There are many situations where multiple families may need to live together under one roof. These can range from retreats for a SHTF scenario, economics such as job loss, ill health of an older family member, to a multi-family vacation. Recently, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Mexico with my husband’s family where a total of seventeen people shared one house. In addition to sharing the house, a city-wide water shut-off occurred for three days. Also, I spent the last seven months sharing my home with a parent that had health problems and did not have means to care for themselves financially. These recent experiences provided some useful insight into planning for multiple families living under one roof.
Chain of Command: It is very important to determine the chain of command prior to any combining of families and living spaces. Who will make the ultimate decisions? This will most likely be the owner of the house since it is their house and they need to preserve the integrity of their property. Other options could include: a council of family reps, different people for different areas such as finances, food, etc. In both of my experiences, it was the owner of the house. Regardless of who is given that responsibility, it needs to be determined before the families combine. This alleviates a lot of confusion, but most importantly, everyone involved will know what to expect and will take ownership of it. It will become an automatic given, instead of becoming a power struggle later on.
Spiritual: The spiritual ideologies of the families that you choose to combine living spaces with should be seriously considered before combining living spaces. If you are serious about your religion, it will dictate how you live and your perspective on everything. In my experiences, we had a combination of devout Catholics, cultural Catholics, agnostics, Old Testament legalistic Christians, and born again Christians. The agnostics were constantly challenging the others, including the children, and the Old Testament legalists and Catholics looked down on those who do not follow their practices. While adults can handle questions about their faith and persecution in such situations, the children may be susceptible to doubt and extremely vulnerable to persecution. And if there is little privacy for the family, it will be hard to sit down with the children and discuss various encounters without others hearing what is said. And if the adults are extremely busy, it will be hard to monitor what encounters occur and intervene if necessary. This issue can easily add stress to an already stressful situation. If combining with families of other faiths is unavoidable, it is a good idea to communicate boundaries with the other families, as well as have daily prayer and family devotions in your family’s designated space or withdraw to a place away from the shelter.
Shelter: Living spaces should be allocated as fairly as possible, and considering the load on the house. The house in Mexico that we stayed in had five bedrooms and three bathrooms. In our case, it was decided that each family would have one bedroom to share. However, two of the bathrooms were only accessible through their respective bedroom. The result was that the other three rooms/families, a total of twelve people, had to share one bathroom, while the remaining five people had two bathrooms. As you can imagine, this became quite an issue. Another factor to consider is personal space. When multiple families live together, it becomes important for individuals to “get-away.” It is stressful for families to share spaces, let alone multiple families. If at all possible, each family should have their own room or space to call their own. Keep in mind that couples will not have privacy that they may be used to. Also, lack of furniture may be possible. Let your bodies to get used to different sleeping and sitting arrangements now. Our kids had to sleep on blankets over tile floors for over a week, until other arrangements could be made. Camping is a good opportunity for this. Another fun opportunity for kids is to let them build forts in their rooms and sleep in them.
Food: Food can easily become a major issue due to cost and different eating preferences. Again this is an issue that should be determined prior to combining living spaces. In one case, we were on vacation so it was very ad hoc. Some families were going out to eat, while others were purchasing, cooking and sharing food. At many times, we would purchase food for ourselves and put it in the kitchen, only to find out later that people had helped themselves to our food and finished it. One way of alleviating that problem would be to designate certain areas of the kitchen for each family, or to designate areas that are off-limits. For longer term situations, a schedule of provision would help. For example, one family could obtain and prepare food for Monday, Tuesday and Friday, while another family obtains and prepares food for Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, depending on the number of families. Then they can switch the schedule. In an SHTF situation, more than likely, everyone would working together and providing for the entire group. However, in that case, there still needs to be a decision maker to make sure that food is allocated fairly and to ensure that random snacking, especially on foods designated for meals, does not occur.
Water: In this article, it is assumed that there will be a water source already for the building. Regardless of the situation, knowledge and practice of water conservation is important. If families are combined for financial reasons, water conservation will save money on the water bill. If families are combined for a SHTF situation, water conservation can mean life and death. Some examples of water conservation are:
Showers– A typical practice in Mexico for showers is to rinse in the shower and get the hair wet, then to turn off the water while shampooing, soaping and shaving. Once that is finished, the water is then turned on to rinse off.
Teeth brushing – Water conservation here is common sense: Apply toothpaste, get the toothbrush wet, then to turn off the water while brushing teeth. Then turn the water on to rinse the toothbrush. A cup of water should be used to rinse the mouth out.
Hand washing – Get the hands wet, apply soap, turn off the water while scrubbing, then rinse. [Again, this is traditional common sense, but often ignored in our wasteful society.]
Dish washing – A typical dish washing practice in Mexico is to have a small pool of water in a sink, and to have a wet sponge saturated with concentrated dish soap. The dishes are washed with the sponge and a bowl is used to dip in the water and pour the water over the dishes to rinse them off. Very little water is used this way. Since the dish soap is concentrated, it is a good idea to make sure the soap is compatible with your hands before using larger quantities.
