So happy together

These Ottawa families live in multigenerational households, for reasons that vary from family to family, and as they tell Tracey Tong, it’s an unorthodox arrangement that can be challenging and richly rewarding.

Ottawa resident Meagan Martin has a happy family – she’s got a loving spouse, Han, and a beautiful 14-month-old daughter, Jolene. But the picture of her home life looks different than you might imagine.

While Han works and lives in Toronto, Martin lives with Jolene and her mother-in-law, Bing.

A first-generation immigrant and single mom, Bing initially moved in for financial reasons and to be closer to work. The arrangement is new, permanent for the foreseeable future, and Martin says the family is already starting to see many benefits.

“Having my mother-in-law in the home is mutually beneficial as we have more ‘earners’ contributing to the overall income of the home,” says Martin. “This means we all end up with more disposable income.

“Also, since my spouse works out of town, I am a solo parent 95-per-cent of the time – having my mother-in-law in the home helps with domestic tasks and errands, so the result is more quality time with my daughter. When my partner is in town, we can look forward to going for a date without upsetting my daughter’s daily routine.”

Martin’s family isn’t the only one enjoying this living arrangement.

In August, Statistics Canada, as a part of its 2016 Census highlights release, stated that there was a 37.5-per-cent spike in the number of multigenerational households since 2001.

From 2001 to 2016, multigenerational households rose the fastest of all household types. In 2016, 6.3-per-cent of Canada’s population, or 2.2 million people, lived in multigenerational households. The reasons included the high cost of living in some regions, immigration and an aging population.

Leah Mulligan, her husband Cody Munro, and their then-three-month-old son moved in with Mulligan’s mother and stepfather in Constance Bay for about six months while the young family renovated a condo and bought a new home.

“We were all a bit hesitant at first about living in a multigenerational household even though it was temporary,” says Mulligan. “The last time we lived at our parents’ homes, we were teenagers.

“We were now used to our own freedom, and had established our own home together with our own routines. My parents were used to peace and quiet.”

Living together takes adjustment, something Martin and her family are still working on.

Martin and her mother-in-law work opposite schedules, and although Bing would be happy to watch Jolene, Martin says it’s important to maintain her own role as primary caregiver to Jolene. To keep that boundary, Martin has opted to keep Jolene in daycare.

“I prefer she remains a ‘grandmother’ and that the majority of their time together is deliberate and quality, as opposed to daily routine,” Martin says.

At home, the division of chores is happening quite naturally, says Martin.

Although “Bing has sort of claimed the kitchen as her domain, I have made an effort to incorporate my own tastes,” says Martin.

Mulligan and her family took turns cooking together.

“I think a lot of family life centres on food and so we all enjoyed this part of our days,” she says.

Ultimately, Mulligan says she found that living together “strengthened all of our relationships.

“Living together meant that we shared stories about our day at work or at home, took turns cooking and cleaning, and had more opportunities to just hang out together at the end of the day. 

“My son has a very strong bond with my parents now. This is no doubt due to us all living together.”

It also set the stage for her mother to continue to be very integrated in their lives, Mulligan says.

“She now provides after-school childcare for my son since he has started junior kindergarten. All of our relationships became stronger through this experience of living together at such a pivotal time in our lives.”

Martin agrees. “The positives outweigh the negatives,” she says.

“The long-term goal for me is that we all get to enjoy more time and the fruits of our labour – fewer bills, divisions of chores (and) an extra hand with child minding.

“It’s nice to know that someone has your back.”

Ottawa resident Ola Levitin’s parents, Inessa, 79, and Michael, 78, live with Levitin and her family. Her mother moved in with her in 2003 for financial reasons and to help with childcare, but Levitin sees many more benefits.

Her three children love having their grandparents so close, Levitin says. “My dad plays with them, taught them checkers and chess (and they watch) soccer together. My mom ensures that they are well fed.

“The kids are very protective of their grandparents. I feel it’s good for the boys to see how older people need taking care of by family. The boys also are being exposed to the idiosyncrasies of old age.”

Still, there are downsides to living in a multigenerational household.

Levitin says the living arrangement has at times put a strain on her marriage.

“It stresses me out to be in the middle of a conflict, as I love everyone very much and want peace,” she says.

Martin says she often doesn’t voice her opinion to her mother-in-law, even when she feels she is in the right.

To that end, communication is extremely important, says Mulligan. “If we couldn’t discuss openly amongst ourselves about any issues we were having, I don’t think it could have worked in a healthy way for everyone.

“It also exposes some of our vulnerabilities to one another. We really saw each other at the best of times and the worst of times.

“Ultimately, while living in a multigenerational home, we share living space but are still on our own journeys as individuals, along with our roles as parents and grandparents.”

All the parents agreed that having grandparents present will enrich their children’s lives. “I believe that the more (trusted) adults my daughter builds relationships with, the better for her,” says Martin. “I can’t imagine a more trusted adult than a grandparent.”

It’s a win-win situation for all sides, she says. “Bing gets to spend time with my amazing daughter and enjoy the magic that a baby brings to a family, and Jolene gets to build a great relationship with her grandmother and gets an extra person in her day-to-day life that loves her unconditionally. What could be better than that?”