By Lindsey Rock
Issue 120, September/October 2003
I was living in New York City, where I'd just completed a two-year theater studies program. A Canadian with an expiring student visa, I lived with my boyfriend, Jared, a US citizen who worked at one of Manhattan's countless Starbucks and played guitar in a band. Our plans were nonexistent beyond making it to the end of October, when our lease was up and the future would be ours. But the summer after graduation, when I was home in Edmonton, Alberta, on vacation, the stick turned blue-and I discovered, to my shock and delight, that I was expecting my first baby. And everything changed. I returned to New York in September. We considered staying, but I didn't have a work visa, and Jared's small paycheck would have barely covered the rent. We considered moving to California, where Jared's mom lives, but again-no work visa, no proper health insurance for giving birth in the US, and I couldn't qualify for Medicare. We made it to the end of our lease, then said goodbye to Manhattan. It was a tough decision to make.
But in Canada, we had a free place to live--my parents' house--and free healthcare. Although Jared wouldn't have a work permit, he wanted to attend university, and in Canada, tuition is considerably lower than in most US universities. We decided to move in with my parents.
When Christmas came, we made our way home to Edmonton-here to stay, here to have a baby. We moved in with my parents, and they were thrilled to have us. It was the ideal situation-everyone was happy, and they even renovated the basement to accommodate our growing family. And shortly after our daughter, Harper, was born, Jared was accepted to the local college and granted a student visa.
At 24, I am a young mom by many standards-but I look about 18. When I'm out and about with my mother and daughter, many people assume that I am Harper's older sister or nanny. If I'm in a good mood, this can be mildly amusing, but telling people about the truth of our situation can quickly become a complicated, novel-length exercise, and I often hesitate before even beginning: No, I do not have a degree. No, I did not have a career before I had Harper. No, I was not married first. No, I don't pay rent. I pay no bills, nor do I own a car or a credit card. I still find it difficult to come up with two pieces of photo ID. And when I explain that I still live with my parents, it seems to inspire images of babies having babies and all sorts of other stereotypes. Those who make such assumptions can be unfriendly toward Harper and me.
But the opportunity my parents gave us to get on our feet as a new family and to build a strong support system was exceptional. Many families can't afford to accommodate grown children and their partners and offspring, and not everyone faced with such an opportunity would see it as a golden one, but we do not take for granted. It's fortunate that Jared and I get along very well with my parents. In our multigenerational Edmonton household, we live with my parents and my adult sister. Each family member has something to give, share, barter, and receive on emotional, physical, and material levels. We are fortunate to be able to pool our resources with kin under one roof. Our support system is not a phone call away-it's just upstairs.
When we moved back to Canada, I was eight months pregnant-no way was I going to look for a new job. Had I been employed in Canada full-time, I'd have qualified for one year of maternity leave, but it seemed impossible that I could meet that benefit's 700-hour minimum work requirement, let alone find employment in my swollen state. But no one was expecting me to rush out and find a job, and I wanted to be home with my baby.
My mom and dad have always made it clear that if Jared and I are not getting an education, we need to be working. I think their main concern is having grown children sitting around all day with no ambition. Thankfully, they both agree that being a stay-at-home mom qualifies as "working." They agreed to support us financially, one of the many ways they continue to support us today. Having a little one allows for hardly any down time, so I was glad for the value given to my being at home with Harper, and the appreciation shown for the work I do around the house. I shudder to think that, if I were out working, all of my earnings would go directly to daycare costs.
My father and I worked out a budget that we thought reasonable, one that covered the necessities and even the occasional movie. On this limited budget we opted for hand-me-downs and cloth diapers. I also chose to breastfeed, but for more than merely economic reasons. My parents wholeheartedly support all of these decisions.
To earn some spending money, Jared and I began doing all the household chores and all the cooking. I am also in charge of getting the groceries for the entire household, for which my parents reimburse me. This is my favorite job, because we now buy mostly organic foods and are eating healthier than ever. I feel strongly that we should eat well now-if we weren't at home with my parents, we'd be saving food stamps and going to the food bank.
And having all these extra family members around? Sure, there's the free babysitting. But more important, Harper is growing up in an environment rich in people she can trust and who love her to bits. She is becoming a strong, independent, smart, secure little girl. For her, each family member serves a purpose. They share with her their resources and she gives back to them on an emotional level.
