So...it's been three weeks
since the big changes at Granny's House. Six of our family moved away, eight remain. It would be an exaggeration to say that it feels like a ghost town, but let's just say that Saturday mornings are eerily quiet and that we keep making WAY too much for dinner!
Everyday happenings are now taking their places in the memory books. Dave made many wonderful changes in our house...Kristen ran the house in many respects...Molly learned to read here...Warren went from baby to young man...Henry learned to walk on our floors...Carrie was born in the bedroom upstairs. Those things will forever live in these walls despite the inevitable march of time.
As our years together drew to a close last month, I marveled at what a blessing it was to have lived in the same house for so long and then to part not just as family, but as friends. Living in crowded conditions and combining families with different needs and expectations can be risky undertakings. But nothing truly worthwhile and satisfying is without some risk, and there are ways to navigate the inherent mine fields so that injuries are few and heal quickly. The strong relationships among the fourteen of us at the end of our adventure give evidence that love and determination and respect can overcome the dangers and leave us with treasure for a lifetime.
Many times during our 2 1/2 years together we heard ourselves telling others that we were learning many lessons, and a few days ago I started thinking about those lessons and realizing that I should write about them while they were fresh. Some of you may someday be privileged to share your home with another family for some period of time, and perhaps going into it armed with our observations and suggestions would make it a little easier. So, in no particular order, here are some of the things we learned and the ways we made it work....
- Make use of everyone's strengths
If you double the number of inhabitants in a house, you (at least) double the work and the challenges. But you also have double the talents, skill sets, and personal strengths. Someone will be a morning person who doesn't mind getting the coffee going to help everyone else get up. Someone loves to bake. Someone is a great organizer of time or spaces. Find those strengths early and capitalize on them (without making anyone feel taken advantage of, naturally!) And of course, if you have a carpenter in your midst, you might end up with a gorgeous 14 x 9 foot built-in bookcase that stays when he goes :-)
- Give grace for everyone's weaknesses
We all have them. We all have a few that are going to irritate or hurt someone else. And with double the people, we double the opportunities for our weaknesses to alienate a family member, cause extra work for the group, or just grate on collective nerves. If we go into the enterprise with the understanding that we also need to serve a double measure of grace, there'll be more than enough to go around.
- Work with and respect the differences
We all have these too. Not all our differences are weaknesses, but even good differences can cause conflict when they're not recognized, respected, and used in productive ways. We all have different levels of comfort with clutter, cleanliness, organization, noise, bickering, music styles, etc., and finding acceptable levels of all these things is part of the successful melding of a household.
While there were obviously challenges and struggles and trials during the past two years, we have all come away richer because of what we learned from each other. John learned new things about home repairs, woodworking, and tools from Dave. Kristen became a much better cook as a result of my being incapacitated a good part of the time and yet still being available to give advice (too many cooks spoil the soup, but sometimes two is okay). Kristen and CJ ran a produce co-op for fifteen families for a year, and as a result they, along with the rest of the kids, learned a tremendous amount about fruits and vegetables and about running a small business (like how to deal with dissatisfied customers!). Nathan worked with Dave on several kinds of jobs and learned new skills. Kristen taught Molly to read; I taught Kristen a few things about teaching kids to read. I, the "expert" in childbirth, learned a lot from Kristen and her midwife as we all prepared for a home birth. We all sharpened each other with theological discussions. And these are only a few of the ways we learned from each other. None of these skills are ones that were only valuable while we lived together...we carry the benefits always!
- Confront the difficulties honestly
Yes, there were difficulties. We said things that hurt each other. We failed to live up to agreed-upon responsibilities. We had expectations that sometimes clashed. Money ran short. Tempers grew short. Things got broken. But because we were committed to being honest about disappointments, misunderstandings, harsh words, etc., we were able to preserve harmony over time. We weren't always ready to talk it out the minute there was a problem, but we didn't let things fester. Whether through a private conversation, a family meeting, an email to the whole crew, or a late night IM to the upstairs bedroom, we manage to straighten things out and realign expectations before there was long -term damage.
- Respect schedules and resources
This is so important! Every family settles into routines...and every family has certain ways they deal with finances and other resources. Put two families in one house and these can easily become sources of conflict. Some like getting up early; some like to sleep late. One family likes to eat out often; the other can't afford it and feels awkward about it. One family is used to doing things spontaneously; the other would rather plan ahead for a picnic or a party. One family has planned a quiet evening at home; the other has invited friends and hasn't made that clear. These are all areas where communicating expectations and committing to respect them can avoid frustration and resentment.
- Be aware of blurred roles
It's almost inevitable when there is a houseful of children of all ages and two moms and two dads, one set of whom is also a Granny and Papa, that the roles and the lines of authority become blurred. It's important to both acknowledge this fact and guard against its negative effects. Children still need to know who their own parents are and should still have a special relationship with their grandparents. Since our youngest children are so close in age to our oldest grandchildren, this was a challenge. And since because of health issues I spent much of our together time in my room, separated from squabbles and chores, Kristen had to assume part of what would ordinarily have been my role. Even CJ was another mom, further blurring the sibling and niece/nephew relationships. But all of us gave a lot of attention to keeping things as clear as possible to the children and making adjustments when we could see that there was confusion. It's not a one-time-family-meeting kind of thing: it has to be addressed and tweaked often. Our grandchildren were never in doubt about who they were ultimately accountable to, and their routine care was never left to me. When Kristen needed a break or a sitter, she checked way in advance and never just assumed that because we all lived here together we'd be available to stay with the kids any time. And when she did leave them, she laid out pajamas, planned a meal, whatever was relevant for the time she'd be gone. None of us EVER felt burdened by this aspect of our living together.
- Attempt separate family times
Togetherness is one of the benefits of combining households. We'll forever treasure the times we shared. But it was important to do a few things that included only our nuclear families--devotions, a movie, breakfast out, a drive to see friends. We were careful to avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings about these times, all of us understanding that it was helpful to pull away periodically and give the children a clear sense of their own family.
- Take lessons learned into the next season
Just today, Kristen was sharing with me how she's using some of the systems we put together while she was here to make her current home run more smoothly. After all, she has a pretty large family for a 20-something (she'll remind me that I can only say that for a few more months!) and she has many years of homemaking ahead. Her cooking skills and her ability to feed a crowd were honed while here and will serve her and her family forever. All of us learned lessons in selflessness that hopefully have become part of our character and not just a way to handle the challenge of dividing up a house 14 ways!
I think the most important lesson for me, even though it wasn't a brand new one, is how completely and perfectly God provides for His own. At the absolute perfect time, He brought our needs and the Slaughters' needs together into a package with all the provisions for those needs. And because His gifts are perfect, our time together ended perfectly. Oh, there were tears...an ocean of tears. But they were tears of sadness for the distance that would soon be between us, and tears of celebration for God's answers for the Slaughters' future. He has provided, He is providing, He will provide.Jehovah Jireh.
(Kristen, feel free to jump on and add your thoughts here...)