Contractor mindset vs. homeowner mindset

Jeff is redoing our bathroom, which involves taking down walls with old lead paint on them. He’s sealed off that portion of the house, and when he’s doing leaded work he doesn’t come back in the rest of the house until he’s taken off his coveralls, changed clothes, washed his hands in the basement, showered, and changed clothes again. That’s what you do if you’re an informed parent who doesn’t want your kids to get lead poisoning.

When my dad worked in construction, the comment made after a shoddy job was “Well, I can’t see it from my house.” That’s basically the attitude I’ve seen from contractors about things like lead dust, despite laws about precautions they’re supposed to take. When our electrician’s assistant cut through an old wall with no precautions, scattering lead dust all over the inside of a closet (containing, unfortunately, the cleaning supplies), I called to complain. “I have no way of knowing what’s in your walls,” the electrician told me, though we both know very well what’s likely to be in 1920s walls given that lead paint wasn’t banned until 1978.

I called the state lead safety agency, the ones theoretically in charge of enforcement. They told me to clean my house really well.

The next time the electrician needed to go through a wall, he promised he’d put down a dropcloth. He did — it covered the area just under the work, and the dust extended for yards beyond it, including down the stairway where he tracked it on his way out. When I went to clean it up, it was like one of those cakes where you can see the shape of where the doily was laid, because the icing sugar is sprinkled everywhere else.

That’s the kind of work you get when the incentive is to look like you’re doing the right thing, rather than to actually prevent lead from getting into your children’s bodies. You get a dropcloth that pretends to address the problem. You get a phone number where you can call and get no help.


Last night I was talking with Jeff about some health problems I’ve been trying to figure out. I made a long list of things I had tried already, and a shorter list of things I haven’t tried. I spent a lot of the conversation arguing to him why the remaining things were unlikely to work.

I was essentially in contractor mindset. As if it weren’t my house, and all I needed to do was demonstrate that I’d taken some reasonable steps. But when you’re the homeowner, when it’s your roof that’s leaking, when you’re the parent of the children who live there, it’s not enough to try. You have to actually fix the problem. If you stop when you have taken the steps that could reasonably be expected of you, it’s you and your family who bear the cost.

I’m trying to balance this with the virtue of acceptance. I may try every single thing on both lists, and I may never find anything that works all that well. I may just need to learn to live with the status quo.

But it would suck to try 15 out of 20 things and never find out that the 18th thing on the list would have helped. This body is my home. If I can summon the energy, it’s time to keep trying.



How much do kids cost? The first 5 years

We did an estimate on how much our first year of having a baby cost. Four years and another baby later, we decided to do an update on how much the first five years have cost.

TL;DR: Over 5 years we’ve spent about $106,760 in cash, or about $150,000 including lost earnings. By far the biggest costs for us were housing, childcare, and lost wages of a stay-at-home parent.

Related posts:
Cost comparison of childcare
How much does it cost to have a baby? (at the one-year mark)
How much does it cost to raise kids? (speculation before we did it)

Total cost over 5 years:

Ok, this graph looks ridiculous because most categories are so much smaller than housing and childcare that you can’t see them, but that’s probably the point. People talk about baby gear and diapers costing money, but they just don’t hold a candle to the big two.

And that’s just counting what we paid in dollars. Here it is with my lost wages (post-tax) included:

So overall we’re about $151,690 short of what our child-free selves might have (assuming we neither donated nor invested the money). We’re also ahead by an unknown number of kisses and games of Lily-burrito.

Monthly averages:

With the exception of buying a house, most of your costs don’t come all at once. So how to the costs actually come each month?

Some costs scale with having a second child and some didn’t. The biggest differences were 1) moving towards more paid childcare 2) moving to a house where each kid had a bedroom, instead of sharing our bedroom as Lily did for the first two years. Of course some of this is more affected by the passing time than by adding additional children — if we’d had just one child, we still would have moved her out of our bedroom around that time.

Chart with numbers

What’s in the categories:

  • Housing: this is kind of pretend, because we actually built two extra rooms onto our house, which had a high up-front cost but will be useful for years and will eventually make the house sell for more. I’m instead substituting the cost at which we currently rent our spare bedroom ($900/month times 2 bedrooms). Lily got her own room around age 2 and Anna got hers around age 1, but I’m prorating it equally between them. This is one where you’ll be able to work out pretty easily what an extra bedroom costs where you live. Remember that your housing size won’t scale with your family size unless you move to a larger place every time you have a baby, so you’ll likely have some crowded years or some spare space.
  • Childcare: payments to daycare providers, payments to nannies, au pair costs (stipend, agency fees, room, food, utilities, phone, and transit). The cost of the au pair room is estimated in the same way as the kids’ rooms above. Duplicate childcare while traveling (when either parent takes one child with them on a work trip).
  • Food: additional food while Julia was pregnant and nursing. Minimal food during child’s first year. When we split food costs with housemates, we started counting the kids at half an adult share when they turned 1. This is probably an overestimate of what they eat.
  • Health insurance: increase over what we paid for 2 of us to be on health insurance from Jeff’s work.
  • Gear/nursery: cribs, rocking chair, stroller, etc.
  • Hygiene/medical: diapers, bottle-feeding supplies, medicine, dentistry, vitamins, copays on medical appointments.
  • Other: travel, toys, books.
  • Education: books and materials for doing home preschool with Lily, and a summer program.
  • Clothes: mostly from thrift stores or
  • Julia: maternity and nursing clothes. The fact that I even thought this would be a significant category when we started tracking shows how vague my idea of our future expenses was.