In our house, Grandma is hardly geriatric. She works full-time outside the home, and she's not ready to retire, whether on her own terms or because of her age. But after hours and on weekends, Harper and Grandma enjoy discovering how to blow bubbles, find shadows, and pick strawberries. They both enjoy every minute. My mom is a wonderful resource-a seasoned professional, a mother, who provides me with an understanding that Jared cannot. And she never seems to mind giving me a few extra minutes for myself. She tells me that she takes pleasure in giving us the kind of support she did not have when she was a young parent. Like many moms, I often feel exhausted at the end of the day. Sometimes I just need a break from Harper, and I've learned that Harper sometimes needs a break from me. So when Grandma walks in the door, it's "Bye, Mom, see ya later."
My dad, too, works outside the home full-time. He has dreams of early retirement; but he's nowhere near the average retirement age of 65. To Harper, "Papa J" is for climbing on and playing on the Internet. Harper has just turned two, and she already has a "Favorites" folder on the computer. My dad is always supportive, and a wealth of knowledge when there are money questions or problems. And he loves to play with Harper while Jared and I are vacuuming or cooking a good dinner. I appreciate that he enjoys her so much, and can spend the time with her that he didn't have when I was a child, when he was a young parent starting a career, with a mortgage and bills to pay.
My sister, Joanna, plays an important role in our household. She is a wonderful help with Harper, so I can get little breaks and replenish my patience. She is a spare hand and a friend to talk to, and though she's inexperienced in the world of motherhood, she's learning about raising children, just as Jared and I are. Harper and Auntie Jo have a unique relationship. Jo is the one who is away from home the most, but when she's here, the two of them play special games and enjoy snuggling up and watching Cirque du Soleil.
The stereotype of the nuclear family tells you that you haven't "made it" until you've earned a college degree, gotten married, landed a job that pays a decent wage, with a pension plan and benefits, and bought a house-all before having children. There may be struggles for young families like ours, who are often looked down on by those who have "made it"-here in the Western world, opportunities such as the one my parents offered us are few and far between. It is an unfortunate fact that most young families must struggle every day to make ends meet. Without the financial and emotional support of my parents, I would be working full-time, Harper would be in daycare, Jared might not be allowed to stay in Canada, and we would most certainly be on welfare. It would be hard, but we wouldn't complain too loudly because we'd still be proud of our choices, and we'd still be a very happy young family.
But my parents have been honing their career skills for some 20 years; their income greatly exceeds what I could bring in if I were to work full-time and one or both of them were to stay home with Harper. What they give us is an opportunity that we are happy to accept: I want to stay at home with Harper, and Jared wants to earn a degree. Those are the choices we have made.
Living in a multigenerational household is not just about getting the financial support we need. It's not only Harper, Jared, and I who benefit from this arrangement. Emotional and social needs are being met on many different levels. Spending an afternoon listening to our elders is not as common as it was in the past. Today's society worships youth, so there is a decline in respect for the elderly-and with TV and other forms of media, we are losing our oral traditions and our roots. But if you've spent a day cooking in your grandmother's kitchen, you know that it is equally important to you and to her. Both of you have needs: you may be there because she needs a taller, stronger body to help her, but you're also there to learn from her, to find out who she is. She will pass on to you her recipes, her secrets and stories.
Regardless of a family's size or shape, every parent needs a support system. With migration, immigration, and urbanization, many families no longer live near relatives. Support needs to be found elsewhere. We can find support from a friend, neighbor, or even online, or from a group of people in a similar situation. La Leche League, for instance, was founded on mother-to-mother support. Such support is vital-everyone needs a break, an extra hour of sleep or some alone time, sometimes just someone to talk with. I can never thank my family enough for teaching me that it is OK to ask for help. I do, in fact, need the support they offer. Dinners are cooked with greater ease, and I don't always have to cart Harper off to the bathroom with me. Someone is usually around to lend a hand or a watchful eye so that I can do the laundry or take a shower. And I thank God for naptime!
As in any family, in ours there are stresses, sleepless nights, tired days, and days in which little or nothing gets done. Jared still has loads of homework; Harper still wants to "Get bees" (Harperspeak for breastfeed). We are one little family unit, just the three of us . . . and then some. It is just as complex and complicated as any type of family. Some may think it odd that young parents would live in a house with a new baby, a set of (grand)parents, a sibling, and no disposable income. For Jared and me, it is the ultimate solution. For our entire family, it is the ultimate situation. We wouldn't have it any other way.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Fox, Bonnie J., ed. Family Patterns, Gender Relations, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Gore, Ariel. The Mother Trip: Hip Mama's Guide to Staying Sane in the Chaos of Motherhood. Seal Press Feminist Publications, 2000.
Lindsey Rock is a 24-year-old stay-at-home mom. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada with her husband, Jared; her daughter, Harper (2); her mother and father; and her adult sister, Joanna. While Jared attends university full-time, Lindsey volunteers by writing for and co-editing a local parenting magazine, Birth Issues.
Photo supplied by the author.