Waiting…

Wow, I’m blogging.

Building a house is a lot of hurrying punctuated by a lot of waiting. And you often find yourself hurrying while you wait because it’s better than waiting and hurrying later, which means more waiting.

Right now we’re waiting for our certificate of occupancy, which is issued after final inspection and proves to anyone who cares that the house meets building codes and is safe to live in. If you’re wondering, as we were, if you really have to wait for the certificate to move in, you’re not alone:

cert

The consensus on the internet is that it’s not such a good idea. So we wait.

In the meantime, I’ll entertain you by rambling about my history with roommates. I grew up in a single-family home with my parents and my sister. I started living with roommates in college and had roommates and housemates almost continuously until now. For a long time I assumed that I’d eventually have a place of my own that I’d share with just my family.

But why? Some of my housemates have become life-long friends. It’s been a pleasure to live with them and get to know them so well. And they made our lives so much easier after the little ones were born. So why wouldn’t I want people around all the time? I realized, over time, that I was only attracted to the idea of one family under a roof because I was accustomed to it. The single family home is a relatively recent invention and I wonder if, like many other modern habits, there’s more merit in the old traditions.

A note on house size

A friend just asked me if we were moving into a three-family with two other families.  And that brings up my only real concern with this living situation: the size of the house.  It is a single-family which will have three families living in it.  We have all purged half of what we own, and are also expecting to leave quite a few of our remaining belongings in storage.  But even with less stuff, the tightness of the physical house is the one thing that I expect might lead to more friction than would normally occur in a coop. It’s easier for dishes to pile up, harder to find a quiet space when you need one, easier to double-book guests, and harder to put things away when there isn’t really space.

If any of us have another kid, it will quickly become unworkable.  And as our children get bigger, it will slowly become unworkable.  I don’t think any of us see this as our permanent living situation because of the size of the house.

My ultimate dream is a big sprawling house, ideally with at least two kitchens & dining rooms, with three (or more!) families with similar age kids.  My ideal two-kitchen setup has a main kitchen that everyone uses on a daily basis; cooking and eating together in the shared kitchen is my favorite part of coop living.  The second kitchen & dining room allow anyone in the house to host an event that doesn’t have to involve or interfere with everyone else in the house.  An old friend reminded me that I used to host amazing dinner parties, but since I’ve been living in my coop in Boston (for over 10 years) I stopped hosting them.  It’s too disruptive to have housemates coming and going.

Life is rarely perfect.  This physical house isn’t perfect.  But I’m incredibly excited and grateful to get the opportunity to “live the dream” with these particular people, who share many of my values and are also fun, smart, caring, and generally awesome people.

Post-mortem on co-ops with a newborn

Having just read my post from before my baby was born, I have to say that I am soooooo glad I trusted myself and not the people who told me to get my own place.  I was told quite a few times that I’d regret living with others when I had a newborn, but I just couldn’t believe that I would suddenly become a different person with different needs.  And I was right.  I loved living with others while I was home with a baby.

Our old coop was five adults and our tiny little guy.  I barely remember anything from that first week after our son was born, because I was almost completely without sleep and having a newborn is so repetitive (cry, change, cry, nurse, sleep briefly, cuddle, repeat every hour or two around the clock).  I do remember these events:

  1. When we came home from the birth center, our housemates were sitting on the porch with a bouquet of flowers and a big sign saying “Welcome Home LEIF!”  Tears came to my eyes.
  2. My mother-in-law Betty was staying with us and helping with everything.  One evening that week she cooked dinner and all our housemates were home.  We lit candles and ate at the table, and everything was perfect.  That was the first day our sweet housemate Mike held the baby, who was four days old.

The other memories I have from that week (and the next few) were nursing (which was quite painful) and walking Lief up and down the stairs (the only way to calm him…we called him our personal trainer).

As for the rest of that year, it was hard, but not because we had housemates.  Nate’s startup took off, and I did way more baby care than I ever expected.  Having housemates made this more bearable.  I had a terrible experience at work that summer.  We spent months preparing for our move to the west coast, purging about half of our belongings.  I had lived in Boston longer than anywhere else in my life, so it was hard to leave.

But I’m also really excited to be here in Berkeley.  Our old housemates were great, but they were single.  Our son is an only child, and he is extremely social.  We want him to be around other kids and we want to be around other parents.

