How to live with your parent again

It's nothing like the first time, and it can be a lot better.

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Key takeaways

  • The number of adults living with 3 or more generations is rising.
  • Members of these families who have lived together before have to consider new issues when recombining households.
  • Setting boundaries, being open about finances, and giving each other time and space to adjust can smooth the transition.

It was 1995. I was 12, and I was blasting music from my prized possession: my 5-disc CD changer in my room. As I belted the bridge of my favorite pop-rock song, my mom pleaded with me from downstairs to lower the volume. I groaned louder than my stereo in response and thought: I cannot wait to move out and never live with my parents again.

Fast forward 26 years to summer 2021 with me being a mother myself to 2 high-need sons—and my dad suddenly dying at 69.

I already had been regretting moving far-ish from my parents and in-laws. All 4 grandparents lived in Staten Island, New York, which was 2 hours in traffic (and there was always traffic) from our home in Long Island, New York. Then my newly widowed mom made a significant confession: She didn't want to live alone. And I didn't want her to live alone. I finally realized my mother and I needed each other more than we did when I was that angsty tween. My desire to be far-ish away was supplanted by a necessity to be in the same space to help each other through this trying season.

First, I needed to have a frank talk with my husband about a potential new living arrangement. We had discussed relocating about 2 weeks prior to my dad's death; my husband also was tired of spending more time driving to our families than actually seeing them. Still, despite always liking my mom, becoming housemates requires a level of affinity we hadn't previously explored. My husband was honest when I asked how he felt about moving my mom in with us: He wouldn't have been as open to living with my irritable dad, but he was willing to share everything but a bedroom wall with my easygoing mother.

So a week after my dad's funeral, at the end of an epic house-hunting day, my husband and I found a new home in New Jersey. It was big enough for my mom to move into too, more affordable (per square foot, at least) than the Long Island home we now needed to sell, and a scant 30 minutes away from my in-laws (and a much more bearable 45 minutes in traffic). We'd share the kitchen—though given how much we order in, this was a small concession—but there was a spacious bedroom with its own entrance and an adjacent bathroom that my mom could call her own. About 2 weeks later, she checked out the listing in person and agreed we should put in an offer, which we did. One uncomfortable bidding war later, our family of 4 plus Mom were in contract.

Multigenerational households on the rise

In 2011, only 7% of adults were living with 3 or more generations in the same home. That percentage was gradually creeping up when COVID-19 hit and the number skyrocketed to 26% of adults in 2021. It's not a passing fad. While the pandemic spurred the move-in for 57% of those living together in 2021, more than 70% of those cohabitants say they plan to continue living under one roof.*

Just because the trend has staying power doesn't mean recombining households always goes smoothly. Here's what my mom and I learned as we moved back in together.

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It's kind of like moving in with a partner for the first time. For one, you both have to like where you'll be living. For another, you have to figure out who's bringing what—or in the case of my mom and me, who's not bringing what. Besides a few items for which we could justify needing duplicates, we pared down our belongings so as not to clog our communal kitchen and storage spaces. It was brutal, but important work: My mom was leaving her home of 35 years, which had accumulated all manner of tchotchkes (and spatulas, apparently).

You have to set boundaries. My 7-year-old assumed that once Nana moved in, he'd sleep in her bed next to her every night. Nana, understandably, had different plans that we needed to convey to my son. Speaking of sleepovers, my husband and I didn't want our bedroom to share a wall with my mom's room, all in the name of protecting relationships from proximity overload.

You should do things together too. My mom doesn't want to "intrude" (her words, not mine); I don't want her to feel like she's some random tenant. Our happy medium has been all 5 of us gathering for family dinners most nights. My mom and I also have dedicated "just us gals" TV-watching time.

Try to make it a symbiotic relationship. My 7-year-old didn't get into an after-school program, so Nana stepped up with homework and snack-serving help once she moved in. And she's our de facto backup childcare when schools are closed, kids are sick, or my 3-year-old gets suspended from daycare (yes, kids can get suspended from daycare). That's huge for this dual-career couple. I think my husband and I have the better deal, but we are there for my mom's tech support needs, I order all her groceries and take-out, and I cook meals for her when she'll let me. And of course, if there's ever a medical emergency, we'll be a few rooms away from her instead of hours.  

It's best to be upfront about whatever's irritating you. My mom and I like to doom spiral over family dinners, trading headlines about the dire state of the world. My husband wasn't a fan and told me as much; I passed the message onto my mom. She wasn't thrilled to be censored, but my kids getting more and more freaked out was objectively the worse outcome, and of course my mom didn't want her grandchildren to be extra anxious. Plus, she wants my husband and me to speak our minds to preserve family harmony—and we want her to do the same.

But also, you must pick your battles. My mom could probably complain daily about my relative slovenliness. She doesn't, and I'm trying to afford her that same consideration when something I intentionally leave out on a table mysteriously joins a neat pile of unrelated items.

Everyone benefits when they're open about money. My husband, mom, and I jointly agreed that my mother wouldn't start defraying our house expenses until she sold her old home. That's because she couldn't afford 2 places to live, and we could swing another couple of months of costs on our own—but not forever. Although it feels icky to charge my mom to live with us after she housed and fed me for 18+ years, we've all decided to tie her contribution to our property taxes. That way, when they go up, her portion automatically increases too. If they stay flat, she doesn't have to pay more. Better to have a single awkward conversation than many!

Change isn't easy. As excited as your parent may be to live with you and your kids, the move might come with sadness, especially if a loss—whether of a loved one or an income source—prompted it. Even without those kinds of losses, they are likely giving up the house and neighborhood they've called home for decades. Recognize how hard this transition can be for your parent, be patient with them, and give them space to mourn (i.e., maybe don't blast 90s rock music their first day living with you). My mom and I aren't quite 2 months into living together again, and we're all learning as we go. Gradually, she's adapting to how our little family goes about daily life, and we're adjusting to being a family of 5.

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