A few generations ago, it would have been very normal to have several generations of one family working together on a Maine farm and living together in the farmhouse.
But times have changed. Nowadays, it is much more common for only nuclear families to share a home. One Belfast family, though, is trying a new take on an old tradition, with three generations living and working together at Daisychain Farm. That’s where Daisy and Angus Beal, both 37, live with their two children, Ian, 9, and Phoebe, 7; Angus Beal’s mother and father, Jean Beal, 67, and John Beal, 69; and Jean Beal’s sister, Sara Bennett, 70.
And that’s not counting the brand-new puppy, 3-year-old dog and assorted chickens who also live at the farm. It’s a lot, but it’s working, they said.
“Five adults — with a big old farmhouse, I feel that’s a good minimum number,” Daisy Beal joked.
Her in-laws agreed.
“I think it’s great,” John Beal said. “I think it’s not nearly so weird as people think. Until 200 years ago, it was the absolute norm. My conclusion is that the five-to-two, adult-to-children ratio, is quite therapeutic. The kids get plenty of coverage and support, and we get to participate in their lives for a long time. I really enjoy it.”
It wasn’t a snap decision for the family to live this way. Instead, it was a process that involved a lot of conversations, communication and imagining of how it could work. For Daisy Beal, who grew up in a household with just her nuclear family in southern California, there weren’t a lot of models for multigenerational living that she saw in her community or depicted in media. But when Jean Beal and Sara Bennett were children, they lived with for a time with two great aunts and one great uncle.
“I can look back on that and see what worked and what didn’t work,” Jean Beal said.
Still, the three generations of the Beal family have largely created their own path.
“I don’t know what’s the normal thing for multigenerational living,” Daisy Beal said. “It does take a lot of intentionality. That’s key, so that everyone feels like they have a legitimate place to be and everyone feels like it’s their home. That didn’t just happen.”
For the Beals, the seeds for multigenerational living were planted nine years ago, when Angus Beal, who was in medical school in Vermont, had to do a six-month rotation at a Maine hospital. He, Daisy Beal and their newborn son, Ian, moved to Portland to live in John and Jean Beal’s spacious Victorian home. Daisy Beal, a new mom in a new-to-her state, knew few people in Portland and had a husband who had to spend much of his time at work. John and Jean Beal knew that from past camping trips made with Daisy and Angus Beal that they got along well and figured that sharing their home would work.
“It was very convenient. We had enough space so that they could move in comfortably,” Jean Beal said. “They had places to go to have time for themselves, and so did we. It made sense.”
Her daughter-in-law also has good memories of that time.
“I was in a position to be very grateful,” Daisy Beal said. “Having other adults around the house with an infant was both practically really helpful and emotionally really helpful. I wasn’t isolated in a house by myself. It was great for my mental health.”
After the rotation ended, Daisy, Angus and baby Ian Beal moved to Utah, where Angus Beal did his medical residency. But they wanted to move back to Maine, where Angus Beal had grown up and where Daisy Beal thought she could become one of the state’s new farmers. John and Jean Beal helped them scout for possible properties, and by 2014, Daisy and Angus Beal had settled on the old farm they found in Belfast.
“Daisy was looking for the right town and the right house with the right farm potential. When they found this one, they knew it would be a big undertaking,” Jean Beal said. “When they said, ‘How would you like to move in with us?’ I think we asked the appropriate number of times, ‘Are you sure?’ And we decided to do it.”
She and her husband, a lawyer in private practice in Portland, had been thinking of retiring. They owned a farmhouse in Porter close to the New Hampshire border and were planning to move there. But something had begun to worry Jean Beal.
“I already knew how much work John was thinking about doing there,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh boy, I don’t want to do this alone.’ It was too much. I was already understanding that it was way too much work for me.”
So moving to the Belfast farm and living with family seemed like a good answer to the question of how they would spend their retirement. They talked to Daisy and Angus Beal to hammer out some of the nuts and bolts of what living together would look like, and made a specific, written-out agreement about finances. They would share their common expenses 60 percent to 40 percent, with Daisy and Angus Beal taking the lion’s share.
“It seemed reasonable,” John Beal said, adding that the family anticipated some challenges as they moved in together. “I think the biggest challenge I thought would occur would be control, over how we live and how we make decisions.”
Before they moved, they agreed that Daisy and Angus Beal would be the “alpha,” or primary decision-makers, though they all participate in decision-making, John Beal said. Transitions are almost never completely smooth, but this one has worked out well.
“There has to be a lot of trust,” Jean Beal said. “It was a decision that we made that we are committed to making work, too. Everybody has got the right frame of mind. It takes lots and lots of communication.”
