One recent morning while the kids quietly ate their breakfast in the kitchen, my daughter broke the silence with a statement: “I need water!”
I barely looked up from my magazine. “You know where it is,” I said. “You can get it yourself.”
“But I'm so tired! My legs hurt, too,” she whined. Before I could respond, my mother rushed in, “I'll get it for you.”
“Mom! She can get it herself. Stop acting like her personal waitress!”
Invoking full grandma privilege with a dash of guilt, she sighed, “Let me do this for my granddaughter while I'm still able to move around.”
My mother has taken on a rather morbid perspective on life since my father died last year. Some days, grief weighs heavily, and she seems resigned to all the perceived trappings of old age (she's only 70), so my husband and I knew it was for the best when we invited her to move in with us.
But living with Grandma is different from visiting her once or twice a year.
During our visits, even I admit to enjoying it when she spoiled the kids. It’s now been over a year since she moved in and we're all still learning to navigate this new normal.
Having my mother live with us has been mutually beneficial on many levels. At nearly 40, I feel blessed to have my mom by my side and genuinely enjoy her company. With a built-in babysitter, my husband and I have been able to enjoy date-nights, run errands without the kids and get back into our workout routines which have been vital to our physical and mental health.
Meanwhile, my mother basks in the warm and bright energy of my children, which keeps her mind and body sharp and helps distract her from the ever-present grief of losing her life partner.
My kids get the benefit of living in a multi-generational and multi-lingual household. They have a third adult to rope into playing Lego, card games and dress-up. They learn more family history because she's lived through more of it than I have.
My mom's presence alone reminds me to enforce long-held manners that we'd overlooked in the past, such as greeting and addressing elders when we first encounter them. The kids hear more Chinese in the house because we're still in the habit of speaking to each other this way. And when my mom feels up to cooking, they get to taste the dishes she used to make for me, which are truly something special.
This arrangement is not all blessings, though. It has presented challenges, too. Grandma living with us has forced me to be the default naysaying adult in the house, frequently saying “no” to the kids. (When my husband is at work, anyway). It's a relatively new experience for me because I'm usually the passive parent, but it’s not a bad thing for me to be pushed out of my comfort zone.
Nonetheless, her good cop against my bad cop role can be exhausting at times. She has a television in her room and we've made it clear to the kids that it is her TV. Sometimes I find her hiding the kids in her room to watch television when we've already stopped screen time downstairs.
Toys and gifts are also a point of contention — particularly when they're used as bribes. On a recent trip to Ikea, my son decided he needed another stuffed animal. “No” was already on my tongue but before I uttered the word, Grandma decided to work it to her advantage and told him she'd buy it for him if he got a haircut.
They both got what they wanted.
I stewed quietly.
Then there is food. Mom enjoys watching my kids eat and happily offers second and third helpings — even food from her own plate. We are working hard as a household to develop healthier habits related to food portions and exercise, and my mom has actively resisted my efforts to manage this.
She doesn’t like to see the kids unhappy at the dinner table when I decline their request for a second helping and tell them to have a piece of fruit if they’re still hungry. On occasion, the kids will throw a tantrum when I insist they need to eat their veggies before they can have more of something they like.
“Dinner should be a happy time. Let them have more,” she'd say quietly to me, only to be met by my indignant glare.
Sometimes when we're at a stalemate, the kids surprise us. Recently when my son had finished his meal, she automatically offered him more from her plate.
“No, I'm good,” he said, gently pushing back her chopsticks. “Thanks, Grandma.”
I smiled widely.