I knew when I married my Chinese husband that I would find myself in unfamiliar situations and that our cultural differences would be glaring at times. At least, I thought I knew . . .
When we married, my husband had lived in the United States for a decade, but his entire family lived in China. He was quite assimilated to American culture, and family dynamics didn’t seem like an issue we would deal with often. While dating, we discussed situations regarding family that would be new and unnatural to me (like months-long visits from his parents), but they seemed so far down the road. Oh, but they came upon us quickly! Weeks after giving birth to my first baby, we were talking about his niece coming to live with us the following fall for four years of high school. Soon after becoming a mom to my own baby, I became a pseudo-mom to my teenage niece.
That was a huge change for all of us. It was my niece’s first time to live in the United States, across the world from her parents, going to American school, and taking classes full-time in English. We had been parents for less than a year, and suddenly we also had a teenager under our roof.
That was the beginning of our extended time with extended family. When our second daughter was born the following summer, my in-laws came from China and spent six months with us. When they arrived, we were seeing them for the first time since their two-month visit for our wedding, three-and-a-half years earlier; and they were meeting our twenty-month-old daughter for the first time. That visit felt hard in the beginning (but doesn’t everything feel hard when you’ve just had a baby and your postpartum hormones are all over the place?), but the visit was fruitful and helpful and an overall blessing. Still, I was happy to return to my “normal” when I resumed the role of primary caretaker of our family and home.
When we found out we were expecting our third baby, I knew we would soon start talking about my husband’s parents returning. I was prepared for another six-month visit and knew that with even more little kids in the house, the extra hands would be appreciated — most days. However, I was thrown for a loop when my husband mentioned that his parents wanted to stagger their visits so that my mother-in-law could be with us when our baby was born in October and my father-in-law could stay until our niece’s high school graduation at the end of May. Whoa. Then, two weeks before our niece was to return from China for her senior year of high school, my husband asked how I would feel about his mom coming to the U.S. with our niece in mid-August. The family thought the extra support would be beneficial to everyone, especially our niece as she would have an intense fall semester. But why would my mother-in-law not stay for graduation, too? Suddenly, we were looking at 10 months with my mother-in-law in our home and the addition of my father-in-law for the last five months. My in-laws are wonderful people and this is completely normal in Chinese culture. However, I’m American and I had to get used to the idea.
Having endured/enjoyed the six-month visit with my in-laws previously and wanting the best for our entire family, I agreed to this arrangement. I’m thankful we have space in our house for eight people and our master bedroom is downstairs!
Even though I knew this would work out well for the family, I had to prepare myself for my personal struggles with the language barrier and the lack of control (and sometimes, culture shock) I would feel in my own home. It’s hard to hand over the care of your home and your kids to people who don’t speak your language!
Despite the challenges to my comfort and preferences, there were a great number of benefits for us all in having my in-laws live with us for the better part of a year. If I’m honest, I did not always have eyes to see how much I was benefiting from the extended time with extended family, but when I would get frustrated with the situation, it was always helpful for me to take a step back and look at the big picture. Here are some of the best aspects of having extended family in our home for so many months.
The Perks of Extended Time with Extended Family
Help at home
My in-laws are workers at heart, and they love taking care of their family. They also wanted me to focus on taking care of the newborn, so my mother-in-law did the vast majority of the cooking and everyone pitched in to handle the cleaning. My father-in-law took on the yard work, and he was always looking for a project to keep himself busy and to take a burden off of us. I had to claim my areas of responsibility and remind my in-laws that I actually wanted to participate in caring for the house — and my other two children!
I was up during the night quite a bit, so my in-laws tried to make sure I got the chance to catch up on sleep when possible. They were early risers, and they enjoyed getting my older girls up in the mornings and feeding them breakfast. My girls miss chips for breakfast, and I miss the extra hours of sleep I got when the grandparents were here!
With my in-laws here to help, I was able to run errands without having to take all three of my children along. I even got to go places by myself sometimes! I got to spend individual time with each of my kids because the grandparents were available to care for the others, and I got to go out of town multiple times with just the baby in tow. I was able to spend quality time with friends and help others in ways I might not have been able to manage without the extra help at home.
Spending extended time with extended family has deepened our relationships significantly. My niece lived with us for four years, and she is absolutely a big sister to my little girls. She is extremely special to all of us. My daughters bonded with their grandparents in such special ways after sharing daily life with them for so many months. My husband got to spend significant time with his parents after living on opposite sides of the globe for many years, and he relished his mom’s cooking and the weekly trips to the grocery store with his dad. While I can’t have real conversations with my in-laws, we find ways to communicate and we know each other’s hearts. I have a deep appreciation for the sacrifices they have made for their family, and I know they are grateful our home has been open to extended family. Our relationships have certainly grown, despite the language barrier.
Having extended family at home also gave my husband and me opportunities to go out for dinner or run errands together. While we could’ve done a better job of prioritizing date nights, the opportunity to connect through uninterrupted conversations was certainly nice.
Language and culture acquisition
This is not necessarily a factor for families who share the same culture, but in our case, it was extremely important for our daughters to grow in their Chinese language skills and cultural understanding during the time we had extended family in our home. They spoke only Mandarin with their “big sister” and with their grandparents, which was a huge benefit and has helped the older two develop a native fluency at a young age. This will be harder to maintain when my husband is the only one speaking Mandarin with them on a daily basis. Certain Chinese customs are also a normal part of their lives, which is so pleasing to my husband. They love foods we ate on a regular basis with my in-laws, and I think their general perspective on family and community is broader than it would be otherwise.
Reading over this list makes me excited about future opportunities to spend extended time with extended family. While I enjoy the “quiet” of a house of only five family members and my normal routine that involves daily outings with three little girls, it’s fun to mix things up sometimes and have different experiences — especially when strong family relationships are forged and Mom gets a break! Family truly is a lifelong gift, and I’m grateful for each member of ours.