The Risk And Rewards Of Living With Family


This year will mark the second that my husband and I have lived with our close friend, Joe. But what looks like a roommate situation to many people is actually closer to communal living for us. We share cooking and cleaning responsibilities. When we go out of town, Joe watches our dog. And when I need to get picked up from the airport, it’s usually a crap shoot who I should expect: my husband or my roommate. And while this living situation isn’t for everyone, it’s opened me up to an entirely new realm of possibilities for what marriage can look like, and for that I’m eternally grateful. So today I’m thrilled to have Addie here to talk about living with her sister, her brother-in-law, and their children and why, at least for now, it’s exactly the way she’d have it.

Maddie

The Risk And Rewards Of Living With Family | A Practical Wedding

by Addie Wright

Here’s a typical morning in our house:

6:15am: I wake up and put on a pot of coffee before stumbling off to take the first of the adult showers in the morning. My brother-in-law lets the dog out and wakes up the kids. My sister begins to make the kids’ lunches. Once I’m dressed, my sister showers while I make breakfast and arrange for food to be eaten. I start the arduous process of helping the youngest decide what to wear to school and convince my nephew that brushing his teeth is indeed part of daily hygiene.

7:15am: My brother-in-law finishes feeding the dog and leaves for work. Sis gets dressed and does my niece’s hair while I debate the latest sports news with my nephew.

7:30am: Sis leaves for work and drops nephew off at his school. Niece and I watch My Little Pony for a few minutes while debating/fighting about whether mismatched socks make her awesome or a hobo (we’ve decided that being a hobo IS awesome and left it at that).

7:45(ish): I pile niece into my car and we drive her to school (pre-K), which is conveniently located a half mile from my job. We count city blocks the whole way there because she’s currently really into counting things. I drop her off with a hug and promises to see her when I pick her up later that evening. Then I head off to work.

So yeah. I live with my sister, her husband, their two kids, and a dog. In one house. It’s not the most traditional way to raise kids but it’s a system that has been working well for us for the last two years. Did I mention that my sister runs a small business and I technically work for her? So she’s my boss and my landlord. And she’s my younger sister to boot.

Tradition smadition, that’s what I say.

The risks of living with my sister as an adult were huge. I am not opposed to group living. I am the oldest of six and spent all my college years with roommates. Communal living is not a new experience for me. But all of those communal living experiences are culturally sanctioned. Of course you live at home. Of course you have college roommates. Everyone is down with that scenario. Wait, you want to quit your very lucrative job, move across the country, and live with your sister while you eek out a living with an eighty percent pay cut? And you want to do this in the middle of a recession? I think I gave society the vapors. I was planning on throwing the very ideas of adulthood—independence (financial and otherwise), privacy, a home of one’s own, and autonomy—by the wayside in favor of shared bathrooms, financial dependence, and nap times.

Here’s the thing. That job was slowly killing me from the inside out, and no amount of money was going to make it better. I had just dragged myself through the field of broken glass that was a divorce and come out stronger and better for it. About a year after the divorce I made myself a solemn promise to stop doing things that made me heartsick. If I could leave a person who didn’t love me anymore, why shouldn’t I have the strength to leave a job that did the same thing? I am a healer by nature and one of the most important things is to maintain a clear heart and spirit. That simply wasn’t possible with my old job. So I left and never looked back.

When we were little kids my sister and I made a pact. Who ever could afford it first would hire the other; even, if that was to hold the other’s Blackberry. The idea was that successes should be shared, especially among family. So about two years ago my sister offered me a job with her company…with a significant pay cut. But I’d be doing work I loved for a company I believed in. I’d get to see my niece and nephew grow up. In exchange for the decrease in pay I could live with my sister and her family until I could afford my own apartment. It was a no brainer. I packed up and moved to Miami.

There are many up sides to living with my sister: unlimited access to my niece and nephew; people to vent to when you’ve had a bad day; people to cook for; a third person to break ties; a live-in babysitter for her, free rent for me; easy business meeting schedules (over wine obvs); the kind of collaboration that can only come from knowing your co-worker your whole life.

