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The Mother-In-Law Suite: A Great Idea – Except For The Name

The hunt for homes with a ”Mother-in-Law Suite” has been keeping realtors busy in recent times. This particular real estate frenzy follows in the wake of the ongoing pandemic even before the pandemic has come to an end. Many families are highly motivated to pay closer attention to the needs of their older members after Covid19 completely blocked in-person contact with seniors who lived separately from family, particularly the most vulnerable. Alarmed by that realty, families are now rethinking the mode of dealing with their elders. A new wave of GenXer couples, singles, and active baby boomers whose parents are still alive, are opting to relocate to houses with mother-in-law suites – an intentional space for their parent or parents to live among family members and be cared for by family if and when needed, until and unless extreme specialized eldercare becomes the only option. The Advocacy Group, Generations United, pointed out in their 2021 report Family Matters that 41% of current homebuyers are looking for a home with a mother-in-law suite.


But why the title, “Mother-in-Law Suite?” Apparently, it is a uniquely American term, quickly being adopted by other countries to give a universal twist to the age-old concept of having older parents live with their adult children. Both the term and the current movement have been popularized by our ubiquitous HGTV viewed across the globe, gradually influencing cross-cultural vocabulary, lifestyle and housing choices. Cue in the worldwide lockdown of 2020 that provided viewers with endless hours of TV time and a family problem that needed a solution. It’s a match made in realtor heaven. Whether you are in the line-up of families seeking to accommodate a senior member in your home, or you are the older family member who might be invited to occupy such a space, there is a real bonus on each side. If only we can dump the loaded title of "mother-in-law suite."


Traditional Multi-generational Households Lead To A Modern Twist

The idea of a mother-in-law living with family is not new. Traditional families around the world have always lived in multi-generational households. United Nations Population Facts reveal that most older persons in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean live with their adult children and extended families, sharing chores, meals, family ceremonies, and their fair share of family conflict. An adult daughter, mainly, or sometimes a son, will remain living in the family-home to care for parents as they get older; or married children may have parents move in with them if logistics are better in comparison. My mother at 99 years of age at the date of this writing, still lives in her own home which she shared with my late father and where we their children were raised. One of my siblings moved back in after my father died and my mother was entering her 9th decade, alone. There’s no mother-in-law suite in my mother’s Caribbean home. There wouldn’t have been one if my mother came to live with me or moved into any of my sisters’ homes. My mother’s children understand the tradition. Her GenXer grandchildren on the other hand will definitely want to carve out a special space for parents like me when it’s their turn to take us into their homes if we are lucky. Whether by agreement or necessity, if you have access to such an option, you should gratefully accept a mother-in-law suite, but the name should give you pause.


There are some cultures where the caregiving family with resources can balance privacy needs and minimize opportunities for conflict, by allocating a traditional special space for the older member. In Latin America, the home might have a “casita” attached; in Hawaii, they might have an “ohana.” A similar desire gave rise to the “granny-flat” in Great Britain, Europe, Australia, and South Africa; and the ‘laneway house” in Canada which cuts a real boundary line that reminds both generations that they are crossing a physical space, even if it is just a driveway. The gender connotations of the “granny flat” can’t be missed. It may answer the question why more men end up living alone than older women, according to global reports. The British originated granny-flat was built upon the expectation of reciprocity, mainly the residential, free childcare from grandmothers in exchange for room and board. Men did not ideally measure up to having the gender currency for that social exchange system. These stereotypes are changing and so should the title of these spaces, such as “granny-flat”. And especially the one that specifies “mother-in-law suite” when the person occupying the space is the mother of at least one of the persons in the home.


The Warning Label That Comes With the Designation of Mother-in-Law


History of the western world, specifically the American world, may provide explanations for such a title as ‘mother-in-law suite” being ascribed to a space in a home. Many middle-class women accepted the option or the social practice to forego a job outside the home, but the chances were that they would outlive husbands, as borne out by statistics. If the widow didn’t remarry quickly, a married adult child responded to the call of duty to take her in to live with his or her family. Since she was not supposed to exercise any power as matriarch in her adult child’s home, unlike tradition-based old-world families, the distant title of “mother-in-law” seemed appropriate to keep her power at bay, regardless of whether she was the husband’s mother or the wife’s mother. Having her own bedroom in the home should be good enough, and that is still the case with many families. There’s no such term as a “Father-in-law suite.” If a modern family decides to house a spouse’s father, he is simply absorbed into the household and its ways. If we were flies on the wall listening to the same couple discuss having to house their partner’s mother, the underlying message might be – Have her close, but not too close. Full disclosure – I am a mother-in-law, and aware that the designation came with a warning label.


There is some truth to the expectation of conflict between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. In traditional Asian households, for example, in which the daughter-in-law enters as a newly married bride of lesser power, the mother-in-law rules supreme; disputes are legendary. In westernized households in which the mother-in-law enters as an older family member, divested of her own home, household belongings, and power, she must take a step down, and that doesn’t happen easily. Tension is normal. But books have also been written about the conflicts that are frequent between mothers and their own adult daughters. So, it’s not strictly a mother-in-law thing. Terri Apter from Britain’s University of Cambridge, a prolific author-researcher-psychologist, ranks “In-laws” among the top three reasons for marital strife and finds that complaints about in-laws come from 60% of married women but only from 15% of married men. Not all of us fit neatly into any statistic. As a divorced female, I can vehemently declare that my mother-in-law did not play any part in my marital strife.


The Mother-in Law Suite Needs a New Name


Dynamics with mothers-in-law of same-sex couples seem to be trending positive as long as the parent is accepting of such unions. Deborah Merrill, sociologist and author of “When Your Gay and Lesbian Child Marries” cites examples of the ease and comfort felt by mothers-in-law at the home of a son and his partner, or at the home of a daughter and her partner. The gender cross-currents usually present in the home of male-female couples, is pleasantly absent in same-sex in-law interactions. Relationship matters can swing either way when the parent moves into the home of an unmarried, unattached adult son or daughter. In this case, the moniker of a “mother-in-law suite” doesn’t even make sense, unless of course he or she is actually housing an ex-mother-in-law. Far-fetched, but it happens. Despite the general perception of strife, some in-law relationships are genuinely loving and giving.

Present-day efforts to be politically correct has led a few realtors to start using the term “In-Law Suite” removing the word “mother” from the mix. But the supposed neutrality does not cancel out the question – Why use the term “In-Law” at all? A suite is just a suite. Architects and builders have introduced a newer impersonal term into the real estate dialogue – the ADU, which refers to an Accessory Dwelling Unit, akin to the Canadian laneway house, a small building that stands apart from the main house. A cross between a trimmed-down version of a wealthy family’s guest house and an HGTV model tiny house”. Using in-vogue vocabulary facilitates dialogue between house hunters and realtors or builders. But families don’t need archaic or gendered language to communicate with their loved ones about the new, welcome family living arrangements. If you are a baby boomer, most likely you have started thinking of your housing alternatives and lifestyle adjustments which need to happen sooner or later. If you have children, the thought should cross their mind already. I actually like the idea of sharing a home with extended family and having a demarcated space that allows privacy, individual activity, and retreat from tension, whether it’s in a suite, a casita, an ohana, a laneway house, or an ADU. You too should find a lot to like about that arrangement. If you are not there yet, when the time comes, give a thumbs-down to the granny-flat, and definitely, nix the mother-in-law suite. That is, if you have any say in it at all.

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