If that’s not an option, I recommend silence and a total break down in communication.
I can’t imagine I’m the only person in this situation: my mother-in-law moved in with us (she has since moved out to live with my sister-in-law; her living with us was never meant to be permanent). She has some health problems, but nothing progressive or terminal like cancer or Alzheimer’s. She lost her job, she’s still too young (60) to qualify for most government programs, she couldn’t afford to live on her own, and so she came to live with us.
Yet most of the research and guides out there are aimed at either: 1. People caring for elderly parents who are suffering from long-term, debilitating illness or 2. Children moving in with parents.
In 2007, about 3.6 million parents lived with their children. Certainly some of those people live together because they want to or because it’s expected culturally. There’s no shame in adults who live with their parents or adults who live with their children. But my husband and I certainly never expected to have his mother live with us.
Prior to her arrival, I looked for any resources that might help, but they talked about medication schedules and ensuring good hygiene (and the like), neither of which were relevant. MIL is stubborn, but of sound mind.
Shortly after she moved in, we all sat down and talked about our expectations. My husband and I figured that was what was most important: communication. But communication only works if everyone agrees to it and further, actually participates. Tempting as it is, I won’t lay all the blame on my MIL here; my husband and I stopped talking to each other, too. That was the worst part. Fights would have been preferable; instead, there was just silence.
But I get ahead of myself.
My MIL could no longer afford her apartment in Southern California. With no other options, she moved to Oregon to stay with us. She wasn’t thrilled, either; she’d lived in SoCal most of her life, so moving in with us wasn’t a matter of just moving down the street. One book I read pointed out that as the younger people, it’s easier for us to change. Moving was obviously a huge change for her, so we tried to bend where we could.
We have a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment. The extra bedroom had been my home office, but we moved my desk into the living room, the bookshelves into our bedroom, and purchased a bed for her. We paid to have most of her things stored. The bedrooms were on opposite sides of the apartment, so luckily noise wasn’t a problem. However, there just wasn’t enough space for three adults trying to live together; I always felt cramped and that I never had any privacy.
MIL liked to keep to herself, though we repeatedly asked her to join us (for watching movies, TV, outings). She would leave her room to joins us for dinner and to yell at us.
One occurrence that stands out: the front door was next to her bedroom. We’d try to be quiet when leaving, but she let us know she could hear us. “You talk about things that make me uncomfortable,” she said. We wracked our brains: what could we be talking about when putting on our shoes? Not sex, not money. What? But she couldn’t elaborate. Just things. So we stopped talking at the door.
Another time, she confided in my husband that she was unhappy that I didn’t serve enough vegetables with dinner (which is true). He reminded her that if she told us what she wanted, we would buy her vegetables and she could eat them whenever she wanted. She bought her own from the dollar store.
We don’t wear shoes in the house; after a few months, she complained her feet were cold and hurt from lack of shoes. We told her we could get her slippers or house shoes or if that didn’t work, she could wear whatever shoes she wanted. She settled on thick socks and a pained expression.
MIL did vacuum and do the dishes, which was helpful. Her hobby was washing her clothes, however. She got mad when she realized we weren’t using the laundry detergent she bought. Primarily because we don’t wash our clothes four times a week. After she left, our water bill didn’t go down by a third but by half.
My husband was happy that she kept to herself most of the time, but I wish she had spent more time with us. My own parents are dead, so I thought it’d be nice to get to know my MIL better. After nine months of living with her, I don’t know anything more about her than I did. I could have done more, asked more questions, engaged her, but she had to leave her room first.
Because I’m the obsessive type, I’ve replayed the last year in my head many times. I don’t know what went wrong. We made sure MIL had her own space. We invited her to join us but didn’t push. She did leave the house and have her own hobbies.
Worst of all, my husband and I had reassured each other that we’d communicate with each other. And we. . . didn’t. It was easier not to say anything than to admit things were kind of terrible, and things were kind of terrible because of his mother, who herself wasn’t doing anything more terrible than just existing.