There are also downsides: having to explain to dates that no, I am not a single mom but, yes there is a car seat in my backseat (complete with tons of Barbies); getting used to the fact that my niece will join me in the bathroom every time I need to use it or take a shower; privacy is largely an illusion; I have to negotiate for television time; my Netflix queue is filled with Curious George 2 and Strawberry Shortcake reruns; personal space is nonexistent. I only have half a closet and most of a bathroom. It can’t always be easy for my brother-in-law to have to share a house with not one, but two opinionated women. In order for me to have any authority over the kids (which was super important to me if I was going to watch them all the time) my sister had to relinquish a little control over decisions. When Auntie says no dessert, I need them to back me up. But the same goes the other way. I have to back them up too. It’s hard to parent with three people. But it’s worth it. Bonus: you get to rotate being bad cop with the kids’ punishments.

But the upsides outweigh the down. My sister has time to dream big with her company because I’m handling the day-to-day activities. My brother-in-law has an advocate when my sister goes a little too far (I’ve been bossing her around my whole life, I know how she works). I get a built-in family without all the pesky birthing stuff. I get work that fulfills me and all the hugs I want. When my sister and her husband go on vacation, they know exactly who will be watching their kids the whole time. My sister and brother-in-law have largely allowed me to parent them the way I see fit when I’m in charge of them. I get to watch my niece and nephew grow into great little people. When my nephew does well in school, I’m super proud because we spent hours going over his multiplication tables. I know my niece can read because my tablet is full of books we read together. The kids have their mother’s looks, their dad’s attitude, and their auntie’s impeccable sense of style. If that isn’t worth giving up a little closet space, I don’t know what is.

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  • http://moirakatson.com PAW

    About a year after the divorce I made myself a solemn promise to stop doing things that made me heartsick. If I could leave a person who didn’t love me anymore, why shouldn’t I have the strength to leave a job that did the same thing?

    …why have I never heard it put this way before? That is a mind-blowingly awesome (and, while we’re at it, healthy) way to look at jobs. Rock on. I know that wasn’t specifically the point of this piece, but I wanted to call it out!

    Also, your living arrangement sounds wonderful!

    • http://www.wrightremedy.blogspot.com Addie

      Thanks. It took a while but I can’t understand why we are encouraged to leave bad relationships but pressured to stick with bad jobs. Both are life ruiners.

      • http://fourfeeteightpaws.blogspot.com/ Rowan

        I left a high paying job that was slowly sucking out my soul. Some people (and society in general) thought I was nuts with a capital N. But I remember my two best friends’ reactions when I told them – they both were like “Finally.” I have not regretted it at all. And money is funny – once you have enough to cover your basic needs, you spend what you make and you’ll adjust.

        • http://andshelovesyou.com youlovelucy

          Cosigned times a million. We’re much shorter on money right now, but the change in my health is so much more valuable than any amount of money lost.

      • Kara

        Amen re the job stuff. And the living sounds awesome!

  • http://writemeg.com Megan

    Wonderful piece, Addie (and I love that name!). As someone very close to her own younger sister, I can definitely see the pros — and, of course, the minuses! — of your situation. Being such a big part of your niece and nephew’s lives is definitely a huge plus, and so great. It sounds like it’s working very well for your family — and that’s what really matters.

  • carrie

    I think this is pretty freaking awesome. Not that you needed my opinion, I just had to comment.

  • MDBethann

    Great piece and good for you!

    My sister and I lived together for 2 years after she finished college & before she changed cities for grad school. The first few months were a bit rough as we adjusted to living with one another again, but after that, it was awesome. We’re 5 years apart, so having the opportunity to get to know one another as adults and without our parents around to intervene/referee (though each of us complained to our parents on occasion) was invaluable in making our relationship stronger and turning us into friends as well as sisters.

    If she ever wants to move in with us and help us take care of our kids after we have them, I might be open to the idea. After all, she’s a children’s book reviewer & loves kids, so there would be some awesome benefits :-)

  • Anonymous

    I was just thinking how incredibly lucky you are to have this kind of connection to your family and to be able to share this special time in their lives with them. I’m jealous in the happiest of ways because it seems like you appreciate completely what you’ve got here and what you gain from it.

