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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Three Generations Under One Roof? Not For Me!

I am perplexed by the Chinese fascination with having 3 generations under one roof. For 2 decades, I have repeated unceasingly that it is a recipe for family discord and unnecessary hatred.

Every human needs personal space. I'm not just talking about physical space, but emotional, intellectual and action space. There are times when one wishes to be alone with one's feelings. At other times, one wishes to hold certain opinions without being judged. At yet other times, one wishes to do act without interference from another.

It is impossible to do that when you live with your mother-in-law because you are forever a guest in her home. Come on... She was there first. She bought the furniture. She placed them. She chose the curtains. It would threaten her place in the home if you were to mess with all that without her permission. In the end, you are home, but not home because if it were really your home, you shouldn't have to ask permission to change the furniture right?

One lady explained to me her predicament. "I am 35, but to keep the peace with my MIL, I must quickly rush home after work to eat at a certain time... so that the maid can wash the plates. After dinner, I must bathe quickly so that the maid can wash to bathroom. It is ridiculous that I cannot choose when I wish to eat and bathe. And since I pay the maid, the maid should fit my schedule and not the other way around! On top of that, if MIL does not get her way, she gives me the cold shoulder and won't talk to me for a whole week! I have no peace at home and I spend my weekends in malls and restaurants just to feel a sense of peace."

Is that a dignified way to live? No it isn't! Especially when one earns enough to buy a unit in a top end condominium such as The Sail, without having to borrow from the in-laws.

Now, how about the mother-in-law who stays in your home. That is hardly better because the elderly person proceeds to re-arrange your furniture and contradict you at every turn. They move in and take over, and then you begin to feel like a guest in your own home. Most women who stay with in-laws, find their personal space at work... because at home, they have none.

The thing is, the MIL doesn't do it to hurt you. At least, mine doesn't. There are no ill intentions whatsoever. They're just so used to ordering the lives of the children (i.e., your husband) that they naturally intrude on every aspect of your husband's life including you. One MIL overheard the couple quarreling, sat them down in front of them and said "Come! I will mediate."

Gee... can't a couple have a marital fight in peace?! It so happens that once in a while, a husband and wife enjoy a good fight... and like in some other marital activities that are fun for couples, a MIL has NOT her place.

Besides, it is plain impractical to live together in a nation of HDB flats. A house that was built to house one nuclear family cannot comfortably house 3 nuclear families. In China, where this custom originated, people lived in the same compound and each nuclear family had their private space. I cannot imagine raising my 2 children in that one room we had in my MIL's 5-room flat where the only private space to be had was the bathroom and even there, you had to take turns. Another lady I know had no place to pump her breast milk because all she has is 2 rooms in a smallish semi-detached house, of which one was being cleaned and the other was being used by her husband.

It's one thing if you are poor, uneducated and have no job. It's an awful life but one has no choice. But if you have a job that pays well, and you can afford a more dignified lifestyle wherein you can eat when you want and bathe when you want, then go for it! Anything else is plain stupidity.

As for me, it took me 18 years to earn the respect of my MIL. It required us to move out and keep a certain distance... and with that distance, came respect and an acknowledgment that I am a mother and a wife whose judgment, decisions and wishes can prosper the family.

Even when not living under the same roof, if I made a cake, she would try and see if hers is better. If I thought this was good, she thought that was better. If I decided my children should be disciplined thus, she thought another way was better. If I thought one brand of soy sauce was good, she swore by another. And only because she did not live with me could I find it in myself the strength to smile graciously and agree that she was right. It has been a long journey of quietly swallowing my pride and silently doing what I thought was right. Thankfully though, my decisions have prospered the family and I have earned her respect.

However, it took 18 years. In that time, a person would have graduated from university. But I reckon that even in 18 years, I could not have done it if we had stayed under the same roof. My confidence would have taken a beating and I would have developed an everlasting hatred for her.

No... I don't think hatred is too strong a word. I have seen 60 year old women vehemently detest the 80 year old women they were forced to stay with for 40 years of their lives. When living quarters force women to intrude upon each others' personal space, sores develop into wounds, and wounds into scars that never heal.

