Hints on Maintaining a Harmonious Household

 

“Mum. I’m not choosing to be here, living with my family. I should be in England – that’s where my stuff is, where I’m paying rent. I should be working and beginning my life there now that I’ve finished studying.”

My normally chill son, a sociable young man of honesty, humour, talent and deep family love, is frustrated and torn. Through a series of unplanned, fortunate, events, he finds himself living with us, in our pokey spare room, when COVID-19 begins its world-wide infection.

My stressed Year 12 daughter is also home from school, because of corona virus shutdown. A diligent, intelligent person of compassion and conscientiousness, her plans for her final year now seem like water running through her fingers. The certainty of her days – get up, go to school, study, become anxious over assessments while knowing there is an end in sight – has ceased.

I am working remotely, forbidden to enter my work premises until life is safe again. My husband is also at home, working on projects, cooking our meals, keeping up with the news.

We are now a family of four adults and one dog, living in a small house. We have one bathroom, one toilet, a cramped kitchen, and one living room. How will we make this period of forced, unplanned togetherness work? And with a young man who, for a third of his life, has lived independently?

When my son left home to study in another city, we, the family left behind, went along with our lives. Our daughter moved into her brother’s room. I packed up his stuff and stored it away. We stayed in the same place, living life as we’d always lived. His life, however, became one of late-night jazz gigs, study, strong friendships, girlfriend, travel, hours of daily keyboard practice, teaching, then moving overseas to life in another country, another culture.

I may have known him as the person I raised for eighteen years, but now he is an adult with added layers of lived experience, values and passions.

Although our lives diverged, we continued as a family - separated by distance, but together in relationship, love, events and memories. And now, the four us, individuals, adults who were once children, must once again live together as a family. As a group.

Don’t get me wrong – we’ve been rubbing along pretty well (most arguments are between my husband and me). Under the surface, though, I detect undercurrents of dissatisfaction. I worry they may become a storm of disagreement and tension. What can we do to keep the household as calm as possible through this time, while not suppressing who we are, and our needs?

I dig into a repertoire of communication skills I had learned in a parenting course (that I now teach). Time for a family meeting! My idea is reluctantly accepted.

The steps we take to help maintain harmony during these times of enforced togetherness are suitable for families of all age groups – families with young children, families with three generations, groups of unrelated people living in a situation not of their choosing.

My first step is to recognise that each of us are grieving our own losses – lost hopes, dreams, and plans. As a family, we grieve outings and events that will not happen. Each of us individually, and as a family, are becoming masters of flexibility, of living with uncertainty, of unpredictability. Each of us individually, and as a family, are seeking to adapt.

Secondly, this is not ‘my’ house, or the house that belongs only to my partner and me. This house is ‘our’ house – the children’s house, and my husband’s, and mine. I ditch any thought of ‘my house, my rules’. This dwelling, of four external walls and a roof, is actually our family’s home. We are all in this together, each with rights and responsibilities.

Pre-Family Meeting – The Set-Up (irony intended)

We have just finished dinner. I have prepared by reminding myself to only use ‘I-Messages’, and to Active Listen to any unhappiness.

“I’m wondering if it would be OK to spend a bit of time after dinner, to talk about our family meeting, and agree on a time to hold the meeting?” I ask, looking at each person around the table.

“How long will it take?” queries my son. “I’d planned to do some practice tonight, not to sit around the table to talk about this stuff.”

“Oh, sorry. This has come out of the blue for you, and of course you’d feel annoyed.” I acknowledge my son’s disruption to his schedule – something I had not known.

“I’m thinking this would take about half an hour?” I reply.

“Sure. But why do we need this family meeting anyway? I’m OK with everything – it’s you guys that get uptight.”

Hmmm. Excellent question. Why do we need this meeting? I wonder if my son feels like we will gang up on him, ask him to do more, and perhaps even practice the piano less (as we did when he was a teen). I look around and notice, from my husband and daughter, silent agreement with my son.

“I suppose I just want to make sure we keep getting on as well as we are at the moment. This is not about making some people do more work, so others do less. I’d like to put everything on the table, so if anyone has any issues, any needs, we can all know about them and try to work together to help each other out. For example, some of us may need some time to themselves, and don’t want to feel rude if they take that time away. I think this meeting will help us respectfully let everyone know if anything is bugging them, or they have any concerns. We can all work something out - on how to live as a family, while getting our own needs met - together. It’s really important that no-one feels like they’ve lost.”

My son shrugs his shoulders, his eyes unconvinced. However, stroking his long, COVID beard, the man - once my smooth-chinned baby - nods.

A Common Language and Understanding

I want to discuss with my family a model of understanding behaviour, of self-awareness, and awareness of others.

“This is something called a Behaviour Window, and it was developed and copyrighted by a visionary psychologist, Thomas Gordon. The more I’ve taught it, the more I’ve understood how powerful it is”.

Drawing on paper, I excitedly channel my inner instructor. I describe The Behaviour Window, move on to Problem Ownership, then do a quick recap of the respectful communication skills from the parenting course.

Family Meeting – A Six-Step No-Lose Model

Next, I roughly outline the process I hoped our family meeting would follow.