  • Meaghan W

    Your sister is very lucky to have you! Also family helping family IS actually traditional, not just back to hunter gatherer days but even more recently. The notion that everyone needs to do everything on there own (including couples raising kids) is a somewhat new one. Sounds like a great set up :)

    • meg

      That’s the comment I was going to leave. The first thing that hit me reading this piece is “This is the MOST traditional way to live.” In fact, having a kid, and a lot of help from community, both paid and unpaid, (Fact: Maddie’s roommate Joe is actually showing up here in 10 minutes to watch the kid today so I can work, since the kid is on summer break. That’s paid help.) I can tell you that is the single reason I’m a sane parent. I’m not doing it alone, or as a team of only two.

      So yeah, my sister and I couldn’t make this work, I’m sure ;) but this is still part of my reality in one way or another.

  • Sharon

    Glad this works for you. There is no way I would ever be able to live with my (younger) brother and his (even younger) wife. It’d be bad enough with just me and my brother!

  • Sam A

    “I think I gave society the vapours”.
    This.
    (Could I please steal this phrase and just find excuses to use it… everyday?)

    • LMN

      Sorry! Didn’t mean to report this. I was overly enthusiastic in clicking “Exactly.” :)

  • GA

    Great post! It made me a bit weepy and nostalgic.

    My aunt lived with my family (my parents, me, and my sister) while she was in medical school. We all lived in the house where she and my mother and their siblings grew up. Though I was quite young, I remember it being a wonderful time in my life; she was like a second mother to me, or a much older sister. She and I are extremely close to this day, probably because of that experience of living with her. I know a lot of your upsides rang true for her, as well. She had a couple of nasty breakups during that time, and she’d come home in tears and hug me as hard as I would let her. (The first time it happened is the first memory I have. I was two.) She babysat me CONSTANTLY, to the point where she started taking me to some of her med school classes, where I’d sit in the back of the room quietly poring over her anatomy text book. It was no surprise to anyone that I went into science, and I’m sure she had a big hand in it. (My parents and sister are all artists.)

    These memories are very important to me. It taught me very early on that what we might call a “family unit” is much more fluid a concept than soon-to-be- and newly-weds are led to believe. The idea of getting married can at times seem so isolating… but I don’t think it has to be. I look forward to the day when my husband and I can open our home to family and friends in need, and make new memories with a new family unit.

    • Catherine McK

      This comment and the original post made me teary. Thanks for sharing the positive impact this type of arrangement had on your life!

  • B

    This is lovely. I lived with my aunt and uncle for half the week during my teens so that I could help with their kids, and it was a really great experience. I also lived with my older sister for several years during college and enjoyed that as well. Living with family can be a wonderful thing. My best friend and I have talked a lot about the appeal of communal living. We think it would be awesome to rent/buy a large house and live together with several families under one roof. Unfortunately its looking unrealistic for us given our different career paths but I haven’t fully let go of that dream yet.

    As much as I am for living with family/friends, I’m really struggling with our upcoming move back into my parents house. Has anyone here done that and had a positive experience? I love my parents but have always done best with a bit of space from them. I haven’t lived at home in years. Even in college I lived with my grandparents during breaks, not my parents. But our financial situation has made it necessary to live with them for a few months while we finish renovating the house that we just purchased. I’m particularly nervous about space and alone time since its a tiny house, and I’m also a bit worried that it will kill our sex life (paper thin walls, plus I’m weirded out by the idea of doing it in my parents house for some reason.) Any suggestions or success stories out there?

    • Danielle

      If your experience will be anything like mine, living with your parents won’t be nearly as bad the second time around. For me, my parents split when I was about 16 or 17. My mom had neglected her relationship with my father and with me due to depression and was having emotional affairs with people she met online. I was furious that I had to remain with her, especially when she would try to parent me in the hour she could spare from her online community.

      After I left for college, I never moved back home. I got a sublet the summer after my freshman year and lived with roommates and friends throughout college. Although I’d visit for a weekend every month or so, my mom would drive me up the wall by the time she took me back to school.

      I moved to the Seattle area after college and lived there for four years before giving up on an abusive relationship and an enjoyable but low-paying and dead-end career. This was in 2009 when the economy was in shreds. I could move back to the Midwestern state where I had grown up with no job leads, or in my with mom, who had since moved to North Carolina where she had remarried and the local economy was a rare bright spot. I was desperate enough that I decided to live with my mom.

