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Hungry for a Momwich? Successful Multi-Generational Living

  • Anita Renfroe Author, <i>If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother</i>
  • 2006 9 Sep
  • COMMENTS
Hungry for a Momwich? Successful Multi-Generational Living

There are certain things you start to say when you reach a certain age (like, "What is with all that noise on the radio?" and "Young people used to have manners in this country."). You can actually track how close you are to getting put in a nursing home by the frequency of these sorts of phrases in your daily conversations.

So, at the risk of sounding elderly, weren’t the TV commercials better back in the sixties and seventies? Other than the really bad polyester outfits, the products were all designed to make our lives better and to shave the time we spent preparing meals. We had Tang —the orange flavored drink that the astronauts drank! We watched commercials for Hungry Man TV dinners, and you had your choice of mixing biscuits (Bisquick) or popping them out of a can (Pillsbury).

One of the more interesting (genderwise, that is) food commercials was one that implied a real manly man would never eat a regular sloppy joe sandwich, he needed a "Manwich" (think Tim "The Toolman" Taylor making his grunting noises). Wouldn’t you think that all the bra-burning militant feminists of that era would have protested this stereotypical product labeling by boycotting Manwich? Not on your life! I have no idea what testosterone-driven ad agent thought that name would sell more sauce, but he must’ve been a genius because it’s still on the grocery store shelves to this day.

I have experienced something slightly different than a Manwich. I have been both a bread slice and I have been the filling in what I call a "Momwich." This is a scenario where three generations of women (mother and a daughter and her daughter) all live under one roof. Sometimes it’s by choice, sometimes it’s of necessity, but it’s always an interesting mix.

When I was two years old, my biological father left my mother and me. It was devastating for my mom, and she would have been unable to support us both had we not moved in with her parents. My mom has told me that, as my grandfather was a man given to fits of rage, she was reluctant to move back home but really had no choice financially. So it was that from the age of two until I was ten, I was the younger piece of bread in a Momwich. I have asked my mom what it was like for her to move back in with her mother at that time in her life, and she said it was a comfort to have her mom there daily during the time when she was healing from the emotional wounds of divorce and that her mother, ever the strong soul and optimist, acted as a buffer between her and her father.

My earliest childhood memories include spending lots of time with my Nana (because my mom was working) and playing out on the farm. The days were slow, just as they should be when you a little mayo with the momwich are a child and have no reason to feel the passage of time. I recall feeling quite loved by my Nana and my mom (also by my grandfather, who in his older years was more docile), so this Momwich was a blessing for me and provided stability in my early life. It also gave my mom a few years of emotional haven where she could find her confidence again. My grandmother believed that God would send my mom a soulmate (since the dating pool in our little town was pret-ty small!), and mom was resolute to hold out for someone who would love her deeply. When John Pulliam moved to Burnet to work at a fish hatchery, Mom and John fell in love and married, so the Momwich was no longer necessary. Interestingly enough, Nana would continue to spend parts of the year with us even when we moved from Texas to Virginia. Momwiches are enduring.

And I’ve found that Momwiches can morph over time, as I am now the middle part of one. I am the meaty sauce, the daughter/ mother in between my mom and my daughter, and the joe can get pretty sloppy some days. When we moved to Atlanta several years ago, my parents were already in the area living on the opposite side of town. My dad’s job took him on overseas trips frequently, so when Dad was out of the country Mom would stay with us so that she wouldn’t have to be alone. At the same time I was starting to travel more frequently for my own work and ministry, and Mom and Dad would come over on those weekends to help out with the kids.

After a few months it occurred to us that we could save a boatload of money if we combined our incomes and bought a single house large enough for all of us. It would solve lots of problems with one fell swoop. So we found a place with three floors (so we could all ding the bell and retreat to our separate areas should the closeness start to feel —well . . . too close).

When people would hear of our arrangement they would sort of drop their jaw in amazement and ask, "How does that ever work?" And we would explain that we were all pretty busy people and hardly ever home all at the same time and we just made it work. My dad and my husband were great friends and all the guys would do guy things, and my mom took over the laundry room (no problem with that here!), and we just sort of agreed on what rooms got decorated by whom. Mostly no problems.

Until my mom’s life changed forever.

My dad was Mom’s haven, her place to vent and work things through emotionally. Tragically, about a year and a half after we moved in together, my dad died of pancreatic cancer. My mom’s top part of the Momwich was scorched by grief. Within a few months of my dad’s death she had surgery on her Achilles tendon and was hobbled for months. I thought it was ironic that her body mimicked her emotional state —it was like she was having to learn to walk all over again at the same time she was having to learn how to live all over again.

