November 26, 2018
PART ONE: One evening while Rachel and Michael Tidwell were visiting Rachel’s mom, who lived a few blocks away in Midwest City, Okla., one off-hand remark changed their lives.
“We were sitting around my kitchen table,” recalls Sherry Lopatic, of that fateful night in January 2016, “bemoaning all the recurring bills we both had to pay — lawn maintenance, cable, alarm systems — when I said jokingly, ‘It’s ridiculous. We should just live together.’”
To her and her daughter’s surprise, Rachel’s husband, Michael, was to first to say, “Absolutely!”
What man volunteers to live with his mother-in-law?
A very special one.
“Actually,” Michael told me later, “the same thought had been in the back of my mind. We already spent so much time together. It just made sense.”
When Rachel got her husband alone, she applied a hand to his forehead and asked if he meant it.
The idea quickly gained traction.
Two months later, Rachel and Michael, both in their early 30s, moved, with their cat and three dogs, out of their three-bedroom, 1400 square-foot house into Sherry’s three-bedroom, 1500-square foot house, with her cat and two dogs. This was supposed to be for just a few months while the couple sold their house, and they all looked for a new place.
What could possibly go wrong?
As the only child of a single mom, Rachel says she and Sherry are “exceptionally close.”
Michael said that when he married Rachel 10 years ago, “I knew it would be a package deal.” But no one ever assumed that would mean being in the same house.
They weighed family dynamics and benefits. “If my son-in-law weren’t so easy going, I would have never considered this,” said Sherry, who’s in her late 50s, long divorced and recently retired from a 35-year government job as a security specialist.
“If children come along, mom will be here to help with them,” said Rachel. “Plus, we could not have gotten a home like this on our own for a long time.”
As Sherry looked ahead, she knew she’d come to appreciate living on one level, and the security of not living alone. Looking even further ahead, she reasoned, “If we went in together and got a bigger house, they would have that now and also when I’m gone.”
While the Tidwells would give up a little privacy, Sherry would make the biggest adjustment, downsizing to a mother-in-law suite, ultimately a space less than one-third the size of the house she had all to herself.
“I didn’t do it overnight,” she said. “I spent some weeks sitting in my packed garage, surrounded with stuff I’d hung onto. Partly from reading your columns, I had started asking, do I really need all this? I knew mentally I should get rid of it, but my heart didn’t want to. It was hard. But I had been getting rid of things even before the talk of moving, so I was ready.”
The Tidwells’ house sold quickly. There was no turning back. The trio began looking for a house in the 2500-square-foot, $250,000 price range. They wanted a mother-in-law suite, a large yard for the dogs, and a location just outside the city but not too far from jobs. Rachel works in human resources for the school district, and Michael is a banking executive.
They looked. And they looked. Nothing checked all the boxes.
As the few months living together became 10, they decided the only way to get exactly what they wanted was to build. They bought an acre of land in Choctaw, Okla., broke ground in March 2017, and the following October, after 18 months of living at Sherry’s house, they moved into their new 3,000 square-foot house, which also has a 400 square-foot attic bonus room.
Though they ended up spending closer to $350,000 for more house, they all agree they came out ahead. The new custom house has four bedrooms: the mother-in-law suite, a master for Rachel and Michael, a guest room, and a craft room that can also be a secondary guest room.
“Some people think it’s crazy, but it works for us,” said Michael.
Before you consider moving in with family members, in addition to making sure personalities mesh, here’s what else they advised:
- Consider the tradeoffs. Because they were moving from six bedrooms to four, both women lost their home offices. Now Sherry has a desk and printer table in her suite; Rachel makes do with a desk in the kitchen. Sherry also mourns the loss of her walk-in closet. But they all like living in a nicer house with consolidated payments.
- Take a test drive. Try living together temporarily before committing. Living together for 18 months in a smaller house was a good stress test for this trio, who concluded that if they could make that work, they could definitely make the larger place work. “At first it felt strained,” said Rachel. “We felt like it was her house and we couldn’t make it our home. I worried that strain would come into the new house. But it didn’t. In fact, the new house is big enough that often we don’t see each other all evening.”
- Brace for judgement. What surprised Rachel most was the judgment from others. “People assume you are doing this because you’re not doing well enough. They say, ‘Oh, your mother lives with you?’ and think, ‘Did something go wrong?’” No, actually, something went right.
- Talk about the long term. When considering blending households, talk about down the road matters, like if kids come along, aging in place, privacy and boundaries. “We talked through everything, including who would pay what,” said Rachel. “We left no room for fighting. Today, whenever there’s a minor grievance, that is quickly swept away when we say, ‘Look at what we have.’”
PART TWO: Sherry, Rachel and Michael navigate the blending of not just lifestyles but furniture.