If you read my post from before he was born, I am happy to report that none of the things I was warned about came true.  I was completely comfortable having others hold my baby, try to calm him, or occasionally babysit.  In fact, it was a godsend.  As far as seeing me at my worst, we joked about the donut-pillow I carried around everywhere for the first week — the relationship I have with my housemates is not a very private one.  I was very happy to have an excuse to mostly clean up most of the time (sorry about those other times!).  And the extra burden of maintaining interpersonal relationships was no more than it had been before.

Everyone was incredibly helpful to us the first few weeks, and after that it was wonderful to have my housemates occasionally organize events at the house.  There was a Princess Bride party at our house that was lovely: about a dozen very nice people came over, shared food, and watched the movie.  Since I wasn’t organizing it I could come and go as needed to nurse or change the baby.

Overall, I’m very surprised that the googs can’t find more information about the great joy of living with others while having small children.

So what do I expect from this new house? In many ways I expect more of the same experiences as my old coop: house meetings where we try to compromise to make everyone reasonably happy; random deep conversations about life, the universe, and sleep training; occasional frustration as dished pile up for some reason; coming home to a home-cooked meal and a housemate playing guitar.

In addition, there will be eight stompy little feet chasing the dog and squealing.  There will be piles of kids laughing while we tickle them.  There will be outings to Totland or the library or a museum.  And there will be four more brains to pick about what to do if our son falls asleep an hour early or gets an ear infection or throws a temper tantrum because we won’t give him dad’s iPhone to smear food on during dinner.

I’m looking forward to all of it.  And to blogging about the experience so the next person who wants to try living cooperatively with kids finds more info than I did.

My post from before the birth of my son

I’m going to be lazy and simply post what I wrote while living in our old coop when I was pregnant.  This is context for my other posts that will be about this house with one dog, three couples, four kids, ten people (11 if you count Rusty).

The WayBack Machine from July 20, 2014:

When my partner and I found out we were pregnant, we started thinking about our housing.  We had been living in a coop for a while (me for many years, him for two), which is more than just living with roommates.  It’s an “intentional community” of people who not only share food and chores, but host events together and actively participate in each others’ lives.  So as you might imagine, we thought a lot about our housing.

I have always said that living cooperatively is a luxury when you’re single, but a necessity when you have kids.  As we got more pregnant (and please don’t tell me that the word “pregnant” is binary in the English language — that proscriptive definition can only be enforced by people who have not gone through the many trials and science fiction-like changes that happen to your body in the various trimesters), I began to get questions about where we would live.  When I said we’d be living at our coop, some people would ask why I didn’t want us to get a place to ourselves.  This post is about why I am devoted to living cooperatively when I have a newborn, infant, small child, and beyond.

Nate and I are both software developers and we are very logical and proactive about improving our lives.  When faced with having children (which we both wanted very much), we started reading as much as we could about what it is like.  In case you don’t know, the first month (or few months) of having a newborn is usually very hard — so hard that people call it “unimaginable” how difficult your life is.  Here are some of the top reasons given:

  1. Hormonal changes — immediately after delivery, the level of progesterone in the mother’s body plummets. Progesterone is a happy drug, which you get pretty used to after 9 straight months, so the low is unavoidable.  75% of women get what’s called the “baby blues” which can last for a week or two.
  2. Lack of sleep.
  3. Isolation.

The first of these is pretty unavoidable, and my plan there is to be very aware that it is hormonal and will go away.  The second one is partially unavoidable, and Nate and I have been reading a lot of books on newborns and their needs (1,2,3 among others).  We will be interacting with our newborn in the way we believe (after much research) is most likely to lead to our best sleep.  We’ll also be keeping a log of eating & sleeping patterns for all three of us so we can test our assumptions and change things that are not working.

This leaves item number 3: isolation.

Extroversion

Remember the Myers-Briggs personality tests everybody took in college?  I’ve taken them a number of times throughout my life (though not recently) and have always ranked 100% extroverted.  That’s right, not one question on the introvert side.  I love being around people, and feel no need to be alone.  Which doesn’t mean I don’t like to journal or think about my life or spend time immersed in flow-type projects — I love those things, I just prefer to do them around others than to do them alone.  I do my best work in coffee shops and get really distracted when in a quiet library.  If I’m feeling really down, I’ll go to a busy local bar and sit right in the middle of the crowd; somehow the sound of people laughing around me makes me feel better, like everything is all right with the world.

So you can imagine my reaction when reading that isolation is one of the biggest problems for new mothers.  I would find an apartment with just Nate and me to be too isolating even without the prospect of a baby — I would be pretty unhappy.  And for the record, Nate and I are both self-employed, and spend tons of time together.  We often work out of the same co-working places, or both work out of our home office, or go to our local coffee shop together to work on our respective projects.  We could (and have) easily spend 24 hours a day together and be very happy.  So it has nothing to do with Nate, and there is no one in the world (either real or imaginary) that would make a two-person house okay for me.  I just need more company.

