Power Struggles or Peace in Multi-Generational Homes?

May 24, 2010

We've been in home limbo for the past month or so. In a week and a half, my husband, our daughter and I will set off on our road trip from Connecticut to our new home in Los Angeles, CA. My mom is taking over the house we currently live in, so we've been living together since she sold her condo three weeks ago. It has been...interesting.

I've done a fair amount of overthinking on the subject of multi-generational households over the past few months. The home we're moving to in LA is where my mother-in-law lives for part of the year (spending most of her time in Seoul). Husband and I have already rather naively envisioned both of our retired moms living with us and our two kids in total bliss some years down the line. Meanwhile, my mom has been warning me many times over about having to set my boundaries with my mother-in-law, sometimes sending me into a panic. And ironically, my mom and I have been running into those same exact issues since she's moved in.

To be clear, this isn't the first time I've lived in a multi-generational home. My grandparents spent months at a stretch living with us when visiting from the Philippines. My grandmother cared for me while my parents were at work during the day. At one point in my childhood, there were five adults living in our three bedroom home (the fifth adult was a friend of my father's -- a recent immigrant who had just escaped an abusive relationship and needed to get back on her feet, which is another post altogether). And yet I don't remember the same territorial issues springing up back then. I never saw my mom and grandmother having power struggles or bickering about space or how clean or messy anything was.

Granted, I'm sure there was a lot I missed from my five-year-old perspective, and the circumstances were very different. While I had a strong bond with my grandmother, it was nowhere near as strong as the bond my mom and my daughter share, and I wasn't nearly as spoiled. Also, both my mom and I work from home full time, which just allows us to get on each other's nerves for more hours in the day.

My mom and I have an interesting relationship. Around the time I graduated high school and my parents divorced, she and I were very close -- I was sort of an anomaly among my friends. Throughout my early twenties, she was actually my very best friend, supporting my decisions and allowing me to make mistakes as I navigated adulthood. She didn't smack me up when I came home with a nose ring, she didn't raise a stink when I decided to switch my major to English, and while she largely stayed out of my relationships, she was always the shoulder I cried on during a breakup. She respected me and, for the most part, treated me as an adult.

When I got pregnant in 2007, a year out of college and unwed and still trying to begin my career, I think we felt a mutual breach of trust. For a brief period, our relationship was incredibly strained. We couldn't have a conversation that didn't turn into a screaming match -- it almost seemed like the rebellious teen phase hit us a few years too late. Everything worked itself out once my daughter was born (and my mom was obviously over the moon when my husband and I finally decided to get hitched two months shy of our daughter's second birthday), and my mom has stepped in to be an amazing grandmother. But my own relationship with my mom has changed immensely. We're trying to figure out an entirely new relationship and see each other in roles we're not used to.

My mom is not accustomed to the touchy-feely way my husband and I have learned to communicate with each other. She also has rather high expectations of me as a mother (she wants me to keep my daughter disciplined, but comes to her rescue every time I try to discipline her effectively), and sometimes has a hard time expressing when she's proud of me -- and by the looks of High Expectations Asian Father and Disgrasian's Hardass Asian Parents tag, she's not the only mom with these problems. I have to coach myself continually to shrug things off, to lay blame on the generation gap, and not be too offended or annoyed by the way my mom communicates with me. Things between us have not really been what they once were, and I doubt we'll ever get back to that. It's not terrible; just different, and I think we're still trying to get used to it and find our comfort zones again.

I can only imagine the fun we'll have living with my husband's mom. I'm not trying to be pessimistic, but growing pains are inevitable. My husband has, for the most part, been living on his own since his senior year of high school. His relationship with his mom has sometimes been fraught, but he hopes to build a closer bond -- thanks in part to the relationship he sees between my mom and me.

I know this is a common issue. There are dozens of sitcoms in recent memory (Everybody Loves Raymond, King of Queens, Til Death) based on the struggles between adult children and their live-in parents. But adjustment stories among Asian American families seem to be hard to come by. According to the Pew study I linked above, we're leading the shift back to multi-generational homes, so what gives? Is everybody else just having an easier time with this than I am?


Theresa Celebran Jones


Theresa Celebran Jones was born and raised in Connecticut and has moved cross-country four times. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two young daughters. She works full-time as a technical writer and is an MFA dropout. Her only other hobbies are reading, taking pictures, scrapbooking, and listening to hip hop. Clearly she has no social life.