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Monica Porter

Big Mistake

The Times, 30 April 2004

With family, says Monica Porter, more isn’t always merrier

So the extended family is set to make a comeback, according to research carried out by a major building society. It’s easy to see why. Grown-up children can’t afford to move out of the family home, what with booming property prices and hefty student loans to pay back, and grandparents are living longer and can’t afford the continuing cost of residential care.

Some might consider this social development a good thing: children can bond with their grandparents, who are so much wiser and more patient than their mums and dads. And if there is any childcare to be done, the old folks are there to do it, in return for being looked after themselves. Think of all the money to be saved.

But as someone who spent the early years of childhood in just such an extended family set-up, believe me, it’s not all good news.

For the first four years of my life I lived in the stylish villa in Budapest which my mother had built during her heyday as a popular singer in the late 1930s. Her own father, a rural village headmaster, had contributed to the building costs and planned to move there with his wife, my grandmother, when he retired. This they did, in 1948. By then my parents had married and were living there with a housekeeper. They had my brother in 1950 and I came along two years later. A full complement.

I learned much later in life – when I was old enough to understand such things – that as soon as my grandparents moved in, life got worse for my father. My stern Victorian grandfather felt that, as he had paid in part for the villa, he was a rightful owner, the real head of the household, with my father little more than a tenant. He answered the telephone with the words ‘Racz residence’ (his own name), and when a friend of my parents once gave them a handsome wrought-iron nameplate bearing both their surnames, it vanished from the front gate within days and was never seen again.

There were more serious problems. The 1950s were perilous Cold War years in Hungary. My grandfather was a monarchist of the old school, and while my father was himself an ardent anti-communist he was circumspect about it, to avoid arrest and losing his job. On many occasions he pleaded with my grandfather not to fly into an anti-Soviet rant with guests in the house. ‘We have to survive,’ he reasoned. But the invariable response from the old man was a fierce ‘This is my house and I’ll say what I like!’ My father would shake his head and retreat to a quiet corner of the house.

Except that corners were rarely quiet with me around, up to my shenanigans. I picked up fruity expressions from my mother’s showbiz friends and when I once said to my pious grandmother ‘Where’s my lunch, you whore?’ she raged for weeks against my innocent father, accusing him of having goaded me into it.

My mother tried to defend her husband, but was also a dutiful daughter, so ended up caught in the middle. This put a terrible strain on my parents’ relationship and set the tone for the rest of their 50-year marriage, which was always stormy.

So, think carefully before signing up for the extended family. This isn’t the 1950s, nor is it communist Hungary. But the potential for misery is the same as ever.