Family

When mothers and daughters move in together - as adults

A recipe for disaster or a beautiful thing?

By Venetia Sherson

When mothers and daughters set up house together as adults, it could be disastrous – or there could be mutual benefits and pleasure, says Venetia Sherson.

Lee & Marie

After being housemates for a year, Lee and Marie Cowan say their mother and daughter relationship has evolved into friendship and enjoyment of each other's company…

When Lee Cowan, 37, and her mother, Marie, 67, decided to move in together, their only concern was whether their respective pets would get on. Marie has a tall, slender eight-year-old greyhound named Max and a blind cat called Rosie. Lee has two cats – Tig and Sophie – who, until then had proprietorial rights in her home. Like any blended family, there could have been issues.

"Max has been taught to chase small furry things," says Marie. "And my cat is a snotty little madam. We weren't sure what would happen."

As it turned out, the animals get along famously. The cats respect each other's space. To ease the transition for Max, Marie brought with her his favourite sofa on which, stretched out, he barely fits. The live-in relationship between mother and daughter is equally harmonious.

"So long as there is wine in the house, we are both very happy," says Marie.

But, there is much more to it than that.

Marie has two daughters and a grandson. Scottish by birth, she came to New Zealand in the early 1960s as a "ten-pound Pom" after completing her nursing training. She and a friend were nurses at the former Hokitika Hospital.

After her marriage, she moved to London with her two young daughters, but in 2001, she came back to New Zealand, when her marriage ended. She continued working as a practice nurse and then theatre nurse in Hamilton until giving up her practice certificate last year.

Lee, meanwhile, completed a degree in environmental science at the University of Nottingham and worked in London as a graduate engineer where she later moved into communications. When she was 26, she returned to New Zealand and lived in Palmerston North, a place where she didn't know a single person. She met her husband there and they later moved to Christchurch. When her marriage ended in 2014, she lived for a year with Marie in Hamilton. "After what I'd been through, I'd come home like a zombie and Mum would hand me a red wine." The decision to live together as a longer-term arrangement was made a year ago, Marie was considering retirement. She owns a property in Hamilton, but that is occupied by her "fiercely independent" 94-year-old father. It seemed logical to share her daughter's house. When she suggested they become housemates, Lee didn't hesitate for long.

Lee says they always got on well, even during her teenage years.

"Mum was hugely hospitable. Very laid-back. Friends would bunk down at our house and there was always enough food for everyone."

She says she and her mother have similar personalities.

"We're both pretty cruisy. We like similar things. We have generous natures. We're tidy, but not fanatical. We enjoy each other's company."

When Marie first moved in, she mainly kept her belongings in her room – or stored in the garage. But over time, more items have found their way inside.

Lee says, "Mum encroached, but in a nice way."

There are no formal rules of engagement.

"When I stayed with Mum previously, her rules prevailed. If I put stuff on the kitchen table, she would say, 'Can you move your stuff?'"

But now they have a routine that recognises their different strengths and needs. Lee is a senior communications manager, so Marie does most of the cooking during the week.

"There is nothing better than to come home after a long day, and have someone hand you a glass of wine and ask how your day has been."

At weekends they share the kitchen. They both enjoy the same foods. Lee employs a cleaner once a fortnight. Marie does the laundry. Marie pays Lee rent and Lee handles the finances. Lee says, since living together again, they have had only one disagreement about a domestic chore, which was sorted within hours.

There are some differences around choice of television programmes. Marie likes programmes such as Grand Designs and watching the news at 6pm. Lee is a Netflix convert and is partial to cooking programmes, which Marie thinks are boring. They are currently both watching Stranger Things 2, a slightly chilling sci-fi series. On issues like privacy, they are open about their needs.

"If I ever wanted to bring a man home, I know Mum would respect that and go out for the evening. Likewise, if she wanted to have a visitor."

But they also enjoy having mutual friends over for dinner.

"There's no gap in the age between us. Mum is not an 'age number'. She is a person I enjoy hanging out with and so do my friends."

Lee says she is aware some people may think it odd she is living with her mother, in her late 30s.

"I'm aware it's unusual. There is some embarrassment that at the age of 37, this is where I am with my life. I thought I would be in a different place. But life has a way of surprising you, and – in other cultures – it wouldn't be unusual. But, it works well for us right now. Mostly, I'm grateful that Mum is always there and that we get on so well."

Merren & Janine

When her conservationist daughter asked if Janine would like to quit her city granny flat and live with her on a secluded property near Raglan, she didn't need to think twice...

