jaded?

    Hope and Richard - unfortunately, I have some family members who have been living cooperatively for ... well, for longer than I've lived in this house. My older sister and her daughter live with my parents, and for the most part, it's an incredibly congenial and cooperative experience for all of them. I'm sure there are little tiffs here and there, but nothing like what happened here, and I know, for a fact, that my sister helps out my mom with cleaning and cooking. She also compensated my parents for some of their combined living expenses. I think the difference is that she intended to stay with my parents for an indefinite period and she wasn't just "staying" there. She was "living" there. My housemates wanted to be guests, like if they were staying in a B&B, but they didn't want to pay anything ;).

    Thank you, rach :). Certainly, *if* we ever decided to take a chance again, it would be with a written agreement between us and the housemates, even if it was going to be only temporary ... and it won't be the same housemates. That bridge is pretty well burned.

    Maria - Thank you. I do hope that they grow up soon, if only because they have a child and another on the way, and those babies need parents who are responsible and mature and can make wise decisions.

  10. Barefoot - thank you so much! I was really hoping that someone would chime in from the other side. I have experience from the other side, too. After I graduated from my college, I lived with my parents for five months, and it wasn't always beautiful, but I when I left to go back to graduate school, things were still good with me and my parents. Then, when Deus Ex Machina and I first moved to Maine, we lived with his mother for five months, and I know, for a fact, that she enjoyed having us there. I kept our messes cleaned up, I cooked for her, we bought groceries, and we paid part of the bills. It was totally cooperative, and certainly having us there was a burden, because we were in her space, but I worked very hard to not make it uncomfortable for her.

  11. Sorry you had to learn such a hard lesson. It's disappointing to realize that people, even your own kin, often do not live up to our expectations of reasonable behavior. I'm constantly amazed at how very few people take responsibility for their lives.

    After Sharon's post, hubby and I discussed whether any of our relatives might ask to move in with us and how we would deal with it. Thankfully, we are 95% sure none would turn to us as our family members have other in-laws living closer or more capable of taking them in ... and not known to live as oddly as us.

    On the flip side, we stayed with my Dad for a couple of weeks early on in our marriage and with my MIL twice about a decade ago. My Dad did not particularly make us feel welcome but we were respectful guests and got out as quickly as we could.

    My MIL was very welcoming. She was renting our house from us but I think we told her not to pay the months we were there. We definitely pulled out weight, cleaning up after ourselves, cooking for her often, and buying many of the groceries. We cleaned up after the dogs, whom she loved and enjoyed spending time with. It was not an unpleasant experience although all of us were ready for our own space by the time we could move on. Both times, it was only for 2 1/2 months.

    IF you ever host someone again for more than a couple of days, definitely draw up a written agreement in advance. It may seem silly, but you now know it will make it go more smoothly. For your daughter, I hope she eventually grows up and sees what a huge mistake she made.

  12. I could have written that post! The first time we chalked everything up to their being newlyweds and never having had their own place.The next time the problems were our fault for not having firm rules. Never again. We heat with wood and I loved that part of your blog. Hehe.Oh, and they need to learn that there isn't a kitchen fairy that comes in at night and cleans the dishes.

  13. argh, how frustrating for you that this was your daughter! I've moved back in on my mom a few times, and it sure can be tough, even when I was making sure I was pulling my own weight. There's still that "we're living on top of each other" feeling.

    My adult sister has been my roommate for over 5 years, now, and it works so well that we plan to buy a place together with my husband and my mom... but mom and her boyfriend will have their own suite, preferably over the garage :)

  14. I'm sorry it turned out to be a rough experience, and more so that it dissolved the *fantasy* of pleasant cohabitation. I would like to believe that it's possible, but there has to be give and take from both sides, not one.

    Before I moved here, I lived with my oldest son and his family for almost three months, having sold my house and needing shelter until I found a place here. Like your experience with your MIL, I did a lot of cooking and helped with groceries. Also, I was working, so I wasn't there during the day. Even though it was a good experience (and a lot of fun with the grandkids), I don't know if it could work on a long-term basis. I love my family too much to test it ;)

    Hopefully, your former housemates will see what they have *lost*, and learn from this. Best wishes as you get back to *normal*. You've got a lot of folks out here sending good vibes your way!

  15. My mom moved in with us last fall after her retirement but she has her own space-- a 2-bedroom apartment over the garage that is connected to the main house with a breezeway. I don't think we could tolerate her (as much as we love her!) if she had to stay in the main house with us and use one of our bedrooms. She often stayed with us, for a week at a time while she worked, as a little vacation, but after she retired and lived with us permanently, I have discovered that we have both changed since I have last lived at home with her (more than 15 years ago). She does things differently than I remember and I know that I do things differently since I have adopted some of my husband's habits as my own. It certainly helps that she has her own living space or else her living with us would not work out. She joins us for meals and I do her laundry (our machine is in the basement and she cannot handle the stairs), but for the most part, she stays in her apartment doing her own thing and comes out to watch movies with us or "hang out" with the kids. She doesn't create any extra work for me except for an extra dish and one extra load of laundry to wash. She also pays rent, so that helps us, too.

    I'm sorry that you had such disappointing results with your houseguests.

    Andrew and I always try to be extra helpful at anyone's home when we stay with them, cooking thank you meals and doing the dishes, and I NEVER expect other people to watch my children for me-- that's my job! We also stay away from people that are fussy about their homes-- you know the ones: neat as a pin, no kids or pets, lots of decorative breakables and knick-knacky things... as hard as I try, I can't always keep an eye on 4 little ones and I don't need to give fuel to anyone to talk bad about us behind our backs.

  16. You, my unknown friend, just broke my heart with this post. Or maybe my heart was already broken and you reminded me of that fact.

    My 25 year old step-son moved back in with us "for a few weeks" more than two years ago. Not one cent or clean plate or shovelled driveway has he contributed in that time. It is true he doesn't make a lot of money, but if he has enough money to buy guitar strings and eat take out pizza and go clubbing, then I think he makes enough money to at least TRY to build a nest egg for an apartment deposit.

    Unfortunately, I have always clashed with his lazy ass,since I met him when he was 17, and many years ago, after a heated argument, my husband asked me to never make him choose between me or his son. Hmm.

    It is not a good feeling to realize you are being taken advantage of. At least you have the courage to confront it head on.