More on lost wages:

During 2014-2017 I worked 2434 fewer hours, or about 60 fewer full weeks, than I expect I would have. After Lily’s birth I used my 13 days of vacation and sick time I’d hoarded from my social work job, and then quit and returned 5 months later. Lily lasted 3 weeks in daycare before getting kicked out because she wouldn’t drink milk for anyone but us (who knew that was a thing? To be fair, it’s unusual and your kid will probably be fine in daycare). So Jeff moved his schedule earlier, I worked evenings and weekends, and between us we took care of Lily constantly while working the equivalent of 1.6 jobs. More on that period. When she was 18 months we switched her to 4 days a week in daycare, and I worked 4 days and 2 evenings a week.

With Anna, we had a more normal setup. I took 7 weeks unpaid maternity leave, Jeff took 10 weeks paid paternity leave, and then both children were cared for by a nanny or au pair. Cost comparison of childcare arrangements we considered.

Things that may change your costs:

  • Paid parental leave: Both times Jeff got 12 weeks paid leave and I got none. This is better than what most Americans get, but not so good by world standards.
  • Opportunity cost: If a parent earning a lot takes unpaid leave or reduced hours, it’s a bigger difference from your previous income. If the parent wasn’t earning that much, it’s a smaller difference. If you’re in a field where taking extended leave will hurt your chance of promotion, etc, that’s an additional loss.
  • Cost of childcare in your area: Boston has one of the highest childcare costs in the country, which is why an au pair (with nationally standardized costs) was the cheapest option once we had two kids. I don’t really understand why it varies so much by region. Also, different types of childcare vary in cost, quality, and convenience.
  • Cost of living in your area: There are many places (including cheaper areas of our city) where a spare room costs less than $900/month, and some where it costs more.
  • Sharing rooms: We could have moved to a three-bedroom place before having kids, which would have increased our costs. Or we could have stayed in a smaller space for longer — children having their own bedrooms has been unusual historically. But extended room-sharing means extended night feedings and (at least in our experience) more disrupted sleep for everyone. That’s one thing if you don’t need to do a lot of mental work during the day, but chronic sleep deprivation is no joke if your job requires you to think clearly. There are also other ways around this (baby in the bedroom and parents sleeping in the living room seems to happen a lot in San Francisco). Having children share with each other is another common option.
  • Buying more or less stuff: We’ve kept costs pretty minimal here by buying used toys and clothes. and similar sites are excellent for this.
  • Preschool: we opted for minimal paid preschool because we were already paying for full-time childcare. We could either have put the kids in a daycare (the more expensive of which include preschool programming) or paid for Lily to go to morning preschool on top of the childcare we already had. The difference is whether someone is basically watching the kids play, vs. leading more organized group activities and having them learn letters, basic math, prewriting skills, etc.
  • Vehicle: We have never owned a car, so kids really haven’t changed our transportation expenses. This is a cost to consider.
  • Travel: The trips we take are now more expensive, but we take fewer of them, so I think this about evens out.
  • Health insurance: Costs would be lower in a country with free health care, or higher if you don’t have an employer that covers as much of insurance costs as Jeff’s does.
  • Health needs: children with special needs (medical, emotional, behavioral) need more of your time and more money for medical copays, services that aren’t covered by insurance, childcare that can handle their needs, etc.

How I want you to use this information:
To think about how much it may cost you or others to raise children. I particularly advise saving money before you have kids.

How I do not want you to use this information:
To criticize my family for our lifestyle or financial choices.

Hardly anyone publishes their budget. Please don’t disincentivize that.

Thoughts on “you owe me”

I chose the title quote of this blog in a more socialist stage of my life. I was excited about applying generosity to personal relationships, to my finances, and to policy in general.

There’s an ideal of marriage in my mind, based on novels like I Take Thee, Serenity, of old people enjoying a lifetime of selfless love. At a friend’s wedding, an older married woman gave her the advice, “Don’t count. It will always seem like you’re doing more. Give and give and give thanks.” I loved that. I hung the last line in our first apartment.

Then I had kids, and now I definitely count. 

Jeff and I have done several rounds of time tracking, including at least one where I was quite sure I was the put-upon wife. Embarrassingly for me, it turned out he was doing quite a bit more work. But now we know that.

The idea of people truly not minding their generosity to their spouse is appealing. At the same time, treating women’s time as valuable is a major victory of the 20th century, and the gains are not complete. Excerpts from the mothers’ group I’m part of:


Note that this isn’t purely a gender thing — there are similar stories from moms with a female partner, or from moms who acknowledge being the weak link in the household.

Now that I’m familiar with the kind of “partnership” that many of my peers experience, it amazes me now that so many people read The Giving Tree as a heartwarming story of selflessness. I read it now as being about annihilation. No matter how much she gives, it never makes him happy, let alone grateful. He does not even enjoy wrecking her. Maybe it’s meant to be about parenthood more than partnership, but I wouldn’t let my children treat me like that either.

