Sunday, April 7, 2013

Living Together

I recently heard something that sent me into shock. My friend's wife has proposed to her in-laws that they all move into a two-flat apartment building together. She thought it would be good for everyone to be closer. Her argument is that they can care for my friend's parents as they age, and the parents can help them with future children and their first home owning responsibilities.

I'd hate to interject my opinion but I happen to have first hand knowledge of this arrangement. Obviously everyone has their reasons for doing the seemingly crazy things they do. But let's face it, no good can come from this situation. I know my friend's wife sees the good in everyone and is a calm lovely person, so my take on this could seem overly cynical or downright nasty. I don't mean to be that way but I simply can't recommend anyone do this. I've let my friend know what I think but I haven't really come out with the brutal honestly that lies in my brain. There can only be one way for me to explain how I feel about such a concept. Harsh as it may seem: THAT IS A TERRIBLE FUCKING IDEA. THAT MIGHT BE THE WORST IDEA EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE FUCKING UNIVERSE. HAVE YOU LOST YOUR MINDS? OH MY GOD.

Now I understand that somewhere out there families might be normal and get along and prefer to be ulta-involved in each other's lives, but that has not been my experience at all. I mean, I've been so traumatized by my family that I blog about them and share rude details of our lives with the world. How mean is that? Honestly though, the only real reason to enter into this is if you're broke and need help getting started, or you're new to the country and need support. The deal has got to be for 5 years only and then you need to split. If that is not in the contract then forget it.

I want to give you a glimpse into this life by providing some details from mine. My grandma and uncle have lived in the apartment underneath my parents since I was six years old. My mom has wanted to move out for as long as I can remember, but the pull of obligation and guilt and lack of opportunity has kept them stuck there. She used to say it was because she had to take care of my grandmother, but if that was really the case then she has been doing so for the last twenty years and may continue for twenty more. It's a ridiculous notion really. My grandma and uncle guilted them into staying and my mom herself had an unrealistic expectation for where they could move to. I don't know where my dad's head was in all of this, but I know he didn't want to move in with them in the first place and they should have listened.

Because my mom and grandma communicated daily by opening the door and screaming down the hall until the other would scream back, my dad installed an intercom system. (one bad system replaced by another.) My grandma would hold the buzzer down until someone would run over and yell into it. Sometimes they would argue into it as if to amplify their problems for everyone else. A common occurrence went like this: (although it was all in Polish/Hebrew)













This exchange was followed by my mother laying various breads, often far too much for my grandmother to eat, on the stairs by her door. That act was followed by my grandma coming upstairs to throw money on our kitchen table. The money would land back on my grandma's table until she found a way to put it in my mother's purse or her coat pocket and it would stay there forgotten. One day Mom would find it and think it was there all along. The first phrase I learned in Polish sounds like this: ya neeiktsa. It means: I don't want it.

There was never a conversation or decision or aspect of my life that wasn't discussed among all four of them. My grandma didn't want me to learn to swim at a young age, but my mom did it anyway. My mom did not want me to eat sugar during the week, but my grandma gave me all kinds of crap all the time anyway. I never had a babysitter, only my grandma. My parents never went out on many dates or out much at all because my grandma and uncle would judge them for leaving me. As a young child I went to every curtain selection, every chair and countertop purchase, every boring ass adult house and home need there was instead of having play dates with kids my age. I developed an imaginary friend named Catherine Nicola that I talked to regularly and still remember aspects of today.

My uncle always berated my mom for spoiling me and still tells me that I never do anything right and am an ungrateful child. He has yelled at me while I was on the phone for ignoring him, and one time it happened during a job interview. He doesn't have children of his own and he is not American, so I don't know what he expected out of me but he didn't get it. It was impossible for him to fathom that when he came into my parent's apartment I didn't rush around making sure he had something to drink and serving his every need. He has a 1950s version of womanhood stuck in his mind and voiced concern that I am just a lazy brat for most of my life.

My grandma fought my mom on everything, and in turn my mom fought me on everything. I was to take ballet, even though I wanted soccer. I was to play piano, even though I wanted drums. When I took on a part-time job in high school my mom told me I was never going to be anything in life because I didn't care enough about school. My grandma reported my every move to my mom, and my dad always took their side in each battle. I never had an ally of my own. Everything had to be just so, and it had to involve us all. Life was all about pleasing someone else, and I always felt as though I had four parents in the same house.

I hate to blame family for my personal failures, but you have to admit that their influence can lead to some terrible life decisions. A while back I was offered a job at a vineyard as the tasting room manager. I had wanted this job so badly. It was perfect on so many levels. I was 26 and it was a chance for me to get out of Chicago and see and do something new. It seemed like the perfect age and time to have an adventure and take a chance. It was also the light at the end of a tunnel of a bad relationship I was in and had no idea how to get rid of. It was a real chance at starting over, with a real job with real health insurance, and real people who were willing to help me. I had a plan that I would work there for a few years and then start classes at The University of California in Davis. I visited, got hired, found an apartment, and quit my job in Chicago. I announced to my family that I was going to move, and then they got involved.

Each of them told me it was a stupid idea. Why would you move for such little money? What are you going to do all alone in California? You don't know anyone there. You won't be able to handle it. You should just move to a new neighborhood in Chicago if you want a change. Your car is too old to go. Who is going to help you move? They won't pay for your move? What kind of a job do you think you got? It's not a good job. It's not worth it. If they're too cheap to pay for your move then why would you want to work for them? What happens if they let you go? You'll be lonely and miserable you'll see.

