One evening while Rachel and Michael Tidwell were visiting Rachel’s mom, who lived a few blocks away in Midwest City, Oklahoma, 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, 1,400-square-foot house into Sherry’s three-bedroom, 1,500-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,” Rachel said. “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.”
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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 2,500-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, Oklahoma, 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,” Michael said.
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,” Rachel said. “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 judgment. 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,” Rachel said. “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.’ ”
Join me next week as Sherry, Rachel and Michael navigate the blending of not just lifestyles but also furniture.