Since the early days of the pandemic, I’ve been living with my in-laws in rural Connecticut. More recently, my husband’s sister and her nine-month-old son joined us. I’ve always tried to avoid the kind of multigenerational household I grew up in, but I’m finding the arrangement surprisingly satisfying.
In China, where I’m from, three or four generations commonly live together under one roof. At one point when I was a child, both my great-grandmother and grandmother resided with us. To say that I was over-parented is an understatement. To me, living with extended family just meant having more people in my business, complicating my decisions with their input and agenda. I ended up idealizing dwelling alone, needing and answering to no one.
Eventually, I came around to the idea of cohabiting with one other person, a trusted partner and confidant. But after getting married four years ago, I nervously put off having a baby. I couldn’t picture a scenario that didn’t seriously damage my career, bankrupt me with hired help, or trap me in the same apartment as my parents—as it is customary in China for family to move in to help offset the burden of new parenthood.
I will never know how my life would have played out in the pre-coronavirus world, however, because the pandemic completely reshuffled my options.
In early February, when the number of COVID-19 cases was soaring in China, my husband and I were living in Shanghai. There was so much uncertainty as to how the situation would unfold that it seemed prudent for us to leave for his family’s place in Connecticut until the whole thing blew over. Cases in the United States at the time were only in the double digits, and I thought of the trip as a long visit, one month at most. But what was a temporary departure from Shanghai has become a three-month stay in the U.S., with no end in sight. Our lease in China has run out, and we are semipermanent guests at my in-laws’, unable to make any plans until the “new normal” takes shape.
When the shelter-in-place orders were first imposed, I read about working parents with horror and fascination. All the parents I know bemoaned the strain their children placed on their productivity. Suddenly they were all BBC Dad, flustered, cornered, helpless. Their struggles only underscored my reluctance to start a family—and I was trepidatious when my sister-in-law decided to join our crowded lockdown household with her baby. Was I about to get a taste of the chaos of working from home with a child?
My sister-in-law is a hospital social worker, and her husband runs a small law firm. Pulling their infant son out of day care wreaked havoc on their already precarious work-life balance. They tried to split up their days so that one of them was on baby duty while the other focused on work, but neither their jobs nor their son was willing or able to abide by such a schedule. With the quality of their work and their parenting suffering in equal measure, they decided they needed help. My sister-in-law went to her parents’ home, while her husband stayed behind.
In non-pandemic times, my in-laws might have balked at such an intrusion on their quiet, empty-nester life. After all, moving back in with one’s parents in adulthood, with a child no less, is stigmatized in America, despite growing instances of multigenerational households.
The macro logic of this arrangement made sense to me. By sharing the burden of household duties and child care, we would reduce the oversize disruption to my sister-in-law’s life, while only slightly increasing the overall disruption to the rest of our lives. We make sacrifices for the sake of family during a crisis. What kind of monster would I be to complain about a little extra work?
I pictured us handing off the baby throughout the day as if he were a squirming, drooling hot potato. Only a few hours after their arrival, I was set straight. A baby is a powerful agent of mayhem, capable of thunderous fury if he is not managed by highly structured routines. As he settled into his new environment, the baby had a tough time sleeping for more than a couple of hours at a time and needed a lot of attention.
My sister-in-law uses an app to track and plan the baby’s meals and naps, and soon we all realigned our days to his schedule. My mother-in-law took on the bulk of the child-care duties while my sister-in-law worked remotely with patients; my husband, father-in-law, and I pitched in throughout the day, playing with the baby and helping during snack time; I cooked dinner for the family when the baby’s mom and grandma gave him his pre-bed bath.
We are no longer three independent family units doing three different sets of the same chores, nor are we roommates who share space without sharing lives. Each week, one person goes on a grocery trip to buy food for the entire house, our clothes are mixed up in the same loads of laundry, we wash one another’s dirty dishes. With our conjoined schedules and shared domestic duties, work and other obligations flow around established “family time” instead of the other way around.
This arrangement has clearly helped my sister-in-law. At her home, even with her husband there to offset the load, she’d be weighed down by chores and child-rearing, while falling behind at her job and losing sleep. Since she arrived, she has been able to rest and accomplish more at work, and she looks noticeably happier and more relaxed. Meanwhile, my nephew has sprouted six new teeth, and he broke his personal record for minutes napped in a single afternoon. My in-laws have embraced lockdown grandparenthood, and haven’t spoken one wistful word about their active life before the coronavirus took it all away. As for me, I may have lost some of the independence I once had, but every day I see proof that we can rely on one another without trying to control one another.
My day may now include more variables than before, but somehow it is simpler. While I used to be more spontaneous, I often packed too much into my schedule and did everything in a hurry. Considering the family’s needs on a whole, instead of just my own, surprised me with the satisfaction it yielded. These days, I carefully plan a week’s worth of meals for five people, play with the baby every day, have long conversations around the dinner table, and go on regular hikes with my husband.
Integrating into the rhythm of this bustling household means I can’t waste a day “doomscrolling” on my phone and subsisting entirely off of soda and nibbles of chips and hummus. My family depends on me to do my part, and in a way, this life is not so different from the partnership I treasure with my husband. Our arrangement is going so well that I’m no longer so reluctant to have a baby, and I’m even thinking of asking my parents to live with us if we do. As much as I thought that joining a multifamily household would be cumbersome, what I discovered instead is balance. Despite the stress and uncertainty brought on by this virus, we are, inexplicably, happy.