Experiences in raising children in shared housing

Sometimes I see posts about people’s hope to raise children in a group housing situation, and it often seems overly optimistic to me. In particular they seem to expect that there will be more shared childcare than I think should be expected.

Today I talked to another parent who lived in a co-op when her child was a newborn. She didn’t get into specifics, but her summary was “We didn’t even make it a year.”

Jeff and I have lived in several group situations with kids. I’ll describe each of them at the end, but first some takeaways:

The main benefits of parenting in shared housing have been:

  • Adult company. Compared to most nuclear families where you have maybe one other adult to talk with at the end of the day, we like having several of us at dinner and some hanging out at other times. 
  • Less housework in general. We’ve always had a dinner rotation with each adult cooking roughly once a week. Shared grocery shopping, taking out the trash, and cleaning get some economies of scale. Our kids produce a lot of the mess so we try to account for that in doing housework.
  • More intergenerational contact. I think it’s good for the kids to know more adults than their parents and teacher, and I hope the housemates enjoy having some kid time in their life.

The main downsides:

  • In addition to whatever other housing preferences people have, it’s harder to find a space that works in terms of lead safety, layout with children’s bedrooms not too far from parents and not too noisy for other housemates, and access to outdoor play space.
  • Kid noise bothering other housemates. To some extent this is just a reality of apartment living, but it’s more intense when you see each other all the time. We’ve had a couple of housemates who are particularly sensitive to kid yelling / foot noise. In one case we tried to mitigate it by padding the floor and eventually Jeff heavily soundproofing their ceiling, but it wasn’t enough and they eventually moved out. I’m sure this is unpleasant for the housemates, and it’s unpleasant for me to feel like I need to police kids doing normal kid things (not just yelling and running, but also things like tapping feet on the floor while doing homework, or in one case, stirring a bowl of cookie dough too loudly for the person downstairs.) I think Jeff finds this kind of thing less anxiety-producing than I do.
  • Mess. This hasn’t actually been much of a problem in our house, but with some combinations I expect it would be. Kids create messes and usually have a lot of stuff and leave it everywhere. I can imagine in some situations this would bother tidy housemates and stress parents who needed to do more cleaning/tidying than they would prefer.

Other thoughts:

  • We haven’t lived with other parents since becoming parents, but one thing I imagine might bother us is living with other parents who have a really different disciplinary style. Both Jeff and I find it grating when other parents do stuff like threaten punishments they obviously don’t mean.
  • I think it’s important that other housemates are allowed to set limits with the kids (“That’s too loud,” “The cat doesn’t like that,” “Leave my headphones on the shelf, they are not for playing with.”) I wouldn’t want to live with kids I couldn’t set limits with.
  • The situation we’re now in is easier for us because we own the building, and we won’t have to leave if something really doesn’t work out. Needing to move is a bigger deal with kids, especially if they’re in local schools. I’d be more cautious about trying out group living as a parent if the kids are the interlopers rather than part of the family that has the lease / mortgage.

Recommendations:

  • If possible, try some time living together (maybe a long visit) before moving in.
  • Take advantage of any chance to do soundproofing. Install solid core doors instead of hollow ones. If work is already being done on walls or ceilings, have sound insulation added.
  • Consider having more noise-sensitive people on upper floors so kid foot noise is less of a problem.

Where I think people are confused

A number of people seem to hope that a stay-at-home parent who isn’t them will materialize. That might happen. But if you wouldn’t want to quit your job and be a full-time parent, don’t assume your friends or housemates will either. And watching multiple kids (especially from different families, with different schedules and different rules) is more work than watching one. So even if there’s a full-time parent in your household, don’t expect they’ll want to watch extra children, homeschool more children, etc.

I worry that people have a  tendency toward thinking of women’s labor as freely available for childcare. Likewise, grandparents usually have other things they want to do with their time than do significant hours of childcare.

There are still some economies of scale that could be had here. Maybe a full-time parent would be happy to do paid childcare for more kids, or maybe another housemate wants to do paid childcare. Maybe you can get a nanny share for multiple families. Maybe there are other efficiencies like shared school dropoff. Maybe you’ll end up with your own little homeschooling co-op. 

But in general, I would assume that you’ll get some good company and not assume you’ll get childcare or education out of such an arrangement, and you’ll probably still need to get those things in other ways.

One vision that seems to have at least partially worked out, with some experience in the comments. 

The arrangements we’ve lived in:

Living with another couple and their baby, 2011-2012

Jeff and I lived with another couple who were expecting a baby. We were around for the first 8 months of his life, and their first 8 months as parents.

I viewed it as a chance to get practice at parenting, and because my grad school schedule was irregular I was often home during the day and helped with the baby so the mom could get a break. Jeff wasn’t too interested but helped occasionally because I thought the practice would be good for him.

My memory is that we did somewhat more housework for a while (all the dinner cooking for a few weeks after the baby was born) and I had the baby sometimes for up to about 45 minutes, long enough for the mom to return her library books / get a nap / get a break.

We liked the family and would have continued living together, but after the lease ended we couldn’t find another place that worked for us all in terms of cost, location, and being deleaded.

Extended family, 2014-2015

When Lily was born, we were renting a room in Jeff’s parents’ house. His two sisters, a cousin, and his sister’s boyfriend also lived there at the time. 

This was a classic multigenerational household, of the kind that probably most children throughout human history have been raised in. But we all had other things to do than childcare — jobs, medical school, a novel to write. One would have probably been happy to watch the baby part time but was too ill. 

One of Jeff’s sisters was especially helpful in the first few months, spending lots of time holding the baby on evenings and weekends. She still had a day job, so it didn’t mean we didn’t need a childcare plan. As is also a classic part of multigenerational households, she and I disagreed about some details, and eventually I found the help stressful enough to be barely worth it. I felt like a good parent except when I was around her. By the time Lily was about 6 months, the sister had a new boyfriend and that relationship became her focus instead.

Some good things about this arrangement: Jeff’s parents, despite having raised three kids, were very good about not backseat-driving for us as new parents. And there was a lot of satisfaction in seeing the generations together and the family getting to spend time with the baby every day.

Shared house, 2015 – present

We bought our own house in 2015, and soon after we bought it Jeff’s college roommate and his spouse moved across the country to live with us. The house is divided into two apartments. At first we all lived in one apartment and rented out the other, with various versions including other friends living in the house.

Our housemates did some amount of hanging out with the kids from the toddler stage onward. Them being willing to read or play video games with the kids was nice for us to get a break, especially when it allowed us to cook dinner without simultaneously watching the kids. A couple of times they were responsible for the kids while the kids were sleeping so we could run a quick errand. 

I think the only times there was overnight care by a housemate was because both Anna and Nora were born at night. In both cases a housemate took care of the older child’s/children’s morning routine while Jeff and I were at the hospital, and he went home in time to get them from childcare before dinnertime.

During the pandemic when one housemate was underemployed, they worked as a paid nanny watching the kids every day, which was great. Another housemate once did an evening of paid babysitting and recently said they’re up for a bit more volunteer help (for example picking up one of our kids from a friend’s house a short walk away).

A large household is more efficient in terms of chores, and we didn’t do much in the way of altering chores after the babies were born. After Anna and Nora were born, I think I missed one week in the cooking rotation. 

In the future, if our housemates have kids I expect Jeff and I will do some amount of helping them out, especially during the newborn period. And I expect all the parents will do some amount of swapping watching groups of kids, since watching two toddlers is not twice as hard as watching one toddler.

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