- When the pandemic began, my husband and I left New York City with our two young sons to live with my parents.
- After almost a year and a half, we are finally moving out and back to the city.
- Sharing a house with my parents has made me realize the benefits of multi-family living.
- Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School and founder of Midrash Manicures.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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My husband and I recently took a day trip to our old stomping grounds in the city, where we'd lived for almost a decade before the pandemic. That caprese salad I had ordered too many times from our local café was delicious, the birthday-cake-flavored frozen yogurt was a taste of olam haba (Hebrew for "the next world"). And, to my shock, breathing in the warm subway steam rising from the sidewalk was exhilarating.
For a moment, we wondered why we had ever left this Garden of Eden. But the answer was simple: Nothing could surpass our pandemic retreat.
Like many millennials, my husband and I chose to start our adult lives in the city, staying even after our sons were born. Then the pandemic struck. My husband is a psychologist and I'm a school rabbi, and for a few days, we attempted to work from our 1.5-bedroom apartment.
Quickly, we realized this arrangement was a non-starter: Three noise machines were no match for an energetic toddler and a preschooler. I remember the quick call to my mother that Saturday night - the minute the Sabbath ended. I didn't really ask if we could come stay at my parents' spacious suburban house; I informed her we were almost on the way. With our kids clinging to their loveys and a car packed to the brim, we fled the city on a cool March evening; for once, the traffic was relatively light.
My parents had finally emptied their nest after raising five children. Now, though, my family was slowly taking over Grandma and Saba's (Hebrew for grandfather) house.
Since the post-war suburban boom of the 1950s, much of the American dream has revolved around owning your own home. That's a prerequisite for "making it" here. But for my young family and many others, it has been a blessing for several generations to reside under one roof. And in a world where many of us will continue to work at home - full- or part-time - post-pandemic, perhaps it's time to re-think that 20th-century dream, or at least make it more flexible. If nothing else, the pandemic has forced us to reassess what we truly value in our lives - and I'd put time with grandparents at the top of my list.
The joys of a shared home
First, we all moved into my childhood bedroom, with its pink carpet, wall shrine to Barry Manilow, and '90s puffy flowered curtains. Eventually, my husband and I moved across the hall. Then I set up my husband's office in a spare bedroom, splurging on wall decorations to provide a suitable Zoom background for his client appointments.
I arranged my own workspace in another bedroom, but relocated to the basement after hearing too many "amens" from directly below me: My father, also a rabbi, conducts multiple services from his office each day. Toys - and the children who go with them - soon spread everywhere; the fact that we kept accumulating new train sets, as part of pandemic bribes, certainly didn't help.
My mother's bout with COVID in April of 2020 gave us quite a scare - she was in bed with a high fever for several weeks. Thankfully, she made a full recovery. Otherwise, we've had a pretty easy time of it during the pandemic.
Grandma cooks amazing meals for all of us, prepares art projects for the kids - she's an art therapist - comforts them when they have a booboo, and applies sunscreen before they go off to summer day camp. She'll even blow dry their hair after their baths (talk about dedication).
Saba likes to take the kids raspberry-picking down the road. Inspired by their Peppa Pig fascination, he even bought crumpets so they could have an authentic tea together. When they're cranky at the end of a long day, my dad offers to relax with them in his office, as they listen to Jewish music and rock in his rocking chairs. My boys always come back refreshed from these sessions, which may have something to do with the generous servings of M&Ms he supplies.
Moving on … for now
Now, though, the time has come to leave the nest. We've overstayed our welcome. My parents are clearly ready to reclaim their space, and while they'll certainly miss grandchild snuggles, they won't miss the crumbs all over their house.
My husband and I are ready to be independent again too, but we also dread losing the security blanket my parents provide: Who will make the kids scrambled eggs when they put in the request five minutes before leaving for school? Who will be the backup, nighttime storyteller when Ima (Hebrew for mom) is at her wit's end after a long workday?
I recall the first time I had to leave the nest, after graduating high school. At least then, there was some transition time - college, a year abroad in Israel, and, eventually, living in my own apartment. Even if I did have qualms about being on my own, I don't remember feeling this kind of separation angst.
Last week my younger son asked, "Ema, why are we moving to the new apartment?" I didn't think the answer "because society expects us to do so" would suffice. I turned the question on him, to which he confidently replied, "Because there's a crack in the ceiling here," pointing to a spot leftover from a leak a few years back. I responded to his creative answer in the affirmative, fighting back tears about this upcoming transition for our family.
While there will hopefully not be cracks in the ceilings of our new place, we will all feel cracks in our support system. From that moment in March of 2020, my parents have taken such care of me, my husband, and my kids. These many months at their home, now our home, have taught me the importance of surrounding my children with the most loving figures around - and we are lucky that their grandparents (including the ones we didn't live with) qualify beyond comparison.
As we prepare to move, I am struck by how the norm of single-family homes has actually served to distance generations from one another. It is my hope that the pandemic will begin to reverse this trend and make multi-family living not only acceptable, but encouraged.
There's a midrash (Jewish parable) that tells of a king who, when he went to marry off his daughter, told his future son-in-law, "I cannot say to you, 'Don't take her,' for my daughter is now your wife. However, I ask of you that wherever you go to live that you have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter."
We are planning that chamber for my parents - in the form of a pullout couch in our new city apartment. And we hope to offer more amenities for them down the line. In fact, a move to the 'burbs is not out of the question for us. Two-family homes have never seemed more appealing.