Laura Swansey walked warily through her living room, navigating the space while two small grandchildren zoomed in circles around her feet.
“We call this ‘Chaos Zone One,” Swansey said.
Swansey pointed to the kitchen, where a few toys lay haphazardly on the ground. Those wouldn’t have been there even a month ago, before Hurricane Harvey displaced Swansey’s daughter and her family.
“This is ‘Chaos Zone Two,’” Swansey said.
Her two grandchildren dashed through the kitchen and out to a small porch, where Swansey had set up a breakfast table and a play area. Swansey peered through the sliding door.
“This is ‘Controlled Chaos,’” she said.
Swansey isn’t accustomed to pandemonium in her town house on Galveston’s West End. Before Hurricane Harvey, she was an “empty nester” and lived just with her husband. Swansey added her daughter, her son-in-law and a 3-year-old granddaughter before the storm.
When Harvey hit, Swansey took in another daughter, a son-in-law, a 4-year-old grandson and 2-year-old granddaughter. Now it’s a full house — nine people in a three-bedroom space.
“It gets a little crazy,” Swansey said. “We are three households trying to live as one.”
After Hurricane Harvey came through Southeast Texas in the last week of August, thousands of homes in the county were damaged by rising floodwaters. While some people who were displaced found temporary housing in hotels, others chose to stay with family or friends.
Across the county, grown children are living with parents again, along with every other combination of blended family. Along with the stress inflicted by the storm, merging families carries emotional and psychological ramifications, experts said.
“When you have a whole bunch of people in a smaller space, there’s going to be added stress,” said Jeff Temple, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “Tacked on to that, when you’re exposed to traumatic events, it’s going to be associated to irritability and impatience and anxiety.”
Even issues that seem mundane, such as laundry or scheduling, can lead to conflict in a blended household, said Anka Vujanovic, an associate professor at the University of Houston Department of Psychology.
“A lot of times, when people are dealing with all of those other complex emotions, it can sometimes exacerbate the pragmatic annoyances,” Vujanovic said. “Those things can take on a huge life of their own.”
Members of the Swansey household said they could identify with some of the frustration that comes with the change. The situation has already proven to be an adjustment for Swansey’s daughter Nicole Denby, who said she needs to learn to live with her mother again.
“It’s weird,” Denby said. “It’s so weird. I haven’t actually lived with my mom since 2005.”
Denby, her two children and her husband are living in a bedroom that Swansey usually uses as an office. When Denby’s husband isn’t in Port Neches, where he’s repairing the family’s house, the four sleep on a half-inflated air mattress and some blankets on the ground.
“You can imagine taking everything, from being in your own home and having your own independence, to having to move back in with mom,” Swansey said. “That’s where they’re having to sleep right now. They went from having a gorgeous house to being confined in a room.”
Kurt Koopmann, a La Marque resident, has had the inverse experience. He took in his 84-year-old mother, whose Hitchcock home was damaged in the storm.
“We always know we can go back home, but generally we tend to think of it as going in a different direction,” Koopmann said.
Living with his mother again has been a bit of a throwback to Koopman’s childhood, he said.
“I’m 58, and I feel like I need to say, ‘I may not be coming in this evening,’” Koopmann said.
Koopmann’s mother has taken to putting pots and pans in the wrong places, Koopmann said. He has also gone home on a few occasions to find dinner already on the table, he said.
“I think for both of us, there’s kind of up days and down days,” Koopmann said. “It’s just what we’re dealing with.”
Scheduling conflicts are actually very psychologically driven, because an abrupt change in routine can set off irritable behavior, Temple said.
“Humans like routine,” Temple said. “When someone else comes in, they break that routine. They want to do laundry at a certain time, they want to eat a certain time.”
Angela Reed, who lives in Alvin, is housing her son’s friend, who is 13 years old, she said. He has been there almost a month, and Reed said she is still getting used to the changes that come with adding another person to the family.
“Having someone else also makes things a little more expensive, like going out to eat,” Reed said. “The typical routine we have in the evenings takes a little longer with showers, homework and chores. Just trying to get the boys to settle down at night and go to bed is an adjustment. They want to stay up and talk all night.”
Finances tend to be a big stressor as well, Vujanovic said.
“It might create an overall financial burden on the overall household,” Vujanovic said. “The more that can be discussed in the open, the better for everybody.”
People who are displaced can also feel as if they’re inconveniencing the people taking them in, Temple said.
“There’s probably some type of guilt, like they have to be on their best behavior,” Temple said.
A similar emotion can also apply to the people who open up their homes, creating an sense of responsibility or obligation to care for their friends or family, Temple said. Even fear of showing irritability or impatience can be an issue, Temple said.
Koopmann’s mother has had difficulty adjusting in that way, too, Koopmann said.
“She’ll say things to me like, ‘I hate being a burden to you guys,’” Koopmann said. “I’m like, ‘You’re not a burden, mother! We’re victims of a natural event.’”
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
The best way to handle any sort of familial conflict is to talk through issues and set rules up front, said Regina Andrews Duarte, a licensed clinical social worker and family counselor based in League City.
“The longer they stay living together, they could find a rhythm, they could find a routine,” Andrews Duarte said. “If all the individuals in the households — if they don’t have good problem-solving skills — I think they’re going to need therapy.”
Open communication is the best way to cope with any issues that arise with entering a new living arrangement, Vujanovic said.
“Open communications and transparent expectations for everybody would be very important,” Vujanovic said. “It’s important to set those boundaries and expectations to make sure everyone understands what they can and can’t contribute.”
As difficult as it can be, Koopmann said he and his mother have been able to resolve any minor issues they encounter.
“As challenging as it may be for us, I think it’s time we’ll cherish,” Koopmann said. “You have to find those bright spots where they’re at.”
At Swansey’s household, the family has worked out its schedules, including setting aside time to give the mothers rest while Swansey baby-sits, she said.
All of the changes have led Swansey to feel the need for rest herself, she said. On Monday, she watched her grandson, Robert Hutson, Denby’s 4-year-old son, run around with a half-eaten bag of Doritos, waving orange fingers in the air.
Swansey’s daughter and other granddaughter weren’t home yet, and all she could do was laugh and be thankful, she said.
“Truthfully, it’s been chaotic,” Swansey said. “But I have been incredibly grateful for the time that I’ve had to bond with my family. It’s in times of chaos and distress that bring us together, and we can help each other out.”