Finding your place in a changing family

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As if I haven’t reminded you enough – Saturday we’re hosting a Community Parenting Indaba in association with The Parent Centre. They’ve hosted successful  events like this all over Cape Town and we hope to have a great turnout. If you’re around Fish Hoek Saturday morning, 11am – please drop in to the Methodist Church in First Avenue and have a cupcake with us

We’ll be discussing parenting in the extended family and I’d love from input from you guys.

Many teen moms live with their parents, at least for a while. It’s not just teen parents who experience this though – in many communities, extended family under one roof is commonplace – and with money being tight for most of us, it’s something more and more families are considering. I can only imagine that by the time our children are grown, it’s going to become a lot more “normal”. We’re all going to have to relearn that communal way of living that was so ordinary to all of our ancestors, learn to compromise, to be considerate of others and share. Privacy and space can be a thorny issue – but if everybody does their bit, pulls their weight and contributes in the ways that have been agreed upon – it can work well and benefit everybody.

The modern family tends to isolate themselves, guard their privacy jealously and keep others at arm’s length. Living together means that has to change.

The whole family has to find a new way of being together. Young parents have to emerge as adults, despite the fact that they’re still in their parent’s house. They have to grow and take responsibility, not only for themselves but for their children as well. They have to guard against taking advantage (even unconsciously) of their parent’s time and money. Even if that means saying no to a willing grandparent offering babysitting services etc.

They must also learn patience and tolerance , not take offence at every suggestion their parents make, especially of their parenting choices. Grandparents aren’t always watching and judging – don’t always assume they are. Taking full responsibility is most important – even if granny wants to or tries to take over the role of mother – it’s up to the child to make sure they are gently but firmly reminded that it’s not necessary. If a young mother is doing all the right things, her parents should not feel it necessary to step in and take over – whether in subtle or blatant ways. However – there’s such a thing as accepting help and advice too – martyrdom doesn’t look good on anybody.

Grandparents have to realise that their child is now an adult, whatever their age , and responsible for their own child. They need to learn to give their child the space to take up the role of parent fully – without influence, pressure or rolling of the eyes. All parents make mistakes. It’s very hard to parent successfully when you feel you’re under scrutiny. Grandparents need to be aware of that and give the new parent  space to come into their own.

Grandparents also need to understand what they’ve signed up for. If they have agreed to let their daughter (or son,but usually daughter) live with them and raise her child in their home – they need to understand that this will entail extra strain on their finances, less time, space and privacy for them, and a different way of life for everybody.

As long as daughter is living up to her end of the bargain – financially, school or work-wise, chores-wise, behaviour and responsibility-wise – grandparents should not be holding her “mistake’ against her forever. Every minor disagreement should not turn into threats of being turned out into the street. They’ve agreed to take this on, to make this change – and now everybody must get on with it, free from recriminations and strings attached.

There’s no room for “As long as you live under my roof you’ll do it my way”. No room, on either side, for manipulation or mind games. Not in this situation.

It’s just a fact. It will be an adjustment. There will be arguments. There will be hurt feelings along the way. There will be many, many times when EVERYBODY has to bite their tongue. Honesty, sensitivity and above all – consideration of other people’s feelings, time and space are essential.

What you do need is a proper plan for what everybody’s role is. How much money do you have as a family? How much do you need from who and what will it be spent on? What about when you disagree on discipline?  How will you handle it when the little ones learn to “Ask Granny” because she’s the softie? How much babysitting will grandparents be willing and able to do?  What will happen when things change and mom and child want to move out on their own?

Whether it’s in a teen parent situation or not, living together requires us to think hard about how we measure our contribution to family: is it strictly financial? If so, where does that put a stay-at-home mom, for instance? Where does that put the elderly widow having to move in with her grown children and family? No – there’s more to it than money.

Every member of every family, no matter their age or work situation – has something to offer.  We need to value each other’s strengths and differences and above all, love each other. Everybody needs their space, privacy and autonomy – but underlying that, there needs to be a strong, cohesive sense of “US”. All of us in this together, no separation of us and them.

Bottom line: if you’re a strong family in general you’ll be fine. If you’re already struggling and in general tend to fight a lot – living together is going to be tough. It won’t change anything, just bring out what’s already there.

Have you been there? Have you parented while living with your parents? How involved have you been in raising your grandchildren? What worked and what didn’t?

Advice? Stories to share?  What would you do differently?

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