Janine Cushing, 70, was considering moving into an Auckland retirement village, when her daughter Merren Tait, 40, came up with another option.

'Why don't we share a property?' she said.

At the time, Janine was living in a unit on her son and his family's property in bustling New Lynn. Her home was bright and modern, with carefully tended flower and vegetable gardens planted when she moved in five years before.

Merren's proposal was to share a secluded section, partially covered by native bush near Raglan, where the loudest sounds are the songs of tui, and the view is of Mt Karioi, an ancient volcano that rises sharply from the Tasman Sea. Access is by gravel road. Janine didn't hesitate.

"I knew when Merren came up with the plan, she was doing it for the right reasons, not out of duty or concern for me. I saw it as a wonderful change in my life."

The pair will live 20 steps from each other in separate, but identical 42 square-metre houses, modelled on sturdy DOC tramping huts. They will have livestock – sheep and chickens – and share produce from a large communal vege garden. They will sometimes – but not always – cook and eat together. Merren says they get on so well she can only see positives.

"But we will respect each other's privacy."

The decision to share space was made a year ago. But the changes that led up to it occurred over a much longer period. First, their relationship matured from mother and daughter to friends; second, Merren reconsidered how she wanted to live her life, with greater respect for the planet.

The decision to share space ticked both boxes. Merren is Janine's only daughter, the youngest in a family of three. Janine says they have always been close, even during the teenage years.

When Merren was 26, and on her OE, Janine joined her to backpack through Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, staying in cheap hotels and travelling by public transport. They briefly lived together in Wellington, where Merren taught English at St Oran's College.

When Merren moved to Raglan in 2009 to make a shift from city living, she went through a transition in her life. She stopped commuting 40km a day to teach in Hamilton, and took a position as the town's librarian.

Influenced by Raglan's green community, she became more environmentally aware. In her words, she went from armchair environmentalist – "happy to donate money, sign petitions" – to active conservationist.

Janine visited her often in Raglan, staying in the house Merren had renovated on her own over several years. She is immensely proud of her daughter, who now spends her weekends checking traps for weasels, rats and stoats.

"I have learned so much from her. My way of thinking has changed, too."

But there was further change to come. Merren found work and renovations on the house consumed her life.

"I decided I didn't want to do that. I was living on my own in a four-bedroom house with two bathrooms. I had a mortgage that would take me another decade to pay off. I wanted a life that allowed me more time for living than working. I wanted to enjoy Raglan and spend more time on conservation."

So, she sold her home ("at the height of the market, which was great"), bought the land in the bush and planned to build an eco-home. Her suggestion that her mother join her grew from her philosophy that different living arrangements can leave a smaller footprint on the planet.

"The conventional thinking is that you work, buy a big house and fill it up with stuff. I feel quite smug that I have broken out of that. With property getting further out of reach, it makes sense to consider intergenerational living, when you can support each other and enjoy each other's company."

In November, Merren reduced her working days at the library from five to three. While the houses were being built, she lived in a house bus on the bush property with no water or electricity.

Eventually, she would like them to become self-sufficient. Janine is a keen gardener and likes to bake bread. Merren will learn to hunt goats and rabbits for conservation – and for food. Their chickens supply eggs and they are encouraging bees by planting species that attract them.

Merren will establish a permaculture garden, where plants support each other. Janine will plant a few roses. Neither is a "tidy" gardener.

They will have separate and shared social lives.

"When we thought about this, we needed to have a clear understanding over how space needs to be respected," says Merren.

"We want to hang out together, but if we want our own space, the other won't be offended."

Merren owns the land, but each will pay for their own build. What happens if either wants to sell up or live with someone else?

"We don't see much point into putting energy into the 'what ifs,'" Merren says.

"We are aware things might change and we'll deal with them when they arise. We don't expect either of us should feel obliged to make this work, or to compromise if they decide they want something different."

Janine says she sees the change as an adventure.

"I'll miss seeing my grandchildren and their parents in Auckland so regularly, and other family who live there, but little else. I've met more people in Raglan than I met in Auckland. I'm looking forward to building those friendships."

As well as gardening, she may help clear pest traplines with her daughter and help out at Raglan library.

"She is teaching me so much about how we affect the planet."

She says her life appeared to be heading down a traditional route, moving into a retirement village.

"Often people at my age are on a path and they don't deviate from that path. I like the idea of a challenge."

She also looks forward to enjoying her relationship with her daughter in a different way.

"At some stage, relationships change. They don't need parenting. You can just enjoy each other's company."

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