After seeing a bit more of real life, my guess at what works best is now something like:

  • Be aware of the work your partner does, and express gratitude.** I do recommend a few days or weeks of time tracking as a way to realize what this looks like — I had forgotten whole categories of work that Jeff does, and tracking made me more aware of the full picture. It might also help make clear how much time is spent on invisible planning-type work (arranging with the babysitter, making the shopping list, reading about how to fix the drain).
  • Don’t expect perfect equality on a daily or weekly basis, but try to even things out over time. (I’m particularly happy that Jeff now deals with the kids’ night wakings after my years of night feedings.)
  • Recognize that things may not even out. People vary in their need for sleep, in the tasks they hate, and in physical and mental health. Maybe the reality of your partnership is that one of you will consistently put in more than 50%.
  • If one of you has your heart set on a career that will leave little time for helping with household and children, get on the same page about whether that’s something you can both live with.
  • Freeing each other up to do special things occasionally — to go out with friends, to sleep in — can go a long way even when you’re both handling a lot.
  • If you’re dividing work in a traditional fashion, double check that this is really what you both want.
  • Recognize that society may not allocate responsibility evenly between you. If the baby is in dirty clothes, if the table is set wrong at Thanksgiving, if your kid does not bring a good present to their friend’s birthday party, society will not be even-handed in assigning blame between a mother and father. If you’re both cool with saying, “to hell with society’s expectations,” great, but recognize that society already assigned all these expectations to the mother and she is the one who had better be cool with disregarding them.

*A second note of irony is that years after falling in love with Daniel Ladinsky’s translation of Hafiz, I realized they are not translations at all, but 20th-century riffs on Hafiz’s 14th-century poems. No wonder they sound so modern.

** Thanks to Jeff who is putting the kids down for their nap as I write this!

Lives we didn’t plan to have

A throwback post. This week I was packing a suitcase, which always makes me think of a woman I knew and her backpack.

. . . . .

Here are some categories of people I once thought of as having always existed in some alternate world from mine:

Cancer patients.
Old people.
Homeless people.

I was kind of shocked when I was pregnant that I didn’t just magically have time in my schedule for things like prenatal yoga and lots of medical appointments. I knew these were the kinds of things pregnant people did, but I did not enjoy the transition from non-pregnant person’s schedule to a pregnant person’s schedule. Somehow it hadn’t really clicked with me that I would have to actually drop things from my schedule in order to have a pregnant person’s schedule.

Having seen people develop serious illness likewise made me realize that it’s a part- to full-time job. The time it takes to wait on hold with the insurance company, go to 9 million appointments, to not be able to work today — that was not time that was just available before. That time used to be filled with hobbies, dates, work, projects. Those things had to be swept aside.

I still catch myself thinking this way about old people. They are like a separate life form, one with back pain and segmented pillboxes. The rational part of me understands I may one day become this life form, but I still catch myself thinking they must have been doing it wrong and surely it won’t be like this for me.

. . . . .

“Homeless people” are perhaps the most extreme of this category. Until I became a social worker, this category contained only people I did not know and never planned to know.

At the jail, one young woman described her backpack routine. When she was not in jail she was homeless, and all her belongings were carried in her backpack. She packed it anew every morning, folding every item before it went back in. Her life might have fallen apart in every other way, but her socks would never be unfolded. A crack erupted in my sense of what made “regular people” and “homeless people” different.

Another client, a self-described germophobe, told me about his process for settling down for the night when he was on the outside: he’d find a porch with an electrical outlet. He’d get out his bottle of bleach or ammonia, sanitize the porch, then plug in his electric blanket and make the best of a cold night. He refused to stay in shelters because of the stench of other residents. “I may be homeless,” he hissed, “but my feet don’t stink.”

. . . . .

Those categories? It’s a person like you in there. They weren’t always like this. This wasn’t their plan.

Thoughts on Samuel Pepys

I’ve been listening to the diary of Samuel Pepys on audio. He wrote it between 1660 and 1669 while living in London and working in the British government. He’s unusual among diarists in that he was interested in everything from politics to fashion to music, spared no detail even about his own faults, and witnessed some major historical events.

At first I was enjoying the details about daily life and their similarities and differences with daily life now — What he thinks of his new wig! The argument he and his wife had about whether the dog should sleep in their room! Boy, there are a lot of public executions!

Maybe the most striking thing to me is how much he writes about sex. I can think of a few contributing reasons:

  • he was just unusually interested in sex.
  • lots of people are very interested in sex, and I usually don’t read their diaries.
  • this is an abridgment of the original million+ words, and they kept the juicy bits in and cut some of the details about his day at work.

By the time we get to 1665, I was pretty done with the constant description of his interactions with bosoms and was relieved that he started talking about the Great Plague of London instead.

The fastest way to find the sex passages is to search for the phrase “God forgive me,” which basically always means the rest of the sentence is him trying to figure out how to get it on with his servants, his friends’ servants, his friends’ wives, or random strangers.

“God forgive me, I was sorry to hear that Sir W. Pen’s maid Betty was gone away yesterday, for I was in hopes to have had a bout with her before she had gone, she being very pretty. I had also a mind to my own wench, but I dare not for fear she should prove honest and refuse and then tell my wife.”

One of the rare bosom-themed passages in which he does not ask God’s forgiveness, apparently because it was the fault of the Mrs. Penington involved:

“she willingly suffered me to put my hand in her bosom very wantonly, and keep it there long. Which methought was very strange, and I looked upon myself as a man mightily deceived in a lady, for I could not have thought she could have suffered it, by her former discourse with me; so modest she seemed and I know not what.” Poor Sam, so deceived.

Maybe the nerviest episode is where he tries to grope a woman in church, she threatens to stab him, and he just moves on and tries another woman in the next pew instead:

“I walked towards White Hall, but, being wearied, turned into St. Dunstan’s Church, where I heard an able sermon of the minister of the place; and stood by a pretty, modest maid, whom I did labour to take by the hand and the body; but she would not, but got further and further from me; and, at last, I could perceive her to take pins out of her pocket to prick me if I should touch her again — which seeing I did forbear, and was glad I did spy her design. And then I fell to gaze upon another pretty maid in a pew close to me, and she on me; and I did go about to take her by the hand, which she suffered a little and then withdrew. So the sermon ended, and the church broke up, and my amours ended also.”