I explain that the aim is to come up with some thoughts and solutions that will suit all of us. We, the parents, are not going to impose our solutions and tell people what to do, such as a roster. The idea is that we all have a say, that we all LISTEN to each other, and then agree to a solution – no-one should feel like they lose. This might mean that we, as a family, might agree to a roster, but each of us would have a say about what we did and when.

In families with younger children, it might help to use a ‘talking stick’ – an object that the person doing the speaking holds. The person with the object gets to talk, uninterrupted. The rest of the family listens, attentively (ideally, with Active Listening). When the person talking feels they’ve been understood, they hand the stick on. (A parent once told me that in their family of four children, one of the quieter children rarely got their say. However, with a talking stick in a family meeting, this child was finally able to have some airtime when the other members of the family had to listen. Invaluable.)

I proffer printed handouts of the problem-solving guidelines to my tribe (you’ll find a printable version here). Unsurprisingly my offer is declined, and the handouts remain, forlorn, on the table.

Six-Step Problem Solving Guidelines (brief) (from Parent Effectiveness Training P.E.T.)

  1. Define the problem in terms of needs
  2. Brainstorm solutions
  3. Evaluate solutions together
  4. Choose a solution
  5. Implement the solution
  6. Check the results

I explain that the sixth step is crucial. (My experience, as a parent educator, is that a common source of conflict begins with parents’ disenchantment, if a child does not abide by ‘Their Agreement’.) I note that sometimes what we agree to is not practical, does not work – but we don’t know until we try. By agreeing to come back in a week or two, and see how things are panning out, we are showing we are open to any feedback. We can revisit the problem armed with new information, and hopefully come up with a new solution.

We agree to meet at 3pm on Sunday.

The Meeting

I take on role of facilitator.  I have an exercise book and pen, and a written agenda. I read out the agenda and ask if there is anything else anyone would like to discuss. Acutely aware that I am driving this, I wonder if, in future, we could put paper on the fridge, and people can write up any issues they’d like as an agenda item for the next meeting. I suggest that we share the role of facilitator and scribe each meeting.

As we talk, I scrawl down our ideas and outcomes, so we can review them next meeting.

We discuss each topic, sometimes moving between subjects, then returning. While some of the situations are unique to our family, I suspect that many are common across households.

Practicalities of Work/Study/Teaching Remotely

At times each of us will be working remotely. My son is now teaching keyboard through Zoom and requires the living area for access to the piano. I will be working remotely, by phone and a secure meeting app. My daughter will soon be studying through her school’s chosen app.

We work out a system where, through signs on the door and prior warning, we can communicate our remote working requirements.

Chores

Chores are not an issue at the moment, as everyone has been pitching in as they see a need. However, my husband does nearly all the cooking, which he finds relaxing, but would like an occasional break. I, on the other hand, do not enjoy cooking. I ask if anyone else would like to cook. The kids and I put up our hand to cook at least once a fortnight.

Projects

Together we list projects, both household and personal, we’d like to achieve over this period. I ask that perhaps, next meeting, we could look at a plan of how to make our projects happen. I explain that I find it helpful to outline my intentions to another person – it helps keep me accountable to me.

Physical and Emotional Health

We all acknowledge the importance of exercise, and we discuss how and when we will exercise. Perhaps my son and husband can service the old bikes, get them back on the road?

I talk about maintaining our mental health and discuss mindfulness apps. Horrified, my daughter says, “I’m not going to sit and have a family meditation!” We laugh.

“Neither am I!” I reply. “I just want to bring an awareness of the importance of looking after our own emotional health”.

Piano Practice

We have a very loud acoustic piano, in a pretty small house, and in the same room as the TV. My son, a professional musician, needs to practice at least four hours a day. Closed doors can only soften the sound so much.

We all agree that we are enjoying his playing. There are times, however, when the ‘old’ people would like to listen to the radio or watch the telly. My son is reassured, as now he knows when to temper his playing. He has already chosen not to play past 10pm.

I think we have finished the meeting but ask if there is anything we haven’t discussed. My daughter pipes up.

“Yes. I’m wondering about getting some ‘me’ time “

Alone Time/Personal Time

Probably the most important issue – and I’d completely forgotten! Each of us need some time by ourselves, particularly the introverts. We discuss that a closed door is closed for a reason, and that to request to enter, we need to knock or text.

Family Time

I could see that although we were living together, there was a danger that we would all retreat to the four corners of the house and only interact at dinner. We discuss ways of ensuring family time beyond dinner. Playing board games, walking together, watching TV together - even resurrecting our ancient Wii and Mario Kart game (perhaps teach Mum to virtually steer?).

Next Meeting

We agree to meet the following fortnight.

After the meeting

As we scrape back our chairs at the conclusion of our first adult family meeting, I detect a sense of relief; of air that has been cleared; of respect, understanding, and empowered cooperation.

And hope. We are in this for the long haul. Together.  Perhaps we’ll come out of this as a family with even greater warmth, connection, understanding and respect.

First published by Larissa Dann on 14 April, 2020

© Larissa Dann 2020

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