      She was much happier, thanks to reduced impact of seasonal affective disorder. There were other important advantages, due to being an adult this time around. She was kind to me because she was glad to see me out of my relationship. I had a car and she didn’t, so she depended upon me to go places. I got a job after a few months and made more money than she or my stepdad. I felt free for the first time in years, which made me happier and better in our relationship. After a few months of employment, she started to provide unsolicited opinions about someone I was dating casually at the time. (In short, she could not understand that I saw the relationship as having an expiration date and a chance for a low-stakes dating experience.) At that time, I started saving up and got my own apartment nearby and still see my mom weekly, which is more than I ever imagined I’d want when I first left for college.

      • Danielle

        Also, forgot to mention sex, since you brought it up. I think it’s understandable to establish with your parents that you will need some personal alone time in the house. Set up some guidelines. A couple hours one or two nights a week, or whatever works for the three of you. That was my personal time. Additionally, when dating, I would stay with the other person, giving my parents a heads up that I would not be home that night. If your parents are reasonable, I think they’ll respect this (even if they do also nag you about your choices).

        • https://twitter.com/SnippetsofSarah Sarah E

          I haven’t lived with my parents post-college (with my grandma, though, who lives two doors down from my mom . . ) but when you’re looking for alone time, you might also be able to get it by gifting your parents with a date night- get them gift certificates out to eat or to the movies or a show or something. Then everyone gets special time with his or her partner, and it feels less like a roommate “sexile.”

    • MDBethann

      While I’ve never moved back in with my parents since I graduated from college (summer vacations in college were a mix of home and living some place else), I have gone on vacations with them and stayed at their home for a week or so at a time at the holidays.

      I’ve learned that when I’m under their roof or on vacation with them, even though they want me around to visit, I sometimes feel more like “child” and less like a “guest.” After several days, old patterns of relating to one another come back and I cease to be as good at regulating my temper. Since these are only visits, it isn’t a huge deal, but it still bugs me sometimes. I don’t think they realize they do it, and I’m sure I enable things too.

      I agree about sex being weird in a parent’s home. At my in-laws, our guest room is on the other side of the house, so we have complete privacy. It also wasn’t the house in which my DH grew up, so I think that also makes it less weird. At my parents’ house, our room is between their room and my sister’s room, so privacy is pretty non-existent. It was also my teenage bedroom, so while sex there would feel sort of rebellious/cool in a way, the lack of privacy makes it a real non-starter.

      Recommendations:

      (1) Set some ground rules in a family meeting. That way, you’ll feel like you and your husband have a defined role in the household and hopefully no one will feel like there is nagging or other issues about household chores. This would also be a great time to discuss things like private time.

      (2) Offer to help pay for groceries and utilities. My sister did this when she lived with me for a few years between college & grad school. I didn’t need her to pay rent, because I had my mortgage covered, but having her help with the costs that went up due to her presence eliminated a sense of obligation by either party.

      (3) Treat one another as adults first, parent/child second. It wasn’t easy for the first few months, but once my sister and I started treating each other as equal roommates contributing to the household rather than big sister (me) & little sister (her), things went fairly smoothly for the rest of the 2 years we were roomies.

      (4) Remain a team with your spouse. Like APW advice givers often say, your spouse is your family now and you should have one another’s back. Unless there’s a safety reason to not side with your spouse on something, support him and be on HIS side whenever possible if there are any sources of tension and conflict between him and your parents.

      Good luck!

    • http://unexpected-moments.blogspot.ca/ Sheryl

      My husband and I are living with my mom right now and have been for a year and a half. I came in to this with the same position: my mom and I do much better with some space. That’s certainly still true, and I look forward to having that space again in the future but having my husband here has actually helped immensely. It almost forces your parents to see you as an adult when you have your spouse living there too, and my husband will call me on it when I’m being unreasonable about my mom.

      It’s all in all been a good experience. I wouldn’t choose it if all other things financially were equal, but really it’s doable and I think it’s made me grow as a person.