(Through the 1910s, hatpins were used for a similar purpose.)


Another (literally) striking aspect of the diary is the casual attitude toward physical violence. He routinely complains about injuring himself while beating his employees.

“I sent my boy home for some papers, where, he staying longer than I would have him, and being vexed at the business and to be kept from my fellows in the office longer than was fit, I become angry, and boxed my boy when he came, that I do hurt my thumb so much, that I was not able to stir all the day after, and in great pain.”

“I bade  Will get me a rod, and he and I called the boy up to one of the upper rooms of the Comptroller’s house towards the garden, and there I reckoned all his faults, and whipped him soundly, but the rods were so small that I fear they did not much hurt to him, but only to my arm, which I am already, within a quarter of an hour, not able to stir almost.”

He has a similar approach to his wife. After giving her a black eye, he does admit to being “vexed at my heart to think what I had done, for she was forced to lay a poultice or something to her eye all day, and is black, and the people of the house observed it.” It’s unclear how much of the vexation is due to the black eye and how much is due to the servants noticing.

He married her when he was 22 and she was 14. In the early years, he discusses the pleasant times they have talking, singing, walking, and “sporting.” As time goes on he more often complains about her requests for money.

At one point she gives him a letter asking for him to hire her a female companion so she won’t be so lonely during the day while he’s gone (working/drinking/wenching). He burns the first copy without reading it. When she reads him a second copy, he’s afraid it will become an embarrassment to him. What’s a husband to do? Destroy her documents:

“She now read it, and it was so piquant, and wrote in English, and most of it true, of the retiredness of her life, and how unpleasant it was; that being wrote in English, and so in danger of being met with and read by others, I was vexed at it, and desired her and then commanded her to tear it. When she desired to be excused it, I forced it from her, and tore it, and withal took her other bundle of papers from her, and leapt out of the bed and in my shirt clapped them into the pocket of my breeches, that she might not get them from me, and having got on my stockings and breeches and gown, I pulled them out one by one and tore them all before her face, though it went against my heart to do it, she crying and desiring me not to do it, but such was my passion and trouble to see the letters of my love to her . . . to be joyned with a paper of so much disgrace to me and dishonour, if it should have been found by any body.”

“Though it went against my heart to do it.” Why do it, then? Just the kind of stupid prideful argument most of us have had, taken too far? Or to be sure she knows her place? Much more on the scene here.

The scene reminded me of literature-class debates about The Taming of the Shrew. Surely Shakespeare didn’t really mean the happy ending (Katherina abandons her pride and submits to her husband’s every whim) unironically? He wasn’t really celebrating the breaking of a woman’s will, was he? After reading this passage, written about 70 years after The Taming of the Shrew, I find it a lot more likely that the answer is no. A 17th-century audience may have just found this good comedy.


I worked in a jail, right? I’ve heard people talk about bad stuff they’ve done.

What feels disturbing about this one is that he feels like part of my tribe. He’s super into books and playing the flute. He gets all excited about practicing his multiplication tables when he realizes it will help him find errors in the books at work. This is the kind of person I might well have been friends with.


I come away with both a sense of disappointment about human nature (this is how powerful people treat less powerful people if they can get away with it) and also a sense of progress.

If it’s no longer acceptable in developed countries to beat your employees until your arm is sore, if destroying someone else’s documents is now considered abuse rather than a husband’s right— maybe there’s hope.

One of the main reasons animal advocacy doesn’t appeal to me at an intuitive level is a sense that the power imbalance here is eternal and intractable. The economic change involved would be staggering. To teach my children that animals are not there for us to use would require a lot more critical reading of most of our books. (“Why is there a pig on Old MacDonald’s farm?”) In short, it wouldn’t be easy.

But the idea that Pepys’ wife could earn her own money or choose her own friends was likewise unthinkable to him in 1663. A lot has changed, and it wasn’t easy.

Maybe someday my meals will seem as archaic and barbaric as the dinners Pepys describes:
“a dish of marrow bones; a leg of mutton; a loin of veal; a dish of fowl, three pullets, and two dozen of larks all in a dish; a great tart, a neat’s tongue, a dish of anchovies; a dish of prawns and cheese.” I’m not sure what would need to change, but it seems less impossible than it used to.

Last glimpse of the Shakers

On Sunday I visited the last active Shaker colony in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. After 271 years, the sect has two remaining members. I figured this was close to my last chance.


I first heard about the Shakers when I was about 13, on a radio program about their music. You’ve heard “Simple Gifts” in one form or another, but they have a rich body of thousands of songs. They range from slow meditations on humility:

I will not be like the stubborn oak
But I will be like the willow tree
I’ll bow and bend unto God’s will
And I will seek his mercy still.

to upbeat depictions to their namesake “shaking” worship through ecstatic dance and song:

Who will drink the wine of power
Dropping down like a shower?
Oh, oh, I will have it!
I will bow and bend to get it
I’ll be reeling, turning, twisting
Shake out all the starch and stiff’ning!