Emergency situations may arise and provisions for emergencies should be considered. When we were in Mexico, the city notified the residents that the water would be shut off for three days in order to clean the system and change the filters. Since this is a normal occurrence in that town, most residents already have their plumbing feed directly into water reservoirs that are installed on their roofs and have plenty of buckets and pails filled and available for use. How much water on reserve should take into account the number of people in the living space. Preparation for the upcoming shut-off included: everyone taking their showers, filling the buckets, filling their water bottles for drinking and filling the sink for washing dishes. Since the reservoir feeds directly into the plumbing of the house, it was expected that flushing toilets would only be done in the case of solid eliminations and there would be no showers. Other provisions included buying disposable dishes and utensils as well as diaper wipes for hand washing. [For a short term emergency,] antibacterial solutions, such as Germex, could have been used as well. Communication and constant monitoring of the children during emergencies is extremely important. During the shut-off, one child left the sink faucet full blast while brushing their teeth. Another misunderstood instructions and left a solid elimination in the water bucket instead of the toilet, which used more water and contaminated the bucket. Water conservation habits and practicing for emergencies can help prevent these kinds of occurrences during true emergencies.
Finances: When families cohabitate, finances will become an issue. It is best to keep as many items separate as possible. However, there will be some items that cannot be separated, such as utilities. It is best to determine how these items will be paid for, what each family’s payment responsibility will be based on, as well as general usage levels, prior to living together. Financial responsibilities can be based on percentage of house occupied, percentage of people in the house, anything above a certain usage baseline, etc. My experience is that electrical and water use is extremely different between families. Get into the habit of turning off lights and other electrical devices when not in use. This will save a lot of money over the long run and give fewer opportunities for people to say that you are not paying your fair share in the event that you do cohabitate.
Sleep: To ease conflict in general, it is a good idea to keep everyone on similar eating, napping (if necessary) and sleeping schedules. And strategic quiet times will be helpful for those that need more sleep. We ran into a lot of problems because the adults wanted to stay up until midnight, while some of the children went to bed around 9pm. The children couldn’t sleep, or they would wake up early the next morning and make noise while the adults were trying to sleep. And if people don’t get their sleep, they usually get grouchy, which increases potential for more conflict. It would be helpful to practice now sleeping through a lot of noise.
Children and discipline: Children naturally need direction and discipline, and different families have different parenting styles. It is preferable to avoid living with people with drastically different parenting and discipline styles, but even families with similar parenting styles will encounter conflict. In most cases, it is preferable for the child’s parent to do the disciplining. For example, if a child goes up to another child and hits them and the parent is in the room, let the parent handle it. It is also a good idea to understand your boundaries with someone’s child, by discussing discipline with the parent before things happen. If the parent of that same child that hit the other child is not in the room, how would they want that handled? Would they prefer that you take care of the matter, or would they prefer that you go to them? If they want you to take care of the matter, what are your boundaries? It also a good idea for all the adults to develop house rules for the kids and make sure they know what they are.
Cleaning/Chores: When the house is shared with other people, the need for cleaning will increase quite a bit. The responsibility for cleaning common spaces, such as living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms should be shared with everybody and should be distributed proportionally. Keep in mind that these places will need to be cleaned more frequently due to more people. A schedule of chores should be made, with input from everyone involved, to eliminate miscommunication. Cleaning of personal spaces can be at your own leisure, but if it is someone else’s house, things should be kept tidy and clean out of respect. Train your children and yourselves now to be tidy and clean up after themselves. Simple things such as habits of picking up their dirty clothes and making their beds will go a long way in these circumstances. Washing laundry can also present conflict. It is best to have an agreed upon schedule, giving each family at least a day, so that people eager to clean their items do not rush other people’s loads. Also, some people are very particular over some of their more private pieces of clothing, so it is best to not help unless they give you permission to.
Stress: When multiple families are living together, stress will increase. The noise level will also increase, which can be extremely stressful for some people. If you currently do not have a known outlet for your stress, or have destructive or negative outlet, please considering discovering or changing your stress outlet before things get worse. Exercise can also give the body an outlet for stress, and prayer and/or soothing music can give the mind an outlet. Things such as shopping or eating have the potential to do more harm than good. As was mentioned earlier, it is beneficial to have scheduled quiet times. This allows people to gather their thoughts, plan, pray, read, nap, and unwind. In Mexico, the daily siesta occurs between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., where all the shops and businesses close down.
Communication: Communication is key for the success of families living together in a mutually beneficial way. Everyone should clearly present their expectations and needs up front, calmly discuss options so the decision-maker can choose the solution and present the decision to all involved. Since the decision-maker has been agreed upon by all, his/her decision should be respected by all, even if people personally do not agree with it. In the case of financial decisions, they should be written, accessible and signed by affected parties. In the event that a lawsuit arises (heaven forbid!) from financial decisions, a paper trail should help. Chore schedules should be posted in areas for all to see. House rules for the children should be posted as a reminder. When conflicts or situations arise, communication is vital. Presuppositions need to be identified in case there have been misunderstandings, before making claims about a particular instance. One of the family members that lived with me did not know how to communicate when there was a conflict. His emotional reaction to any conflict completely shut the doors to effective communication about that conflict. Accordingly, there will probably be long-term implications in our relationship due to relatively minor issues that occurred in the past. Start now in developing effective communication and conflict resolution skills, and pass those skills onto your children.
When it comes to planning for multiple families to combine living spaces, prevention and planning are vital. Practice conservation and stress reduction now. Choose families that are similar in faith, in child rearing, and level of thrift. When a family or multiple families is chosen, communicate openly and respectfully regarding these subjects, present expectations and designate a decision-maker prior to living together. Live with that family with respect and consideration. When conflicts arise, respectful communication will minimize the impacts of conflicts that will arise. In doing so, these steps will ensure that living with other families will mutually beneficial.