  • http://www.meanestlook.com Sara

    Just F*ck Yeah! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Family –and life — is what you make of it. And you have a major #win under your belt. Also, let’s be friends, Addie! And I have a thousand My Little Ponies from the 80s if your niece wants them. :)

    • http://www.wrightremedy.blogspot.com Addie

      She’ll take them all! Also, I’m always looking for new friends.

    • Anon Here

      No, family isn’t always what you make of it. Not everyone has family that they are able to live with, or even speak to without considerable pain and anxiety. Some of us grew up in toxic environments with abusive families. Some of us WISH we had the luxury of being able to trust our families enough for supportive arrangements, but the option isn’t there without considerable risk to ourselves.

      • Emily

        Well, when your blood family is toxic, you always have the option to build a family of choice around yourself. Not that it makes the family stuff any less painful. Sigh.

      • Ana

        I read “family is what you make it” to mean that we can look find alternative definitions for our families. It doesn’t have to mean just the husband and children, nor does it have to expand to include the people we shared a house with growing up. I think it’s a refreshing perspective, a nice change from feeling like I have to buy a single family home and live there with just my wife in order to be a fully formed adult.

  • Gina

    I love this! You made me smile so many times. I love your attitude and perspective. I have four siblings and my closest brother and I lived together multiple times throughout college and law school. There’s nothing quite like having someone to whom you can just say “pick up your crap!” without having to be super-polite about it, like you do with roommates.

    Now that I live in another state, I miss cooking for him and having a built in mechanic and surfing buddy. But as my littlest sister looks at colleges in my current state, I find myself asking my fiance if she can live with us and looking forward to sharing that closeness with a sibling again.

  • Kerry

    this is awesome!

    also, Netflix now has a feature where you can sort your queue into different users…handy for those with kids!

  • Cleo

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dor96YnM_qo

    “Everywhere you look,” etc. etc. etc.

  • Kate

    I love hearing about extended family living together and it working out so well. Because I definitely have seen it go very very south (resisting the urge to throw shade right now haha). I think your reasons for moving in and whether there is a feeling of obligation on either side can be a huge factor.

    • http://www.wrightremedy.blogspot.com Addie

      It was very important that both her offer and my moving in was voluntary. That way we could stay on equal footing. Also, as kids and teens we had every fight humanly possible so there really isn’t much left for us to disagree about. That was really important for my brother-in-law. He didn’t want to get stuck in the middle of a sister fight. And we haven’t yet. Knock on wood!

  • Samantha

    I LOVE this! I don’t live with my brother and his kids but have been very active in helping raise them. The kids are basically parented by my brother, our parents (kids grandparents), me and my fiance- depending on who is around. I recently realized we need to communicate more about this fact and work on “backing” each other and getting poppy (grandpa) to stop spoiling them! But I think it’s so awesome for kids who have “extra” family heavily involved in loving and caring for them and the strong bonds that come out of it are priceless.

  • ART

    Basically my dream is to have a duplex to share with my brother and his (someday) family, with a cottage in the back for my mom. My fiance looks at me a little sideways when I tell him this, but I think it would be amazing. Great story!

    • Rachel

      Your fiance’s reaction is interesting to think about.
      I think I would be much more willing to live with my own family than with my husband’s. I wonder if anyone has experience living with their in-laws or their partner’s nieces and nephews and if it was as positive.
      Personally, I spent a vacation week living with my husband’s entire family in a huge house and I was very ready to be done with the little kids after the week. It further cemented our thinking that we are not ready for kids at this point! But to each their own – perhaps if it was my sister’s kid I would have enjoyed it.

    • http://theaftercath.blogspot.com Cathi

      This is my dream as well (with my little sister), except I hadn’t considered the possibility of a duplex. You’ve revolutionized my wishful thinking.

  • http://www.empapers.com Eleanor

    I loved everything about this story and could especially relate to the quitting a lucrative job part. This sounds like such a win-win-win-win arrangement, and like you are all richer for it.

    We do ourselves a disservice to sequester ourselves away in our little nuclear units.

    Kudos!

  • Jessica

    My husband and I recently purchased a 3 bedroom apartment, and we moved into it with my sister and my roommate from college. We’re expecting a baby next month. Everyone told us we would regret it, but so far it’s been great and I’m really excited to have so much help around for the baby. It’s relatively temporary (the roommate will be out when baby is ~8 months, and my sister’s only here for a year after that) but it’s an incredible financial help to all of us, and I’m really glad we were brave enough to ignore all the (well-meaning) nay-sayers.

