Living with the in-laws – my life as a LOSER (London Overpriced, Scrounging off Elder Relatives)

From Daily Telegraph, features

It’s a sobering statistic: the number of adults living with their parents has risen by 20 per cent in 15 years and – with the crash accelerating the trend towards “boomerang kids” – many older people are bracing themselves for the return of their adult children.

But what about those returning with children of their own? This, too, is on the increase. It’s also the basis for a new Sky One sitcom called Parents, starring Tom Conti, whose daughter (played by Sally Phillips) moves in with her two children after she loses her job. Billed as a “credit crunch comedy”, the programme reflects a rapidly growing trend.
In Parents, the couple’s plight is a source of shame. But is there anything wrong with raising children with the grandparents? Thousands of British Asians have been doing it for decades. And now, so do I, aged 34, with my wife, Emma, and family; we have lived with my wife’s parents for more than a year, bringing up our two children in an extended family. There are huge advantages.
Emma, 32, grew up in Crouch End, north London, which is now one of those medialand areas people talk about when they want to caricature the “liberal elite”, but was in her youth unfashionable. Her parents, Trevor and Valerie, bought their large Edwardian house in the early Eighties and raised four children there, and had expected eventually to downsize after their offspring left home (or so they hoped).
We were already living nearby, and part of that cliché – me in journalism and Emma in publishing – when Emma fell pregnant, first with Kitty (now three years old) and then, 17 months later, with Elfie (Eleanor Sophie). We were helped financially by her parents and mine. I’ve always wanted to be at the forefront of a new social demographic acronym, such as DINKY (double income no kids yet) or GLAM (greying, leisured, affluent, married). But I fear our acronym would be LOSERs: London Overpriced, Scrounging off Elder Relatives. We would have struggled to afford the most modest property in the borough, were it not for the Bank of Mum and Dad – the last well-respected bank in Britain.
But we took this to its logical conclusion when work began on extending the flat we were in, making it uninhabitable for at least a few months. In fact it’s been well over 12 months.
There have been difficult times. A family is a microculture, and integrating can be a shock. The laundry in particular has been the source of most conflict, the amount of washing a modern nuclear family has to undertake is unfathomable to my mother-in-law, and the washing machine being the Jerusalem of our shared house, the fault line over which all sides lose their tempers.
My father-in-law was the original New Man, one of the first Englishmen to cook, dance and spend time with his children. (He’s peculiar that way – he doesn’t even like football. If this were a war I’d suspect him of being a spy.) But since both Trevor and Emma are magnificent chefs, the rivalry in the kitchen can be intense.
And there is only one shower. I don’t think anyone, after spending 40 years working and looking forward to retirement and tennis, wants some weird man (me) hanging around their bathroom. That’s got to be a violation of some human right. But my in-laws are tolerant people, even if in the early days the passive-aggressive notes did escalate from one to two exclamation marks.
This is especially remarkable when one considers that Valerie is also caring most of the time for her 91-year-old mother, who is in independent living quarters and may have to be moved in, making her one of that rare demographic, the supersize sandwich generation.
But back to the benefits, and not just financial ones. Raising children is hard, and after the second one the pressure becomes intense; it feels like the scene in Das Boot when the submarine plunges so deep that the rivets began popping out. “It takes a village to raise a child,” is a corny phrase, but it is true.
Until recently, among working-class Britons at least, it was common for a married couple to spend time with one or other of their parents, until a property could be found in the neighbourhood. The British staple of the mother-in-law joke still reflects the tension this caused.
And in the broader scheme of things, nuclear families are unusual. Their development in medieval north-west Europe had huge effects on society. The system emerged in Britain, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, societies that also produced the jury system, capitalism and liberal democracy. Weaker ties within families meant fewer boundaries between them: less energy dissipated by warring clans meant more stable societies.
Some anthropologists argue that this influenced Anglo-Saxon liberalism and gave us a love of independence, the pinnacle being home ownership (which is, by grim extension, partly how we got into this house-price credit-crunch mess. But that’s another story).
The nuclear family is not ideal and not, in any longer evolutionary sense, “natural”. Across Europe and Asia people still live in extended families and for many British Asians this allows the parents to work or socialise while the grandparents do some of the child-rearing. The psychological benefits to children are well established.
Our children love it. After rising at 6am, sometimes 5.30am, and bounding into our bed, the children run downstairs to see Baggy and Pappy, as they call their grandparents. (I’m not sure about the etymology of the former, although it was originally “granny-bags”.) The early morning kitchen is often chaotic, with Humphrys and Naughtie competing for attention with shouting adults and children.
When Emma takes Kitty swimming Trevor will usually look after Elfie, and the in-laws will do the occasional bedtime, as well as spending afternoons doing puzzles or taking the children shopping.
We are also in direct contact with an older pool of wisdom, and teaching methods, although the human mind does erase a lot of the memory of child rearing, probably because otherwise no one would do it again. Our children have a fairly large circle of adults whom they see as direct family, too, including Emma’s sister Victoria, my mother, who stays once a week, and the American lodger, Sarah, who often cares for the children. And not forgetting the in-laws’ sweet, protective and rather dim dalmatian Jasper, and their sinister Egyptian cat Bosie – which, I suspect rather like my in-laws, treat our extended stay with a degree of suspicion.
All being well, we’ll be moving back in the autumn. We’ll have a kitchen and shower to ourselves and the in-laws will finally have an empty nest. But the children will miss out – on a garden, a large house, a dog and cat, but most of all their grandparents. Or, as we call them, the free childminders.

Comments so far

  1. The nuclear family is not ideal and not, in any longer evolutionary sense, “natural”.

    It’s funny how some people (not you, necessarily) assume that if something is “natural”, we ought to make great efforts to preserve it, but if something is “artificial”, it could just as easily have been some other way, so why not go laissez-faire. It seems to me the opposite is true: if something is truly natural, it can take of itself, but if it’s not, it may need to be supported, if it’s worth supporting.
    With regard to the nuclear family, nothing you’ve written here suggests that you’ve given up on it. You have temporarily moved in with your in-laws, but you’ll be moving out when you can.  Just because an ideal isn’t rigidly adhered to doesn’t mean it’s not an ideal.
    The big question is whether the nuclear family is worth upholding as an ideal. If it was truly the historical basis of the open society (or an important cause), then, well, maybe it plays a role in continuing to support the open society. Definitely something to look into and, if the idea has intellectual merit, to support.
    Obviously, the idea of the nuclear family isn’t restricted to the precise form it took in the late 20th and early 21st century. The isolation of children from other relatives – a major negative of our current nuclear families – hasn’t always been part of the package. It’s more the result of the weakening of life-long geographical communities than of changes in family structure per se.  One can imagine changes to remediate that that don’t involve wholesale abandon of the nuclear family pattern.

What do you think?