Communal Living Is Not Weird

Without belaboring the point too much, I do want to express my bafflement at the people who think I’m weird.  I have lived in Boston for almost 11 years now, and most of the people I know consider themselves introverts.  And there seems to be a pervasive assumption in American culture that living alone or in a nuclear family (two parents and their children living separate from any others) is the only right way to live.

<rant>  I will briefly state that if you look at our distant past, it’s hard to believe that human beings evolved to live like this.  No one really knows what life was like 10,000 or 100,000 years ago, but it most likely included groups of people spending their days and nights together the way that modern hunter-gatherer tribes do (or did when they were still relatively isolated from Western culture 30 years ago).  No separate rooms, no separate houses.  You eat together, you hunt together, you gather together.  And my understanding is that hunter-gatherer societies spend a lot of time socializing (3-4 hours/day are spent doing work, and the rest of their time is spent socializing or preparing for socializing).  Don’t get me wrong, I support my friends living whatever lifestyle makes them happy and have never suggested to a friend that their chosen lifestyle is not right for them — everyone should live the way that makes them happy!  But I don’t understand why some people get judgmental about the way I want to live; I’ve been told I’m crazy to live with others while I have a newborn, and that I will deeply regret it.  So I guess this is just my way of saying hey, just because I’m not like you doesn’t mean I’m wrong.  </rant>

Why this blog

And that leads me to how this relates to us with a newborn in a coop.  I was surprised to find that there is virtually no information on the internet about what it’s like to live in a coop with kids, or even to be the roommate of someone who has a newborn.  While there are a few posts that turn up in google searches about this, most of them are either people temporarily living with a family member who has children or people who have never wanted a roommate but are in a position where they have no other choice.  Inevitably, the advice on forums where these posts are made is “get out of this situation as soon as you possibly can,” with very little actual discussion of what it is like.

I have thought for years that we have come to a point in internet maturity where there is no topic that isn’t widely covered by google (i.e. forums, blog posts, articles, etc), so I was quite surprised.  I know we are not the first people to do this since the early 90s. In fact, I’ve talked to people who’ve done it (one was the roommate of a mother & newborn, the other was the father of a newborn who had a roommate) — but no one posts about it on the internet, apparently.

And so this blog was born.

Why not live with others

Before I answer the question of why I want to live with others, let’s take a look at the reasons people give to not live with others when you have a newborn.  Here are some of the reasons I have come across and how I feel about each:

  • Not trusting others to raise your children.

I really don’t feel that protective.  Maybe I suddenly will once the baby is born, you might say, and we’ll see…I’ll certainly keep it in mind as we continue to blog.  But to live in a coop you have to be pretty flexible about what room you live in, what furniture sits in your living room, the kitchen upkeep, noise, and so many other things.  I am rarely (if ever) the person in the house with a strong opinion on any of these issues.  And remember that I am not about to live with strangers — my housemates are people I care about and respect, people who make me happy.  I look forward to hearing their ideas!

  • Not wanting others to see you at your worst.

Again, I’m living with people I really care about.  One of my best coop memories was from a very dark time when I was going through a tough breakup, having trouble at work, and we had just gotten an unexpected 30-days notice to move out from our deadbeat landlord (who was in bankruptcy, divorce, and foreclosure).  I came home to an empty house, sat on the stairs, and burst into very loud sobs.  As it turned out one of my lovely housemates was home, and she came downstairs and gave me a very long hug.  To me, having housemates there when I’m at my worst is a bonus.

And a note from my brother, who had a housemate when he and my sister-in-law were having their kids.  He said that there were moments when they might have said pissy, irritated things to each other out of exhaustion but didn’t because of their housemate, and that he was really grateful for her presence and the effect it had on their interactions.  Sometimes your “worst” is really not where you should let yourself be.

  • Not being able to leave the place a disastrous mess when you need to.

Yeah, Nate and I will probably wish we could leave our sh*t all over the house.  And we’ll have to spend a few extra precious minutes (no sarcasm intended) putting our gobs of new baby paraphernalia away after we’ve used it for the 14th time that day.  On the other hand, I really believe in feng shui in that I think your visible environment has a strong effect on your mood.  If you leave your place a disaster because you’re down, you’ll come back to it and feel more down because it’s a disaster.  I’m hoping that the need to keep it relatively neat will help us feel like things are not out of control.

