Embracing grace when multiple generations live togetherWritten by Pam Woody
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Family became more precious to me after I sat by the bedside of my dying father-in-law, after I cared for my mother following emergency triple-bypass surgery, and when I held newborn nephews as my sister celebrated the beginning of her own young family.
We’ve lived near each other; we’ve lived countries apart, but nothing beats the memories and personal growth that came from three generations living under the same roof.
North American media conjures up images of conflict and chaos when addressing the idea of multiple generations living together. Do you envision Archie Bunker and his son-in-law, Meathead? Or maybe you relate to Raymond and Deborah trying to survive Marie and Frank – and they lived across the street!
God says quite a bit about relationships in Scripture: instructing the older to teach the younger (Titus 2:3-5), promising blessing for honouring parents (Ephesians 6:1-3) and offering hope that people from every generation could praise Him together (Romans 15:5-7). Sounds inspirational, but do families really heed Biblical advice when grandparents watch their own kids raising kids or when teenagers find themselves living with a senior generation who doesn’t understand their world?
Even with certain ethnicities that value multigenerational living, there are still challenges and stresses to navigate. Having embraced this experience on three different occasions during my married life, I’ve found that living together is often born out of necessity. How we transition through these events reveals our character and proves to either bless or break family relationships. Each of my experiences pulled my family together and drove us apart in different ways.
Our first adventure unfolded when my doctor put me on complete bedrest for the duration of my second pregnancy. My parents offered to help. So, with my toddler and my husband in tow, we headed to my parents’ home, where I’d be unable to referee or rescue while my parents and teenage sister bumped into my own little family on a daily basis.
The second experience lasted about six years, after my husband’s father had a stroke and could no longer live on his own. He downsized to join our world of preschoolers by bringing his twin bed to our basement and his howling dogs to our backyard.
The most recent encounter presented itself when my parents needed a place to stay for a few months while building a new home. We’d lived together before, but this time the experience included older grandparents and emotional teens.
I can’t pretend that our adventures were easy. I had a tough time living in a home where I was a wife, mother and a daughter – all at the same time! I shared a kitchen with my mother, which was challenging. My parenting skills were on display for parents and in-laws to critique – that was intimidating! And I endured the explosion of my daughters’ teen attitudes in an already-tense environment – humbling for any mom. My husband and my dad struggled to be leaders amid the "crowd," and I fought with my sister just as my own girls would later fight to find their place when in-laws, grandparents, nieces and nephews all invaded.
With three generations in one house, space became a precious commodity. We all experienced a new level of vulnerability because there was no place to retreat when tension mounted or emotions unravelled. We learned together that grace is the foundation for survival and that family members must embrace relational skills such as service, forgiveness, communication, respect and gratitude.
Despite the challenges, we made the most of occasions to work and play together. We had so many opportunities to tell stories of days gone by (you know, the ones about walking in the snow uphill both ways!). We shared our family heritage and modelled our values in the little things such as tea parties with Grandma, baking apple strudel with Grandpa and learning to love both softball and football because we now had a variety of cheering sections.
It warmed my heart to watch my mother read to my toddlers, bake cookies with my daughters and power-walk with my teens. My girls embraced life with a crippled grandfather and they learned to serve him with compassion. The very experiences that I would have chosen to protect my children from – like watching Grandpa near death – became the situations that built character in them.
Can living together be done? Sure! Is it easy? Not really! By embracing grace as a family value, we experienced God in our home. We watched as grandparents cuddled with granddaughters and then connected with teens in spite of generational differences. We faced the pain of death that was intensified because our children expected their grandfather to be a part of their lives forever. We worked through the tension of a strained relationship between my husband and my sister. We exemplified faith as we comforted and encouraged one another. I know that my family learned to embrace the good and forgive the bad.
Don’t settle for a Hollywood definition of multigenerational families, and don’t avoid the experience because it may seem inconvenient. When my parents moved to their new home, my dad’s tears were those of sadness as he told his granddaughters goodbye. My girls still miss the sound of their grandfather coming up the stairs to laugh with them over dinner, and my mom’s nurturing input will live on in the granddaughters she cared for during our years in close quarters. Besides, there’s always that "sowing and reaping" principle that means our children just might make space for my husband and me when we’re old!
Pam Woody was a staff writer at Focus on the Family in Colorado, who had been married for 25 years and had three grown daughters, at the time of publication.
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