On the large mirror in the breakfast nook of the Choctaw, Okla., house is the painted word “Together.” It’s a fitting motto for Sherry Lopatic and her daughter and son-in-law, Rachel and Michael Tidwell, who merged their two homes into one a year ago.
“How’s that working out?” I asked.
“The upside is so great,” Rachel said. “We all have a much better place, and aren’t spending as much.”
But what I really wanted to know was how did all the furniture get along.
“You would think, since we were going from two houses that totaled 2900 square feet to one house with over 3,000, we wouldn’t have had any problems,” said Rachel, “but we had many.”
Though their three personalities meshed nicely, as did their blended menagerie of five dogs and two cats, their combined furniture not so much.
“Believe me, deciding whose furniture, and decorations would go where – or just go — was a challenge,” Sherry agreed.
Michael, who’s gunning for son-in-law of the year, wisely left those discussions to the women. “I had no strong feelings about any of it,” he said. Well, except for the dining room table …
The new house, which they had custom built, has a 450-square foot mother-in-law suite, which Sherry has furnished completely with her things. Some of her other furnishings, they agreed, would go in the main house.
Therein lay the rub. For example, the contemporary bar-height dining table was a favorite of Michael’s. “We’d just bought it, and it was non-negotiable,” said Rachel.
Sherry argued that a high table would be harder when children came along. Besides, it wasn’t her style. She preferred her dining room table.
“That’s when I pulled my card,” said Rachel, “and said, ‘well it won’t be going in your area.’”
“I gave in a little more,” said Sherry, “because I had my area where could do what I wanted.” But both sides made sacrifices.
Sherry also wanted to keep her retro Formica diner-style kitchen table with red vinyl chairs. “I really, really liked that table and chairs, and, though I knew it didn’t fit the new décor, if it had been just me, I would have made it work.”
Sherry held firm, however, to her open-shelved, pine hutch. “It was one of my favorite things, and was coming no matter what,” she said. Today, the hutch resides by the family room fireplace.
Once they’d hashed out what would go where, they held a garage sale, where Sherry sold “probably 60 to 70 percent of my stuff,” including her well-used sectional, the retro kitchen table and chairs, her dresser, and queen-size bed. She bought a double that fits better.
If you ask Sherry, the house today has 60 percent of Rachel and Michael’s belongings, and 40 percent of hers. Rachel, however, claims it’s the reverse.
“We still have discussions,” Sherry added.
“Like the wagon wheel,” said Rachel.
“You have a wagon wheel?” I asked.
“No,” said Sherry, “she wants to get one to put in the front yard, but I’ve put my foot down.”
“It fits with the neighborhood,” Rachel insisted.
“We’re not putting a wagon wheel out front,” said Sherry.
“Merging households isn’t for everyone, but it works for us,” said Rachel, who with her mom, offers the following advice for anyone considering blending households:
- Sync your style. Sherry and Rachel share a similar taste in décor, which helped a lot. “If I had a chrome-and-glass modern daughter, we wouldn’t have even tried,” said Sherry.
- Head arguments off at the door. The women created a scaled floor plan and cut out furniture pieces to scale to decide what would go where long before the movers came. Thus, most arguments were waged and resolved beforehand.
- Veto power. Besides letting each party claim a few non-negotiable items to keep, both sides also had a limited number of vetoes. Each person has a right to say, “That absolutely is not going in,” they said.
- Compromise. “One of our main disagreements was over blinds,” said Sherry, who wanted them on every window. Rachel was adamant about not having blinds. They settled. Sherry has them in her area, but the rest of the house has none.
- Sometimes the answer is neither. Because neither party had furniture that fit the main living area, they sold their sofas and sectionals, and Rachel and Michael bought a new sofa, loveseat and oversized chair that finished the room.
- Keep your perspective. “Ask yourself,” said Sherry, “how important, in the scheme of things, getting your way really is. Is it worth having tension in the house because the other person’s furnishings bother you? Any time you decide to live together or blend households, you need to be willing to bend.”
Looking back on their year of transition, Sherry sums it up like this: “All in all, this was a good idea. We still have discussions, like, when holidays come around and we need to decide on that seasons’ decorations, but no blood has been shed, and we are living peacefully and happily –together.”
CAPTIONS: Better together — Sherry Lopatic, left, pictured with her daughter and son-in-law, Rachel and Michael Tidwell, three of their five dogs — Kit, the yellow Lab; Sadie, the black Lab; Grace, the Shih Tzu — and Harley, the cat. Photo courtesy of Sherry Lopatic. Made to order – When Sherry Lopatic, her daughter and son-in-law decided that by combining households they could live better for less, they built this house, which was exactly what they wanted. Photo courtesy of Sherry Lopatic.