No longer being a wife after twenty-five years of happy marriage, Mom’s core identity was suddenly undercut. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when, in scrambling to find a sense of herself and a meaningful role in our revised family dynamic, she latched on to her intermittent Momhood with new and vigorous . . . umm . . . enthusiasm. This time around, however, she was leapfrogging a generation and aiming straight at trying to get my kids to toe her line. She had some legitimate issues about them not always respecting her and not always being as helpful as they could be, but my thoughts were, "What kids are always 100 percent in either of those areas? And what if I kinda agree with them that your standards of cleanliness might be a little high?"

Since there were some definite differences between how I was choosing to parent my kids and how I was raised, the whole issue of parenting became a huge source of contention for us for a couple of years. My mom saw some of my parenting decisions as invalidating my upbringing or not respecting the way she wanted things done, but I had definite ideas of what I thought was essential. Basically, our lists did not match, and this created a lot of tension.

My mom will be the first to admit that part of the problem was that she had raised only me. An "only." She had never dealt with multiples nor boys, so she believed everything should be as orderly and easy with three as it was with one. I, personally, enjoy chaos — at least in small doses. We no longer have as many of those issues as the boys have grown up and moved away (for most of the year). The rest of us don’t make quite as big of a mess.

On the other side of my Momwich is my daughter, Elyse. She’s now in her teens and can remember only a little bit of life before the Momwich. I know that her experience in this scenario is different than mine was simply because of three things: (1) She became the underlying layer later in her life (she was eight when we started the present Momwich), (2) She had older brothers in it with her, and (3) She’s a different temperament than I am. Elyse is an observer and a pretty good one to get the gist of situations without much explanation. She has a high Emotional Intelligence Quotient, and she has always been her own girl.

Although she was born into a family with two older brothers, Elyse has always had a strong sense of her femininity and a firm resolve to not put up with much nonsense. She will not suffer boredom long (she regularly walks out on movies that are predictable). She knows what she likes and what doesn’t fit her taste anymore. It is almost a family joke that on any given day she will just decide she doesn’t like something and she will set it out into the hall, like "whenever the hall fairy comes around, she will need to pick this up and remove it from my presence." This sends her pack rat, sentimental dad into fits. He will shake his head and say, "Elyse! How could you get rid of this?" Of course, to him, everything is "special."

I know it is sometimes difficult for Elyse to be mothered by two generations at the same time. Some things are straight-up generational issues —like clothes and music tastes —and we fall out along the lines of our eras. Some differences are in our needs for boundaries (Elyse needs a lot, I need some, Mom doesn’t need any or recognize them unless you put up an electric fence). Some days I do feel the squish of the Momwich. Mom will (at times) intimate that I’m not quite getting the Mom job done with Elyse in a certain area, and Elyse will be asking me to tell Mom to make herself a little more scarce when her friends come over, and these are the moments you wish, for a little while, that you only had one side of the bun or the other. But I love both the buns — and, besides, an open face sandwich isn’t on the menu right now.

But because my daughter has a strong sense of her uniqueness, I think the Momwich actually helps her to hold on to herself in a house with two other strong women. I don’t think Elyse and my mom have the same sort of relationship they might have if they had the normal amount of space that grandmothers and granddaughters have between them. I don’t know if that is something they might miss with each other. But there is something to be said for being a part of the every day. And I wonder how it will turn out over time. We’ve been in our current Momwich configuration for almost a decade and we are all growing and morphing and changing and trying to remain loving through it all. Mom is moving some of her time and interests out of the house, and Elyse is perched on the edge of the nest. It’s not that hard to imagine that I could be the top bun in another kind of Momwich someday.

I also wonder how many women find themselves, at different times in their lives, in a Momwich. It certainly isn’t something you dream about as a child. I don’t think anyone, when she is seven years old and dreaming about her adult life says, "Man, I can’t wait to grow up so I can keep living with my mother!" But life brings to us situations that change our idea of "normal" and give us a chance to see whether the faith and grace we profess to possess is all talky, talky and no walky, walky. And it gives a daily proving ground for love to triumph through dysfunction.

I’ve found that Momwiches are a lot like Manwiches: meaty, messy, alternately sloppy and satisfying. Like the Manwich, a Momwich is a slightly heavier emotional portion than many would even attempt to bite off, but we are all three the stronger women for it.


If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother by Anita Renfroe, July 2006. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing. All rights reserved.