So, I chickened out. No one would help me pack and move, they all thought it was a big joke. I wrote a lengthy email to all my friends saying that I never lived in a small town so I wouldn't know what to do with myself anyway. I ended up commuting over an hour each day in awful traffic to a stupid receptionist job in the city instead. I got 3 tickets and into 1 accident that I got sued over years later. To this day, losing the job in California is my biggest regret.

If you want to invite constant scrutiny and second guessing into your life then by all means please go ahead and move in with your family. Every job, purchase, vacation, clothing choice, piece of mail, and any decision at all will be up for debate or at least discussed whether you want it to be or not. And if you live in the same building, you don't even realize now what kind of arguments could be had. Just wait until screaming matches ensue over who uses too much water, and if fixing something is really necessary, and the state of the storage in the basement, or which color flowers are acceptable to plant. These arguments occur DAILY at my family's place. DAILY.

Even if you are a calm, rational individual that doesn't mean that combined with your in-laws or your own parents you will remain that way, especially when child rearing is involved. Imagine for a second your future child's point of view. She will move 2000 miles away because she feels like she feels suffocated by everyone. She may grace you with a call once a month and sound like she can't wait for the conversation to be over. She will have commitment phobias and be forever indecisive because nothing will ever be good enough. She will cower under the shield of relationships rather than find coping mechanisms. She will fail over and over and feel sorry for herself and be very selfish and vain. Her allies will tell her she is too hard on herself.

And you will use this future child as a bargaining chip or negotiator in several disputes over stupid things. She will not care one way or another but try fruitlessly to make peace. During the first year I lived in Seattle I received a barrage of phone calls from each of them complaining about a remodel project.
(example one)

GRANDMA: Avivitchca, tell your mama I no vant it fence.

ME: Grandma, it might be nice in the back. You can have privacy.

GRANDMA: I no vant. Vhy she money spending?

ME: Well, I think it's important to her. Change is good.

GRANDMA: Your uncle no vant fence eiber. You tell your mama not do this. Vhy she vant it?

ME: I don't know. I like parking back there so I don't know where the car would go.

GRANDMA: No make sense. Your uncle no vant. He very angry. He feel like he not own building. She do vhatever she vant all time.

ME: She does, but sometimes she has good ideas.

GRANDMA: You tell her not building fence here. She listen to you. Don tell I said you do dis.

(example two)

ME: Ma, you're really upsetting Grandma and Uncle about the fence. Maybe it's not worth it.

MOM: Are you nuts? Do you know I had to get every god-damn neighbor to sign off on a waiver so that I could build it here? You think I'm going to let it go after all this trouble?

ME: I don't know. Listen, they don't want it. Why waste your money?

MOM: It will bring value to this place. You don't understand. I'm doing it. They're always against everything I do.

ME: Then why cause a problem? If they don't want changes then why bother?

MOM: Because this place would be a fucking dump if it wasn't for us. Don't listen to them, they don't like anything until after you do it. You know years ago when I painted the doors in our unit white? Your uncle screamed bloody murder at me that I was stupid and making the place ugly and I didn't know what I was doing. Then a few months later, he loved it and did the same thing downstairs.

ME: Well I don't know what to tell them. She asked me to convince you not to do this.

MOM: Tell them you would like a fence. You can sunbathe out there and no one will bother you. And we can have parties and it will be nice not to see the alley back there. Tell them.

It's not fun being in the middle of every mundane issue, but I'm not sure it can be avoided. People take sides and rarely in these circumstances can you all agree or even make your voice heard. How will you avoid your child's involvement in each squabble?

And you know, you have to make this future person, or adopt or whatever. Either way, you as a couple need alone time. And you will be having alone time above or below your parents who may hear you and may even comment about it.

A few years back my mother was complaining to me about my grandmother. She was in tears describing every assault my grandma throws at her. She even told me that my grandma complains about my parent's "lovemaking," which obviously made me very uncomfortable. She apparently would come upstairs and make rude remarks regarding whether or not my mother had a good time last night.

So besides your alone time, your parents will also be having alone time. Due to the closeness of the living arrangements, they may feel like discussing things with you.

Last summer when I was in town, my mother casually said that she was dusting in my old bedroom and happened to find a small bottle KY in a drawer. I didn't ask what she was doing in the drawer but I was disappointed in myself for leaving that laying around. It's a perfectly normal thing to have of course and often used for non-sexual related matters, but still. I was heavily embarrassed that she brought this up. And that wasn't the worst of it. She went on:

MOM: Aviva, you know you're not supposed to use KY. It causes problems. They don't want you to know about this, but it's true. I had a problem and my doctor told me not to use it. So I threw yours away.

ME: Uh huh.

MOM: I'm serious Aviva.

ME: Ok.

MOM: There is a better product. Your dad ordered for me on the internet. It's called Probe. You want me to write it down for you?

ME: I think I'll remember. Thanks.

MOM: It's much better. And you know what else the doctor told me? You have to get up right away after sex and urinate.

ME: I know Ma.

MOM: You do? I didn't know that. Usually right after I am like boom! Asleep. But you have to get up and go to the bathroom so you don't have problems.

ME: I got it Mom. Bathroom. Good.

Throughout the course of writing this blog post I was trying to think of any benefits that have come from this situation. Obviously I am extremely close with my grandma despite all the drama because she was always around. However, I remember spending time at her place in Roger's Park nearly every day before this insane move. Closeness just depends on how you handle the relationship, not necessarily how close your living quarters are.

I can't explain enough how growing up with four parents is too stressful an environment for a child. I don't want to be too hard on anyone really considering this, but as my grandma would say: "Tink good on dis. Tink good."

Or, take it from one who knows: try your best to have a normal, healthy family life. Let your parents or in-laws retire to Arizona. Visit on the major holidays, and all will be well. Give yourself a chance to miss them.

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