The Richest Peasant Wife

EVEN THOUGH ONE in six Americans now live in multi-generational houses (a percentage not seen in this country since the 1950s), my husband and I are the only people I know who live with our parents.

A temporary refuge at the spent end of two years overseas has become our home. All together in the same tidy four-bedroom Colorado house; us in the basement, my in-laws in the upstairs, everyone pitching in to work the family goat dairy.  I’m thirty-five years old, my husband two years younger.  Exact to U.S. Census Bureau data, ours is the age group most likely to be living with our parents.

Our data-validated arrangement makes infinite sense in financial, environmental, logistical, and familial terms.  I admit, I am often smug about this.  An entire goat dairy, organic garden, two bee hives, twenty-five chickens, four people, two cats, two dogs, and a cockatiel on one acre?  Fantastic!  What’s more, never having been to Colorado until I moved here with my husband, his parents and their community provided a ready sense of family and functionality.  A full dance card before I even hit the floor.  But sometimes, while I wash dishes after a dinner I have also cooked for my father-in-law, my husband, and my mother-in-law,  The Good Earth comes to me, the Chinese peasant class, the cleaning-lady wife.  If it were my house, after a long day of juggling farm chores, teaching yoga, and looking for a third job, I might’ve just had pizza on the couch.

In rural pre-revolutionary China, a woman would leave her own family to marry into her husband’s, join his household, become their housekeeper.  She often did this at puberty, and would (if she were a good Chinese peasant wife) quickly end up in what the Pew Research Center now calls a Three-Generation Family. My husband’s family and I are a Two-Generation Family, since we do not have children.  A median shift in age of first marriage is a component of the overall increase of multi-generational family housing in America; being married first in my late twenties and childless into my mid-thirties, I am consistent with this data as well.

In Arizona, builders market “Next Generation” homes replete with “bonus rooms” convertible to shared-but-private areas for aged parents to move in with their adult children. In Japan, there’s a trend toward “Generational Housing,” wherein two independent homes are linked by a staircase or hallway, a door with optional locks between, the grandparents in one house, the children and grandchildren in the other.

There aren’t any special building markets for my demographic—grown, childless children who need to move back in with their adult parents.  And in Boulder, a skewed income sample for sure, it’s difficult not to be divisive about others my age with their own homes and low-mileage cars, who use hip phones that do tricks, wear high-performance technical fabrics for their recreational physical fitness.

In Boulder County’s current housing market, my husband and I hold the strange position of not being able to rent a house yet just able to buy.  “I should’ve made a down payment when I was eight,” my husband says of his now million-dollar childhood neighborhood.  We have four jobs between us, including the terra cotta sculptures he makes and sells. We stalk fallen-down farmhouses on county-parceled land in the hopes of finding one slumming in our price range.  I wouldn’t say just the recession did this to us.  I would say our life choices (to spend money on travel) and career paths (art, farming, teaching yoga) in combination with the cost of healthcare and insurance, the difficulty in securing grants and subsistence living jobs for artists, have made sharing with his parents our best financial option.

And so, like our fellow 17 percent of Americans in multi-generational housing, economic factors were a main motivation for this choice.

However, on the days when my mother-in-law and I have farmed together all morning, raked and hove buckets of straw and manure, milked and fed goats, collected eggs from the chickens, stacked bales of alfalfa, come into the kitchen muddy and tired and plop down to a cup of tea, I am the richest woman in the world.  I have an independent friendship and working relationship with the mother of my husband.  The work we do is honest manual labor, our farm products nourish thirty families; the Chinese peasant wife in me wonders what I’m doing wrong, why isn’t there a place for me in all this, too?

To enter a fully formed home, a life twenty-five years in the making, a beautiful life with every nook and cranny filled just so, its owners, my in-laws, now in the full mature blossom of their world—this for me has been the most difficult aspect of our co-habitation. All I’ve done is sneak into their preexisting rhythms. Apart from a room crammed with whichever belongings aren’t in the attic or storage, there is little tangible evidence of me in this house.  It does make me wonder, I can’t help it, if and how much I exist.  And I do suspect, if we don’t move out, the rhythms of this home will run me into the ground and mill out other, less productive, aspects of myself.

This is not a problem with my in-laws, their lifestyle, or our living arrangement; it is a function of my temperament, perhaps my gender, likely my culture. My grandmother is first generation Italian-American, her oldest sister born just outside Napoli; my mother left Massachusetts and moved alone to California, I in turn left the Monterey Peninsula (where I have no illusions about ever owning a home) and set out alone for Puget Sound.  I now live at the base of the Rocky Mountains; the West and its pioneering spirit are in me.

In terms of numbers for the United States, immigration—and in particular the wave of Asian and Latin Americans moving here in the 1970s—has been a big factor in the rise in multi-generational housing. Such modern immigrants share stats with their European counterparts from centuries ago.  These groups are far more likely than native-born Americans  to live with their families (though not more likely than  Native Americans, who sadly fall into the lower economic group more likely to share housing).  Of course shared family compounds around the world are common, even in anti-parent America, where my Boulder County neighbors (including one native of Italy) are building a guest cottage on their property in which to house one of their children, her husband, their eventual family. Sad then that nuclear-family-era zoning regulations across the U.S. often hinder those who wish to convert their homes to shared dwellings.  These people try to enter my modern dataset, but cannot.

All this current and historical data, these patterns we collate again and again yet with a new cast, a new shadow each time they resurface, each of us a piece of plankton in the human data ocean.  My husband and I are both inside and outside the data, the norm, the trends, the economy, the culture. We love our life with his family  and we want our own space.

If I find the disrepaired home of my dreams, if my husband and I make picket in a ramshackle old rambler, then we will be the parents and any children we have will be the next potential dataset.  And I will be, as I am, a two-thousand-aughties woman in a two-thousand-aughties world—both part of a historical data cycle and also of a moment in time never experienced before.  And then, scrubbing, patching, repairing my three-bedroom home, I will surely become my own Chinese peasant wife.  Will my husband and I later host our parents, invite them to come live with us in a Three-Generation Family?  Or will it be our children come back to us, re-entering their home with their own families in their own same and never before seen world.


About Simone Sachs Hollander

Simone Sachs Hollander earned her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Washington, the second year of which she completed from Dublin, Ireland. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have won recognition from Fish Publishing, Glimmer Train, the University of Iowa’s Irish Writing Program, and the University of Washington. Her work has appeared in PageBoy Magazine, The Seattle Review, and The Dublin Quarterly. Since the completion of this essay, she and her husband found an uninhabitable house to rehabilitate in Longmont, Colorado, where they now live with their baby boy.
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