How to Create Space When Living (and Working) at Home in a Multigenerational House

Photo: Getty/MoMo Productions
Seemingly overnight, COVID-19 has redefined the functions of our homes. Once havens for self care, entertainment, and connecting with friends, our personal spaces now host work, play, and, in the case of millions of young professionals who returned home to their parents, our extended family. In fact, the rates of which young adults are living with parents have not been this high since the Great Depression. Cohabiting with family comes as no surprise when also considering that unemployment, childcare issues, and financial insecurity continue to reign.

However, for millions of BIPOC families, living in a multi-generational household (when any combination of parents and children, aunts or cousins, grandparents, or other relatives reside together), isn't a trend; it's a way of life. One in five Americans live with multiple generations, according to PEW Research, and it's a growing occurrence among nearly all racial groups.

Experts In This Article
  • Akeera Peterkin, Akeera Peterkin is an activist and the founder of Amani Nia Therapeutic Services.

Whether a multi-generational house is a cultural norm for you or not, when you add in the stress of a pandemic, navigating the halls can be tricky. Depending on the relationships in the household and the cultural norms, setting boundaries can be difficult. But it’s not impossible to find your space with your family. “We often find that young adults living in multigenerational households tend to experience familial expectations that they often trying to navigate,” says Akeera Peterkin, clinical social worker and founder of Amani Nia, an inclusive and BIPOC-focused therapeutic services group. These rifts can then cause feelings of guilt or shame for individuals. While establishing boundaries will depend on your unique situation, it’s not impossible. Keep reading for tips on how to live at home with your family and not lose your cool.

1. Recognize your family's expectations

Moving back home can feel like you've traveled back in time. Not only are you sleeping in your childhood bedroom, but you may be facing similar rules and curfews from those bygone days as well. Because family responsibility is key for so many households, ignoring it or the nuances of how your family sees your place in the home can just make things more awkward. Instead, Peterkin advises initiating the conversation on expectations head on. She suggests utilizing family meetings or establishing family meals together with an ongoing conversation on household dynamics to ensure that all parties are on the same page on any topic that’s adding tension in a household. This way, all individuals in a family feel seen and heard and begin to find more peaceful outcomes to household issues during a neutral time and not in the heat of an argument.

2. Create routines

Establishing a routine for yourself can foster autonomy and give you a sense of normalcy. Doing so "helps to create a sense of safety, predictability, and togetherness in a multi-gen household," says Peterkin. Get creative with what a routine can serve in your life—maybe it looks like a solo walk every morning or an afternoon coffee enjoyed in a nearby park.

Or it can be a simple division of space and time between where and when everyone works. Varshita Yerva, a 22-year-old marketing manager, moved from her apartment in New York City back in with her parents and high school-aged sibling in Parsippany, New Jersey. She established a routine with her family so that she and her younger sister have each taken a room in their family’s apartment for remote school and work. Their parents then keep to a common living room and kitchen area for their work and daily tasks. When work and school have wrapped up, the family comes together for meals and reconnecting.

3. Set your own boundaries 

“Boundaries can be difficult to set in multi-gen households due to the varying family hierarchy and cultural factors that may be present,” says Peterkin. Plus, navigating parent-adult child relationships can also be uniquely challenging. But, by explaining the reason you’re setting a boundary, you’re opening up the space for empathy and vulnerability in your household. It’s less of an order but more of a discussion in what systems in a family can work for all. With this method, there can be less miscommunications and in the household.

Los-Angeles based social media specialist Alexis Mendias, 25, uses a group chat with her parents and younger sisters so everyone is on the same page. She has also has set a boundary of how much detail she's willing to share with her mom and dad about her whereabouts. “I've had to tell my parents, 'If I go somewhere and don't tell you, you have to be okay with that.' I can see in their reaction it's a fear for my safety, which I understand, but also maybe a power struggle,” she shares. "The freedom to just go to the grocery store without 'my tracker' is all I want sometimes."

Having an open and honest conversation about your needs can temper any unnecessary tension. Say you're struggling for silence during meetings or important classes.  Communicate with your family ahead of those dates when you cannot be interrupted or pitch in with family chores. It may not be possible to reserve full days of quiet solitude but asking for no interruptions during specific times helps set expectations and avoid any unnecessary confrontations.

4. Don’t let conflict brew

Tensions are going to rise no matter what, but it's best not to let them fester. "Families that argue and handle conflict through passive (silent treatment, walking away, etc.) and aggressive (yelling, personal attacks, slamming items,  etc) approaches tend to create an environment where individuals can feel emotionally and/or physically unsafe," says Peterkin. Rather, she suggests a clear and continuous conversation in cases where it is possible.

That's advice that Jessy Santana, a 34-year-old Montreal-based entrepreneur, lives by. Since quarantining with her husband, toddler, and her mother-in-law (whose initial visit turned into a longer stay because of the pandemic), Santana grappled with the changing dynamics of domestic duties, her mother-in-law’s Chinese cultural expectations, and a lack of boundaries. After a few months of arguing, she and her husband found a better place thanks to regular check-ins. "We are trying to balance more and hold each other accountable," she says.

5. Remember to self care

So you may not be able to take those long, luxurious baths you used to when living alone. And you may find yourself with more family obligations or even family arguments now that you're in a multi-generation household. But it's crucial to remember to take time for yourself. A lack of boundaries and harbored tensions in your household can move from frustrating to mentally taxing fairly quickly. "If unhealthy arguments are frequent, the body will experience a constant need to enact its defense mechanism and expose the nervous system to a constant flood of stress hormones," says Peterkin.

Remember: You deserve to feel okay. Just as you do for your work meetings, alert your family members when you are going to practice self care, whether it's an at-home spa day, work out, or FaceTime with friends.

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