I wrote to the last colony of Shakers, and one Sister Frances wrote back to me. She sent me postcards of their sheep, and a copy of her memoir Growing Up Shaker. After I lost my religion, she was one of the few moral authorities I trusted. In high school I asked her how to handle the fact that a lot of the nice things I did for my friends and classmates were more intended to signal that I was a good person than out of deep desire to serve them. She said to keep doing good things, and the true desire would grow.

It was her death last year that made me realize it was time to go see the last colony.


The Shakers were a branch of the Quakers who split off and moved to America in 1774. They were known for their vigorous worship style and celibacy. The leader, Ann Lee, had been married against her will and had seen all four of her children die as infants. Lee reasoned that if “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30), why not start living like angels here on earth?

A lot of the early stuff, especially their treatment of “Mother Ann” as the second coming of Christ, was culty and weird. They were just one of the radical political and religious movements that sprang up in England around the same time (the Levelers, the Diggers, the Quakers, the Ranters — catchy, right?) plus the various American utopian movements. For a while, every radical in New England seemed to be writing a manifesto and founding a communal farm. Between financial mismanagement, fires, scandals, impractical farming arrangements, and inability to pass leadership on to a second generation, the track record of communes is not really encouraging.

But history bore this one out. Ann Lee’s successors developed an organizational structure that would last the next two centuries (“villages” divided into “families” of 30-100 people, each led by a team of two male and two female Shakers). The ecstatic shaking and whirling became a marching dance, more suited to a society that had lasted long enough to include a geriatric population. In the 1780s they were meeting in the woods and living wherever they wouldn’t be beaten or jailed. By 1821 they had financial agreements for sharing property, a written covenant that members signed, organized division of labor, rules about how soon to leave your room after waking up, and standards for architecture down to what color the meeting house should be painted.


When I was 15, my family visited the Pleasant Hill Shaker colony (now a museum) in Kentucky. It’s a particularly beautiful set of buildings, and as we walked around the grounds my father was clearly worried that my enthusiasm for the Shakers would cause me to convert. He didn’t mention this worry overtly, but told me that when he’d interned at a methadone clinic, one of the clients told him that the best things in life were sex and heroin. “I haven’t tried heroin and don’t recommend that you try it, but I do think you should try sex when you’re older,” Dad advised me. (….thanks, Dad?)

This conversation didn’t exactly strike at the crux of my decision — it wasn’t the idea of celibacy that bothered me, but childlessness, the snows of Maine, and isolationism. In any case, I never seriously considered it.

I’ve always found the public’s emphasis on the Shakers’ celibacy rather than their communitarianism a bit odd. If anything, at least during the 19th century it seems like they may have been less sex-obsessed than typical Americans. Obviously there was some selection effect in who chose to join, and I’m sure there was some rule-breaking. A few years ago, the numbers fell from four to three when one convert left after 26 years to marry a reporter who’d come to interview members of the colony.

Pleasant Hill colony. There is another identical staircase on the other side of the hall so men and women each have their own.


The event at the Sabbathday Lake village this week, part of a Maine statewide “open farm day,” was essentially similar to any other day aimed at historical farm enthusiasts. There were people doing woodcarving, blacksmithing, and rug-hooking. There were tours of the barn, its huge dimness full of politely listening people. It felt strange to see the last vestiges of Ann Lee’s radical vision come down to antiquarianism.

It being Sunday, as far as I could tell, the two Shakers (Brother Arnold Hadd, age 58 and Sister June Carpenter, 77) were nowhere to be seen. I assume they were observing their day of rest inside their dwelling house.

I wonder what life is like for these two people, living in a colony that once housed 150. Shaker buildings were designed with symmetric doors and staircases so men and women wouldn’t touch each other, but also wouldn’t take precedence over the other — they could enter a room simultaneously instead of one group waiting for the other. I wonder if Arnold and June still walk each through their own doorway, if they still sit at separate women’s and men’s tables in the dining hall. They’re not married, but must share a kind of intimacy like that of any two people who expect to spend the rest of their lives together.

I hope they like each other.


Especially touching was the Boys’ Shop, where children’s dormitories and schoolbooks are preserved. Thousands of children were raised by the Shakers, either because their parents had joined the sect or, more commonly, because their parents couldn’t afford to raise them. In the time before welfare and the foster system, if times got too hard you knew your child would be fed and educated with the Shakers. They’d live there until age 21, when they would either depart (with skills in woodworking, herbalism, orchardry, and the other Shaker industries) or sign the covenant and become a full member of the community.

In one room, a recording played narrating the childhood of Sister Mildred Barker, who was the spiritual and executive leader of the colony from 1950 to her death in 1990. When her newly widowed mother left her with the Shakers at age 5, Mildred contemplated running away home but was won over by the community and particularly an elderly sister she was assigned to help. By the time her mother returned eight years later, Mildred refused to go with her.

After Mildred reached adulthood and signed the Shaker covenant, she became a collector of the Shaker traditional songs. In the boys’ dormitory, one was going through my mind:

Little children, says Holy Mother
Soothe and comfort one another.

I left the colony with a few of the chamomile flowers from their herb garden in my pocket, and drove back home to Jeff, and to this one and her sister.

We made chamomile tea, admiring the yellow-green color the flowers left in the water. Jeff and I put the kids to bed. My heart ached for Ann Lee and her four dead children, and for all the children who had slept in Shaker dormitories missing their families, and for Mildred Barker’s mother losing her daughter not once but twice. I was grateful for antibiotics, and for welfare, that now prevent families from being broken apart quite so often.

And also warmed that these thousands of people over 271 years found a way to fight scarcity and injustice. They looked at a deeply unfair and imperfect world and shaped their reality to be more like the heaven they envisioned.