  • Worrying about the baby crying and waking up roommates.

We definitely worry about that, but in reality it’s our housemates’ concern more than ours.  A wise person convinced me a while ago to stop worrying about other people’s needs.  Our housemates feel pretty confident that we can work it out.  We’re definitely going to be more affected by it than they are, so we’ll be doing everything we can to have a happy, minimal-cry baby.  We look forward to their ideas, because anything that helps the kid cry less will help us too.

  • Not wanting to deal with any additional interpersonal relationships.

Guess what?  Living in a coop requires upkeep of interpersonal relationships.  It does.  I’ve lived in a lot of coops and they all require everyone in the house to spend some extra time making sure everyone else is doing okay.  I’ve always found that pretty fulfilling and very worth the extra time.  Our housemates also understand that the first month is likely to be tough, and that it may take us a few weeks to get into a routine.  We feel confident that none of our housemate relationships will blow up in the first four weeks, and then we’ll be taking the time to check in with them more regularly.

Why live in community with a newborn

My number one reason why I am devoted to living with others when I have a newborn is this:

For various mostly unavoidable reasons, the first few months with a newborn are among the most physically and emotionally draining you will ever experience.  So what you really need is to live in whatever way makes you feel most centered, most calm, most pampered, loved, warm and fuzzy.  For most people, that’s having a place to themselves.  For me, that’s living in a coop.  No one way is more right than the other; the most important thing in this time is to meet your own personal needs, because you are going to be really busy meeting the baby’s needs.

Because of the demands of breastfeeding (which can consume up to 12 hours a day, every other hour), this is even more true of the mother than of the father.  Nate would be fine living either nuclear family-style or cooperatively, but I really need the extra company.  So that’s it, really, the only reason I need.

But there are other things that I believe will be bonuses, and these might be more convincing arguments to people who may be on the fence about having roommates while you have a newborn, so here goes.

  • You don’t have to leave the house to get a little easy social interaction.  Given that isolation is one of the most-cited reasons for postpartum blues and/or depression (the more serious version), it’s nice to have friends you don’t have to schedule with, who will just show up at breakfast or dinner.
  • Fewer chores.  Guess what?  If you live by yourself, I do fewer chores than you do.  I share them with my housemates, so, for instance, I never go shopping.  Instead of having to do everything myself, or between two people, our chores are split among five people, which really cuts down on time (and can be more fun if you do them together).
  • Trade chores over time.  We don’t expect our housemates to do more house chores than we do, but we plan to do extra chores before the baby is born so that we’re “ahead” and can slack off a bit in the first few weeks post-delivery.
  • No gendered chores.  I never thought about this until I read this article (http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/07/two-couples-one-mortgage/374102/), but the author is right.  Living cooperatively removes gender roles in chores, and I’m happier that way.  Chores are rotated or volunteered based on interest or ability (like owning a car for shopping), and each month at our house meeting we can change which chore we do.
  • Save money.  It is definitely cheaper to live with others.  Rent is cheaper, groceries are cheaper, utilities are cheaper…I’d personally pay more if I had to, but it’s a nice bonus.
  • Emergency help is right there.  We don’t expect to have any emergencies.  But if there were one, having housemates you get along with is amazingly helpful.  For example, I was stuck at a hospital a couple of years ago after a painful and emotionally stressful medical procedure during the complete shutdown of Boston when the marathon bombers were on the loose.  No subway or buses, no cabs, I couldn’t get home, and I really needed to go home.  Our housemate who normally doesn’t let anyone drive her car let Nate use it to come pick me up — which by the way was illegal, since all car traffic was shut down too.  It’s like a good insurance policy — you don’t have to think about who you would call if you really needed something.

I hope this explains my thoughts about living in community with a newborn child, and helps others who are thinking about doing it too.  I welcome questions from anyone and hope this blog will start a vibrant discussion!

Footnotes:

  1. Our Babies Ourselves: http://www.amazon.com/Our-Babies-Ourselves-Biology-Culture-ebook/dp/B005HE8DXA/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405905345&sr=1-1&keywords=our+babies+ourselves
  2. Happiest Baby on the Block: http://www.amazon.com/Happiest-Baby-Block-Crying-Newborn-ebook/dp/B000SEI6L8/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405905414&sr=1-1&keywords=happiest+baby+on+the+block
  3. The Sleep Book for Tired Parents: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0943990343/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o06_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

A thousand ways it could go wrong.