So the older Beals sold their Victorian house in Portland and their farmhouse in western Maine, said goodbye to their southern Maine friends and came to Belfast. They moved into the farmhouse in September, 2014, just a couple of months after Daisy, Angus and the children — two by then — had arrived. Sara Bennett, a scientist who had worked in the jungles of South America for the last 30 years, was the last to join the household, moving in a couple of years ago. Daisy’s parents, who still live in California, are also planning their own move to Belfast to be near everyone. They are building a house close to Daisychain Farm and expect to come east in the next year or two.
“Each one of us is going through transitions in our own lives,” Jean Beal said of making the move to Belfast. “Transitioning to the cooperative household, it takes time and patience and believing it will work.”
‘It’s everyone’s home’
The farm is a central component of this particular cooperative household. At Daisychain Farm, the biggest crops right now are U-pick organic strawberries and raspberries, but they also raise chickens for eggs and are expanding their orchard of fruit trees. Daisy Beal is the only full-time farmer, but everyone who lives there contributes.
“Anything that I can delegate as a whole chunk, where somebody is in charge of that area and gets their own subkingdom, that’s worked well for us,” Daisy Beal said. “I love being able to cut out from my mind what I can. That’s huge for household management, even if you don’t have a farm.”
On a typical day, you might find John Beal, an early riser, letting the chickens out of the coop, Jean Beal gathering eggs and Bennett tending to the large compost piles with the tractor. In fact, Bennett has taken over the management of the compost, to the delight of Daisy Beal. Her science background comes in handy as she keeps careful compost records, which are important to keeping the farm’s organic certification.
“Sarah is the queen of the compost,” Daisy Beal said. “Which is kind of funny, because when she first got here she said she would try anything, but she didn’t want anything to do with heavy equipment. Then she tried using the tractor with the bucket, and thought, ‘Oh! This is fun.’ She’s been into it ever since.”
Inside the 4,000 square foot farmhouse, the family has found that creating a mixture of private and communal space has worked well. Originally, the Beals were going to divide the house into two separate spaces, so that Angus, Daisy and their children would have their own unit adjacent to Jean and John Beal’s. But they quickly found that sharing a kitchen actually was both efficient and a pleasure, and when Sara Bennett moved in, they kept the same space configuration. Upstairs, there is a door between the side of the house where the older generation lives and the side where the younger generations do.
That’s important, Daisy Beal said.
“Having designated personal space really is an advantage,” she said.
That’s true, her mother-in-law confirmed.
“The noise is challenging sometimes,” Jean Beal said of life in a busy, hectic household. “I go outside, go for a walk, or go read upstairs. There are places to go.”
In the same vein, family members also have found it’s important to not spend all their time together, but to nurture the separate relationships within the group. Sometimes John and Jean Beal go out by themselves to Rollie’s in downtown Belfast to watch a game. Angus and Daisy Beal have date nights, or outings shared with just their children.
“You have to decide to take time,” Daisy Beal said.
Although not everyone in the family seems to feel the need for time apart.
“I think it’s awesome. I have people to play games with and people to be with when my parents aren’t right there,” Ian Beal said of sharing a home with his grandparents and his great aunt. “I like having them right next to me. If I ever want to say hi in the morning, all I have to do is walk down the hall. And also, I love being with a lot of people at dinner.”
His grandparents said that living with Ian and Phoebe has been very rewarding for them, though the proximity has led to a few changes in their approach to grandparenting.
“If they visit you only sometimes, you can break the rules,” Daisy Beal said. “But every day, you can’t do that. You have to come to an agreement about raising the kids. To some degree, you have to have baseline house rules.”
Asked for an example, Jean Beal laughed.
“I would bake more cookies if I were only seeing them occasionally,” she said.
Downstairs in the farmhouse, all the space is communal, and meals have become a special time for the three generations who live at the farm to hold hands, sing a song, eat and connect.
“We’re sitting down and having a conversation two to three times a day,” Daisy Beal said. “We sit down and begin eating at the same time. That’s a good day-to-day format for communications.”
In fact, communication is something that they strive to incorporate into all aspects of the farm and their household, in order to help everyone feel as if they have an important place in the home.
“When we moved into this house, and [John and Jean] moved in only a few months after we did, there were questions. ‘Is this your house? Is this our house? Who makes the decisions? How are the decisions made?’” Daisy Beal said. “I think it took a couple of years for us all to feel like this is our home. We all put in work. We all put in money. We all put in thought, and we all live here. It’s everyone’s home.”
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s March 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.