  • Jennie

    We’re currently considering moving in with my mom to cut down on my husbands commute and increase the amount we’re able to save. I’ve been surprised how many people have said we should go for it. There are lots of good reasons to move in with her and it’s nice to hear positive perspectives of others living with family!

  • Not Sarah

    This immediately made me think of the TV show ‘Covert Affairs’ with Piper Perabo. Well, minus the divorce and working for the sister part (she works for the CIA).

    It sounds like your living arrangement is working out really well – good for you on taking that risk.

  • marbella

    So I thought this was going to be about communal family living, like merged families, and my immediate reaction was no way. This isn’t what I would really consider ‘communal living’ so I feel differently after reading. I was expecting it to be merged families – I’d be interested to hear how multiple couples with their own sets of kids would deal with this type of situation.
    This sounds like a great set up for OP and her sister and family. The one person I’d probably consider allowing to live with my family semi-long term is my sister. There’s simply a different dynamic with a sister/brother you grew up with (at least with mine) that typically allows for any frustrations to be worked out much easier than with a non-related housemate.
    And I speak from experience in this situation – T and I had a housemate for about a year, very similar to Maddie’s situation. We were the three musketeers. I absolutely loved having him around, and the small annoyances of living with someone other than your partner were more than made up for by perks and the fun that we all had, but I know that it could never have been a really long term situation. It was definitely different to living with housemates in college (even ones that were good friends) and we were only comfortable with it because of the specific person – it wouldn’t have worked with anyone else.
    It sounds like OP made the right choice leaving her job and that she has a great set-up and good communication with her sister and family. We lived with my dad, step-mum and toddler little sister for a few months when we moved to the states, and ‘co-parenting’ small kids when you aren’t all on the same page is a nightmare. I bet the kids love having their auntie around.

  • http://theaftercath.blogspot.com Cathi

    My younger sister and I are very close, to the point where we tend to speak in “we”, and say things like “when we were 10″ even though we’re two years apart.

    We’ve not-so-jokingly made plans to buy a house and live together, us and my husband and her boyfriend, if she gets a tenure track position in the area. So far it’s been in the tone of “haha that would be great, wouldn’t it? But seriously…”, largely because it just seems kind of crazy, you know? People would think we were in some sort of creepy sister-wife arrangement, or something. But I miss living with her like whoa. We lived together for a year after she finished undergrad (before she moved 1000 miles away for grad school, wah) and it was seriously the best. Hearing other people’s stories makes it seem slightly less insane to even consider the possibility of some sort of share-house.

    Someone upthread mentioned adjoining duplexes. That’s genius, and something I’m tucking away in my “We should do this. Haha just kidding. Unless you want to” mental file.

  • http://irvingplace.net Kayjayoh

    As of yesterday, ended a four-year stint of sharing an apartment with my sister and her son. They moved in to my two-bedroom apartment when he was three. After two years of living there, the place got to be too small for us and we moved into a much bigger (more conveniently located) three-bedroom, where we lived for another two years. Now they are in their own place and I am building a life with my fiance.

    It was great to be around my nephew in a semi-co-parenting roll. Life with my sister wasn’t always easy, as there are certain things that make us revert to fighting like children, but it was over all a pretty positive relationship. There are some things I am really going to miss about our four-year arrangement, and I will cherish those memories when I have moved far away.

  • Claire

    Practically giddy reading this! It is so interesting to read the experiences of another person who has chosen to live with family and thinks its a positive situation, not a burden. As some who has both lived communally growing up (like, literally on a commune) and has also chosen to open my home to my siblings and nieces, this arrangement sounds very familiar. My husband and I invited my younger brother to live with us while he’s going to college. My youngers sister and my two young nieces live with us for 4-6 months out of the year. I love having an active role in my nieces’ lives and having my siblings around means I have additional built in support and companions for activities my husband isn’t interested in (like thrifting for vintage teacups).

    The only thing I have to be aware of is making sure to keep my partnership with my husband primary and not use my siblings to back me up during a disagreement and “outnumber” him.

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