So first let’s be clear on the idea that this whole thing could go wrong in a thousand different ways.  I like to lead off with that, because I feel more comfortable setting low expectations, and then (we hope) being pleasantly surprised later.

But I don’t mean to be too glib about the potential downside. Anyone who looks at this living situation-to-be immediately intuits that there are myriad usually-invisible variables in everyone’s psyches and routines that are going to get exposed by this arrangement, and that any one of them could turn out to be a showstopper, or at least a source of real difficulty.

For amusement, let me list the first few that come to mind, knowing that you, gentle reader, will have an equally-rich list of your own:

  • Two people routinely want to use (the shower, the bathroom, the batpole) at the same time.
  • One kid behaves in a way that offends another parent deeply; irrational antics ensue.
  • The messy one keeps irking the neat freak, just like on that show.
  • We keep switching languages because we are all showoff polyglots.
  • The house owners and the renters start a class war over the use of “erasable” markers.
  • The fact that we don’t have a batpole, despite the obvious benefits it would afford us all.

(And for the record, Eliza is the actual polyglot, and I am the showoff who “speaks” multiple languages only slightly better than my two-year-old speaks English.)

That’s just off the top of my head.  I see many (more, colorful) ways in which this could go wrong.  But I really don’t think it will.  Don’t get me wrong: I have every confidence that we will have actual, real disagreements, and even fights, and I believe that they will result in hurt feelings from time to time.

But I also believe two other facts that I think are more important:

We are all grown-ups.  (Well, except for the four toddlers.  And, according to my wife, sometimes except for me, which is a fair point.)  But fundamentally, we are a bunch of adults with a whole lot of experience dealing with other adults in a reasonably respectful and empathetic way. If you don’t think that’s a big deal, then I want you to take a minute imagining the most colorful housemate meltdown you care to, and then critically examine whether all the players in your scenario are being grown-ups. …See what I mean?

We are all married. I gotta tell ya, if you’re hankering for a steep learning curve on the personal growth side of things, I recommend that you go ahead and live a rich and varied life as a single person, and then get married relatively late in the game. I promise you that you will learn things you never knew existed, things you never wanted to have to learn, things you always secretly hoped someone else would just abstract away from you, like a butler who irons your shirts for you, because we all know you were never going to get around to doing that. My point is: we are all very aware that merging a part of your life with someone else’s agenda takes care, work, and really good manners. Even when we get it wrong, which I’m sure we all will, I feel confident that I can trust all of us to know it and to own it, at least soon if not immediately.

Now, in case you’re not convinced that this is an experiment worth running, I’ll just point out that some cousins get to grow up as siblings, and some good but estranged-by-distance friends get to get a lot closer (i.e. de facto adopted into the family).  Plus, it’s going to make a lot of other things easier, more fun, or both.  In my book, that package of benefits is worth taking on a lot of risk for.

We definitely have to do something about that missing batpole pretty soon, though.

Closet Organizers and Chaos

 

WhatIsElfa_MainImage

This recent Saturday featured our first house meeting. And our first house meeting featured pizza, discussion about The Container Store’s Elfa closet organizing solutions (see Eliza’s earlier comments on storage), chore talks, general enjoyment, and a lot of noise. Completely unsurprisingly, when there are four kids under four in one house, madness ensues. And this is how we’re choosing to live?

Yes. Because the madness so adorable and lovely it’s almost bearable. And I’m hoping the pros of community and shared burdens will outweigh the chaos.

Here’s why I think it just might work, because, like The Container Store’s Elfa closet organizing solutions, we’re entering into this situation in an organized, modular way. Everything is upfront and in the open. We’re aware of (some of our) potential pitfalls and challenges.

However, also like The Container Store’s Elfa closet organizing solutions, it’s hard to know exactly how to lay out your components ahead of time. I know all my clothes, all my shoes, all my bags. But it’s really hard to envision them all in this particular closet, and to make sure they’re all going to fit in an organized and peaceful way.

I know the way my sister parents, and how she cooks, and how she is, but I haven’t lived with her since I was eighteen. And I’ve never lived with Harry, Anna, or Nate. And sometimes I can barely stand to live with my husband (love you, sweetie).

Are those shoe racks really right for my shoes? What about boots? How do those fit in?

We all love our kids. But what about parenting styles? How do we discipline each others’ kids?

So, as with designing my closet modular organizing system, I’m entering this living situation as prepared as one can be, staying open and aware, hoping for the best, and opting for more drawer space over hanging space. Because I feel like drawers are more versatile, right?