Parenting philosophy

Jeff’s been talking about predictable parenting on his blog. This is probably the parenting principle that’s most important to him. I decided to write down the principles that I find most important.


I’ve been influenced a lot by the research that short-term gains in children usually come out in the wash by the time they’re adults — e.g. that identical twins raised separately will respond to different environments as children, but will basically converge on things like IQ and other characteristics as adults. So I try to focus on what makes life better in the short and medium term rather than trying to mold my children’s personalities or futures. Most of that is already done by genetics.

This has meant we’ve prioritized having a relaxed schedule over educational activities. I’m not so sure that the evidence on education later on matches up with this approach, but at least in the preschool years I think basically doing what’s easiest for the family is best.


Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids


My strategy involves a lot of acknowledging the child’s emotions. This is both from working as a therapist, and from How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk.

I also try to acknowledge my own emotions. If I’m sad, I cry in front of them. If I get hurt, I yell in pain and accept cuddles to feel better. I also try to emphasize the continuity of love (I still love you even when I’m tired and grumpy, even when I’m mad about something you did.)

I get a lot of mileage out of the “engage with desires and fantasies” tactic:

Lily: I want to be a ballerina.
Me (inside voice): Send you into that nest of perfectionism and eating disorders? Like hell I will.
Me (outside voice): It’s fun to think about being a ballerina, huh?
Lily: Yeah!


Happiest Toddler on the Block: Not worth reading the full book. The summary is that toddlers tantrum largely because they can’t verbally express their emotions, and if they feel understood (by you verbalizing the strong emotions they’re feeling, or giving them another way to express emotion like scribbling) they can often calm down.

How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk: This one is worth reading in full, but you could get a lot of the benefit just from paging through the cartoons that illustrate the principles.

Mr Roger’s Neighborhood and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood: this stuff is straight out of person-centered therapy, emphasizing empathy and unconditional positive regard. Rather than being knowledge-focused like other kids’ shows, they focus on social and emotional skills, emphasizing that children’s emotions are acceptable and that they can learn ways to manage them.


The backbone of this is what Jeff wrote about being predictable and consistent. The kids generally know what to expect from us and I think are better-behaved in general as a result (e.g. they don’t do much whining after we’ve said no to something, because we try to say yes a lot, and when we say no they know we mean it.) I’ll repeat Jeff’s point that this pays off, but takes an ongoing investment of willpower from the parents, and is generally harder when you don’t have the time or energy.

As far as what to do when that doesn’t work, this is one that I think varies a lot by the kids’ needs and caregivers’ needs. We use timeouts anywhere from a few times a week to every couple of weeks, depending on how things are going. The kids know what it means when we start to count to three, and usually do what we’re asking without it coming to a timeout.

I see one purpose of discipline as anger management for the parent. Timeout is not just for the child — it’s also so the parent who just got bitten has three minutes away from the child to get a grip on their anger. I like the philosophy behind non-coercive methods, but the reality is that since we started using timeout, I basically don’t yell at the kids anymore and don’t feel frightened that I’m going to physically yank them around. It helps me be in control of myself, and I think that’s ultimately better for all of us.

I also think that a lot of people who had bad experiences as children with coercive discipline were subjected to discipline that was unpredictable or cruel, or who generally didn’t feel secure in their parents’ love. I think the occasional timeout doesn’t do that kind of damage to our relationship because it’s fairly applied, and because the kids have a secure attachment and are sure of our love.


1-2-3 Magic, about how to implement a timeout method


I was influenced by this piece by an anarchist mother. I was expecting anarchist parenting to be about total freedom, but her approach is more about teaching children to contribute: “Interdependence, not independence. We all need each other, in society and in a family, and we all play very important roles. We remind the kids all the time that they are very important members of our family “community” and that they are necessary for our family to function. . . . One of my greatest fears is that my kids grow up to be one of those people who live in community houses and don’t do their dishes! Kidding. (Not kidding.)”

I think this is more salient to us because we’ve always raised our kids in households with other adults. We’ve tried to teach them early that other people’s needs must be considered. You cannot shout at 7 am not because I set an arbitrary rule, but because Ange is sleeping in the next room.


Parenting, Anti-Capitalist Style


My understanding is that 1) while families of color need to talk about racism, white families prefer to not talk about race at all, or if so to only use a colorblind approach, emphasizing that everyone is the same. 2) This approach does not work. It results in white children concluding that differences do exist, and that the differences must be bad.

I try to talk (at least with my older child) about how some people are mean to others because they look different, and this is bad. She’s heard from her au pair about some ways people have treated her unkindly because she comes from another country. We’ve started to talk about our country’s history of slavery and racism. At the library, I try to pick out books that show children of color just being kids (a favorite is When’s My Birthday?) rather than being victims of racism. Later on we’ll read books like Amazing Grace that address discrimination and show children transcending it.

I’m currently not introducing the kids to materials explicitly about sexism. There are a ton of children’s stories out there about princesses rebelling from expectations that they be pretty and quiet. I avoid these because I basically want my girls to go as long as possible without understanding these stereotypes.

I try to expose Lily to examples of things women can do without hanging a lampshade on the fact that they’re women. E.g. when she was interested in being a “rocket girl,” we looked at this website and talked through the different careers in the space industry without calling attention to the fact that all the examples were women.

I’m not 100% sure about this strategy, but I’m planning to wait on inoculation until closer to when I think they’re starting to hear sexist messages (basically when they go to kindergarten). Inoculation being stuff like, “Some people think girls can’t do X. Isn’t that ridiculous?”

