Household Codes

18 August 2018

I’ve been blessed to share a number of different living arrangements. Like most, I started as a child in a household. During college, I was in a dorm, then shared an apartment with three other guys, and started grad school with a similar arrangement. Later in grad school, I moved into a small apartment attached to a single-family home. I spent several months before I got married renting a bedroom from a couple with grown children. Since marrying Kimberly 15 years ago, it’s just been the two of us. (In case anybody’s wondering, I like the last one best.)

As I’ve put down roots in my community, I have also become an “associate member” of three other households. I don’t spend the night there, but I come and go without knocking and frequently take part in the family life. Two of these households have kids, and recently I’ve been reflecting on what it takes to be a good member of those households–places that are filled with children, but they’re not my children.

As a starting point, here’s a quick comparison and contrast between the roles of child in a family home, a member of a unigenerational household (like a house of grad students, for example) and an adult member of a multi-generational household.

Household Codes Chart

Unigenerational households and multigenerational households operate very differently. Unigenerational households tend to be fairly democratic; multigenerational households can’t be. The tiny barbarians lack the skills and impulse control to function in the world apart from adult support. As a result, there’s a much higher degree of planning and coordination, and a great deal less spontaneity than in a unigenerational household: all the adults can’t leave the house at the same time, food has to be prepared at specific times and in specific ways, the house needs to be quieter at nap times, and so on.

Childcare responsibilities are not equally shared among adult members of a household, for reasons that start with basic biology: women get pregnant, and men can’t breastfeed. Taking one thing with another, responsibilities that involve leaving the house for extended periods of time will fall disproportionately to the father, and responsibilities that can be done at home with children underfoot will fall disproportionately to the mother. (Technology mitigates, but does not eliminate, these effects.) But the sharing extends beyond just the parents. While the parents have primary responsibility for the children, and other adults correspondingly less responsibility (at least in our culture), there are spill-over effects on the other adults who live in the household.

The parents’ greater responsibility means they get—and deserve—a relatively greater precedence; there is a real hierarchy here. Other adult members of the household are expected to plan their use of common resources (cooking, laundry, and bathing facilities, for example) around the needs of the parents and children. This would be grossly unfair in a unigenerational household, but where the welfare of children is at stake, it makes perfect sense. Two quick examples here:

  • When the children are brushing their teeth and making their last trip to the bathroom before bedtime, no adult has equal claim on the toilet. Getting the kids to bed on time is important, and disruptions in the routine tend to balloon out of control quickly. So the routine is maintained, and the adults can hold it.
  • When the small children are down for a nap and that’s the mother’s one opportunity that day to get a shower, nobody’s claim trumps hers. The other adults can shower earlier or later; she can’t.

Which brings us to the subject of how to be a good “associate member” of a household with children. Every household is different, so the particulars will vary a bit, but here are some general principles to work from:

  • Know your strengths. Botching a messy diaper change makes more work for everyone. Know what you bring to the table, and what you’re better off letting someone else take care of.
  • Generate surplus. Food, time and effort, emotional labor, childcare–there are a lot of areas where you can contribute. Bachelors can afford to just break even (not that there’s any future in that, even for them), but adults who live with children cannot; kids are a net drain on the community resources for years, and the adults around them have to make up for that. If you want to live like a bachelor, move in with bachelors. If you’re going to live with a family, live up to the company you’re keeping.
  • Be good with the kids. That will mean different things in different households; make a point of learning what it means to the particular children and parents you’re dealing with.
  • Plan your use of shared resources around the needs of the children and the parents. You have less responsibility and more flexibility; use it.
  • Learn how to provide emotional support to the people around you, including the short barbarians. It might be a pat on the head, a listening ear, help with a frustrating toy, babysitting while Mom gets a shower, or bringing home a bottle of wine for the parents. Pay attention to what they need, and as you’re able, be intentional about adding value to their lives.
  • Short of debilitating injury, don’t put all your needs on the parents. Parents already have their hands full, and the children’s needs will always trump yours. Build your network and find other people to rely on. If you fall down the stairs and shatter your femur, of course the parents will do their best to help you, but even then, the children have to be cared for. Of course friends look after each other’s needs, but friends also understand one another’s obligations; no good friend thinks their own needs trump the children’s.
  • Know when to disappear. You are part of the household at some level, but you are not part of the family, and that matters. There are times the family needs their space, and at those times, the most valuable thing you can do is back off.

Parents, feel free to weigh in here. What am I missing?

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