This notion of 3 Generations Under One Roof is impractical in Singapore, and women who put up with it suffer in the same way men would suffer if they had to walk a thousand miles with a pebble in their shoe. You get used to it. You learn to cope. You develop compensating strategies. But you get hurt and wounded. And you hurt and wound the other too.

Why then, do older folks insist upon it? My MIL and I have come to a place where we learn to agree on some things but not on this. She persists in believing that we should all stay under one roof. Since she is getting rather old, and has developed a healthy respect for me, I have agreed. The new house will comprise a separate 4-room apartment with kitchenette and patio. There will be her space (1000sqft) and my space (3000sqft: because I have kids), with separate entrances. Technically, we are still under one roof, but this way, sores will not develop into wounds, nor wounds into scars.

It is important too that old people feel a sense of control over their home environment. It's part of aging gracefully and well. I have no intention to boss the old people around and bend them to my will at home. And since I am a very particular housekeeper and I like my things just so, I would end up subtracting from the dignity of their old age with my constant demands to "put things away" and "not put Super Glue with the eggs in the fridge" and "don't force Little Boy to finish a never-ending stream of Chinese assessment exercises".

In their space, and in their fridge, they can make their own decisions and live a life of dignity till the end of their days. Parents will only learn to let go if you can earn their respect. And in the long term, it is important to earn their respect so that you can better care for them. Otherwise, you have rebellious old folks who do odd things detrimental to themselves and those around them. At a certain point in time, the one who was lead becomes the leader and it is no good for the elderly and the family when the elderly refuse to be lead gently by the young.

One must have harmony in the home and forcing a wife to stay with her in-laws at a time when she is establishing herself as wife and mother, does not build harmony. It builds strife, sows hatred and breeds distrust. And when come the time where infirm old folks need peace, quiet, love, nurturing and gentle leadership, they will find none at all.


Open Kitchen Concept said...

I so agree with you. I have friends who stay with their parents/ parents-in-law and I have seen how that affects their relationship..

barefootgardener said...

You said it all! This post must go into every pre-marriage counselling package!

Fresh Fry aka 福星 said...

another wise entry again on human relationship. tis is also the reason why i need to move out ('cos of my folks) and my bro don't understand it. he has tis "Chinese" idea that the whole family needs to stay together.

and i tell him, "it doesn't mean i hate the family to move out, you know?"

petunialee said...

OKC - I wrote the post to help some of my unhappy people clarify their thoughts and find the courage (and arguments/reasons) to move out. If you think it helps them, send them the link to this post in particular and hopefully, it brings them comfort.

petunialee said...

BFG - Good idea! I am so making The Daughter and The Foster Daughter and Little Boy read this post.

petunialee said...

Fry - Get a move on! Pick up your stuff and move out today!

Blur Ting said...

Every word you have written is so true! I have experienced it for myself. Distance (giving each other space) really makes the heart grow fonder in this case.

And you have done the right thing by building another house within the same compound. You have taken everyone's feelings and needs into consideration. Such a wise move!

petunialee said...

I saw it done a lot in France when families are well off enough. One of our friend's Dad was a renowned surgeon, and his mother used to a a professional piano player... The old lady was very particular about almost everything (and was used to star treatment) and his wife was no less opinionated. The house within a house was charmingly done.

Another family set up a comfortable cottage next to the main house, sharing a garage. It was pretty and practical and people got along, agreeing to respect the other's space.

It's gracious living for everyone.

Ivana said...

Amen to that! That's why I'm up till 2-3am every day searching for an apartment and viewing at least 6apartments every saturday!
My MIL is not as fierce as the others you have mentioned, neither is she unreasonable, but a gal just has to have her own space = )

petunialee said...

Ivana - Yeah babe!

Anonymous said...

So, so true. but in my case, my problem is my own mum (sad huh?).

And the dilemma is between the best for my children (having a relative's care vs maid/childcare) and the family's sanity.