Nurtureshock, chapter on “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race”
The Longest Shortest Time podcast on “How to not (accidentally) raise a racist“, largely drawing on the same research.

We let the kids try things that are at the edge of their abilities, including finding things to do when they are bored. We tend toward more free-range parenting than is typical, though we keep a close eye on them around roads and water. Jeff writes about training he did with the kids about staying out of the street. I expect mileage varies a lot here depending on the kid.

This is often more work in the short term, but I hope leads to the kids being better able to solve their own problems.

When they’ve given it a try and genuinely can’t solve the problem, I try to do it in a way that gives them tools they’ll eventually be able to use.

Given the larger-than-expected number of cartoons from “How to Talk so Kids will Listen”, I think you can see how much it influenced me (or spelled out things I already believed.)

Project: preschool homeschooling

Another post that’s probably not that interesting unless you’re considering doing something similar.

Lily is about to turn four. I assumed that most three- and four-year-olds are in preschool, but that’s not the case, even in families with highly educated parents.

Percentage of 3- to 5-year-old children enrolled in preschool programs, by parents’ highest level of education and attendance status: October 2015. SourceClick the figure to expand

We already have full-time in-home childcare for our kids (an au pair from Colombia who’s great with the kids but more interested in chilling than early childhood education). There is no low-cost preschool around us. The idea of spending an additional $250/week to put Lily in morning preschool (this is the low end) wasn’t appealing. Our city has far fewer pre-K spots than children, and we decided not to enter the lottery.

But I was also worried about her arriving in kindergarten at age 5.5 with no particular background in literacy and numeracy. We read aloud and tell stories all the time, and Lily sees other kids at the park, library, and playgroup. I thought we’d do something more like unschooling, where we could do math games and so forth during our regular play. But she hasn’t usually been interested in altering her usual play like that. So I decided to try out something more structured.

What we’ve been doing

For the last month, Lily and I have been doing “lessons” each evening. She’s really into Heidi right now, so I told her in advance we’d be doing lessons like Heidi does, and she was sold.

I probably spend about an hour a week preparing stuff. I enjoy the prep. Usually we do lessons alone in my bedroom while Jeff watches Anna, but on nights when he’s away we do a lesson with both kids (I try to set Anna up with a gluing project that will keep her busy while Lily works on more complicated stuff).

Lily’s way more into it than I expected. Something about the structured time works very differently for her than playtime, and she’s willing to try activities she wouldn’t try during normal play, I think because they feel special.


I really like the preschool activity books from Core Knowledge Foundation, despite my suspicion that this has something to do with Core Curriculum and I am supposed to be opposed to this. We rarely use the actual “What Your Preschooler Needs to Know” book because it’s mostly stories we already know.
The book is intended to last a schoolyear if you do five pages a week. We’ve gone through almost all of the first book in a month because Lily wants to do several pages a day.

For literacy, we’re using a lot of The Measured Mom and This Reading Mama, both of whom have masters in education as well as now teaching their own children, so I find they have solid knowledge of teaching literacy combined with experience tailoring it to individual kids.

I look through the library catalogue for kids’ books on a topic, request some books, and pick them up from the front desk one a week or so. We’ve done things like shapes, coral reefs while we were in Puerto Rico, and spring. If nonfiction books are held specially aside for lesson time, she’s willing to have them read to her even when she wouldn’t choose them during non-lesson time.

I like these videos.

We’ve done some “music lessons” from a Music Together album, like tonal patterns and spinning with scarves to music.


We start by looking at the calendar, talking about any events coming up (when is the weekend? what will we do then? whose birthday is next week?) and singing a song about the day of the week.

Every couple of days, we introduce a new letter (using roughly this order). Lily decorates the letter with something. Here’s S for stars:

And then they go on the bedroom wall, conveniently covering my bad paint job over the place where the insulation was put in.

Then we do letter cups: I give her two cups each labeled with a letter she knows and a stack of pictures of things that start with those letters, and she sorts them into the cups. She doesn’t much like this, but it also seems particularly good for her learning the sounds, so we do just a couple of cards each day, which takes under a minute.

One variant she’s liked is deliberately telling me the wrong one and asking what it would sound like if lemon started with M (or whatever). I figure this is good practice at playing around with sounds, and she can now figure some of them out herself.

Then we might watch a youtube video about something sciencey (some kind of animal, how something is made, etc.)

We finish with a couple of sheets from the activity book. These have various color, shape, pattern, and math games in the first book and more stuff with letters and numbers in the second.

She’s especially excited to practice counting with things like coins and glass gems, which she normally can’t play with around Anna because she still might eat them. I try to get some mileage out of the lure of the forbidden.

Sometimes she’ll produce a skill she wants to learn, like buttoning buttons. But usually she can’t really generate these, and if she tries comes up with things like playing at putting her teddy bears to bed, which she already spends lots of time doing. So we’re both pretty happy with me coming up with almost all the things we do, and her occasionally rejecting ones she doesn’t like.

The challenge for me is getting the right amount of tasks she doesn’t much like. When a task is unpleasant or too hard, she moves into goofiness (climbing on me, jumping on the bed) as a defense. Currently my method is to go with the goofiness for a little while (enjoy the jumping and climbing), ask her to do a tiny bit more of the task, and then move on to something else.


