It's a Mann's world: Home from home

Olly Mann

This month Olly Mann discovers the highs and the lows of inter-generational living…

Let me start by saying, unequivocally, that my in-laws are wonderful people. In fact, if you forced me to spend three months living with anybody’s in-laws, I’d pick mine. 

But that didn’t make it any less daunting when I realised, at the turn of the year, that our ongoing house refurbishment meant my wife, our two-year-old son and I, would need to decamp to her parents’ home in North Hertfordshire. (The alternative options, rapidly rejected, were renting a serviced apartment—which costs roughly the same as hiring a private tropical island—or colonising my mum’s house, which is 600 years old and therefore a toddler death trap.)

My wife’s youngest sister had also recently returned home, aged 26, to re-train as a teacher. So I was concerned, despite repeated reassurances to the contrary, that we might be unwelcome—another three mouths to feed, another three towels in the bathroom. I worried we were robbing my wife’s parents of their retirement, somehow; gatecrashing the homestead in our late thirties with our messy child and our employment anxiety and our gluten-free pasta.

Plus, it meant sharing a room with my son. We’d avoided doing this since he was two months old, because he snores and smells of stale wee. But despite the fact that my wife’s middle sister has her own dwelling, 59 miles away, her unoccupied bedroom was, non-negotiably, sacrosanct. So, for the past 12 weeks, we’ve squeezed into close quarters: me, my wife, my son, his six teddies, two dinosaurs, 14 dinky cars and extensive collection of Peppa Pig memorabilia. I even attempted to gain access for our cat Coco, but family fears were voiced that she might clash with the resident feline, William. (Incidentally, no-one in my wife’s family thinks it’s remotely amusing that they own a cat called William, despite it being self-evidently hilarious to bestow upon any cat a bland middle-aged man’s name.)

I was also concerned that living with my in-laws might damage my relationship with them. I had been the first boy to marry into their family, and when I visited for a Sunday roast, was made to feel like the son they’d never had. I’d enthusiastically discuss politics with my father-in-law, then regale them all with half-cocked tales of my vaguely glamorous job, and not bother getting up at the end of the meal to wash the dishes, because, you know, I’m a busy guy and it’s the weekend. I realised that this modus operandi could not be sustained over three months. I had enjoyed being waited on by them, and fussed over, and admired. But now I would have to do the dishes.

As it turned out, many of these worries were misplaced. My in-laws are tolerant fellows, who seem to genuinely enjoy being on-hand to help out with their grandson. Sleeping in one room as a family has actually been rather bonding for us (although, it must be said, a romantic turn-off). And although I’ve had to make a token effort at washing the dishes, it turns out there’s actually a secret dishwasher, discreetly integrated within their kitchen units, so really it’s only a case of preliminary rinsing. If anything, the six of us living under one roof—aged 2-65—has showcased some benefits of inter-generational living.

"However you slice it, living with other adults is hard"

It’s almost been fun. But, however you slice it, living with other adults is hard. They have their set way of doing things, their little quirks. For example, it turns out my father-in-law quietly patrols the wall sockets each night, switching off every electrical appliance he encounters. Presumably this is because he once read an article about someone’s house catching fire because they hadn’t unplugged their toaster or something. But it means that if I leave my phone charging downstairs at 11pm, it will only be 20 per cent charged when I unthinkingly stick it in my pocket on my way to work at 7am. Not useful.

Then there’s their lack of box-set etiquette. Surely it’s common sense that, once episodes one and two of any given TV show have been designated as family viewing, it follows that subsequent episodes of that series should only be consumed when the whole family is once again gathered together on the sofa? COMMON SENSE. I can assure you, Homeland is even harder to follow when you’re forced to skip three episodes forward because your co-habitants “didn’t realise we were watching it together”.

Politics is now to be avoided. Despite progressive hearing loss, my father-in-law retains an uncanny ability to detect the trigger-words “Brexit”, “Trump” or “Corbyn” wherever they may be uttered within his property, and ensnare you in a seminar. I’ve missed trains because of the Common Fisheries Policy.

So, I’m looking forward to moving back to our own space—a place where we’ve chosen the fixtures and fittings, and are able to leave our gadgets charging overnight,
and I can break wind without inhibition. But home, ultimately, is wherever you feel loved. I’ll always feel I’ve got a second home now, up in North Hertfordshire.