  • I expected we’d do fifteen minutes each evening maybe 5 days a week, taking breaks for things like vacation. In practice, Lily wants 30 minutes, every day. On weekends she asks for extra lessons. I think a lot of what she loves is focused one-on-one time with me, which she usually doesn’t get because Jeff is her default parent and I’m Anna’s default parent.
  • She likes worksheets more than I expected. I thought of worksheets as the enemy, but apparently some kids really like them, and I’m happy that the ones are based on sound understanding of child development instead of creating cute pictures that adults will like.
  • I thought we would use a very “child-led” method. Now that I know more about the difference between “child-led” and “child-centered”, I see that the latter is more what I’m going for. From my vantage point as an adult, I think Lily will really enjoy being able to read, and that it’s worth some less-fun parts to get there sooner. Rather than waiting for her to spontaneously be interested in learning letters, I’ll lead that process. But the activities are centered on her interests. E.g. her favorite letter activity is “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom”, where baby (lower-case) letters fall out of a tree and the matching upper-case letters come pick them up and put them to bed. She loves rescue and care-taking play, so this works for her. (She invented the part where she literally tucks all the letter cards into my bed.)
  • She hates drawing. The pre-writing stuff is going very slowly as I try to give her little successes with drawing a few dots, circles, and lines in different orientations.


We’re both enjoying this more than I thought. We’ve been able to keep it at a speed where she’s picking up new things but usually feeling accomplished rather than stressed about it. I’m excited to cover All The Things (we haven’t done dinosaurs! or the water cycle! or continents!) and I have to keep reminding myself there’s time.

It’s likely that one or both of us will get less interested in the lessons as time goes on. But even if it peters out after a few months, I’ll feel better that she knows a lot of stuff she’d normally get in a preschool.

Notes on visiting Puerto Rico

These are some notes on our first major vacation since having kids. Probably not that interesting unless you’re considering a similar trip.

(Note that it feels a bit weird to write about a significant, totally optional, expense. Jeff and I decide each year what percentage of our income to donate. The nice thing about this is that the remainder is for us to spend however we wish, including on fun things.)

I’ve spent this week with Jeff, the kids, and my parents in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Upshot: I’m happy that we went someplace where low-key hanging out at the house and in the neighborhood was a pleasant way to spend the week. We mostly did normal stuff we do at home, but with beaches instead of snow. This worked particularly well with little kids.

General reasons we chose it:

  • San Juan is a 500-year-old city with interesting buildings and history
  • Nice weather, except during hurricane season
  • There were cheap direct flights from Boston, though only at inconvenient times.
  • There’s enough to do in San Juan that we didn’t need to take any car rides longer than 15 minutes

Part of the US:

  • don’t need passport
  • money is the same
  • cell phones work the same
  • We enjoyed practicing our Spanish, but most people you encounter speak enough English to communicate fine, and many are fluent.
  • There’s a lot of interchange between the mainland and the island, so a surprisingly large fraction of waitstaff and Uber drivers who asked where we were from had visited Boston.
  • Even kids Lily and Anna met were bilingual a surprising amount of the time.


  • Crime is high for an American city, similar to New Orleans.
  • Feels a lot safer than our time in Quito, Ecuador, where pickpocketing/theft was a major problem.
  • As a woman I had zero problems walking around alone, no street harassment.


  • The Puerto Rican economy depends heavily on tourism, and people here seem to like having tourists around (particularly after Hurricane Maria). People on the sidewalk who heard us discussing where to go would stop and offer directions unsolicited. Uber drivers often gave us advice on places to visit and foods to try. One of them spotted us the day after he’d driven us somewhere and stopped to ask if we’d had a nice time. Another promptly and cheerfully brought my phone back after I left it in his car, despite it being after he was done working for the day. People say hello to you on the street. No one seems to be in a hurry.
  • It feels similar to where I live (Somerville, MA) in its blend of hipsters and older working-class people, but with fewer hipsters.
  • There’s no smoking in public places.
  • We’re in a residential neighborhood, but it’s quite a bit noisier than our neighborhood at home. The frogs, roosters, etc. are loudish at night even in a fairly urban area. The houses are close enough that we could hear a neighbor snoring at siesta time, but I found it charming. An apartment in a high-rise would probably be quieter.
  • It feels pleasingly tropical, with little lizards in the garden, beaches shaded by coconut trees, and brightly-colored buildings in the old city.


  • Uber worked great, actually better than in Boston or the Bay. We never waited more than 3 minutes for a car.
  • Carseats are not really a thing – drivers are confused if you try to install them.
  • My parents rented a car and spent a day driving around the island.
  • Driving is similar to a northeastern US city like Boston, but with worse potholes.
  • I took a city bus once and that was fine too.


  • There is Zika here. Even in a house with screens we got bitten quite a bit, so definitely don’t count on avoiding mosquito bites.
  • We had the routine vaccines already, including Hep A. The CDC says you should probably get a typhoid vaccine, but our doctor’s office was confused and wouldn’t give us one, so we didn’t get one.
  • Many tourists drink the water. Some of us had iced drinks and popsicles with no ill effects, and boiled the water at home. The kids had no unboiled water.


  • $1750: 4 round trip plane tickets from Boston
  • $1192 2-bedroom Airbnb 7 days (we actually paid $1680 for a 3-bedroom because of traveling with my parents, but this is the price for an Airbnb I think we would have gotten if traveling with just 4 of us)
  • $120: Ubers (1 or 2 round trips each day)
  • $315: groceries (3/4 of meals and snacks) and restaurants – we would have spent about $140 at home.
  • $51: entertainment (kayak rental, museum entrances)
  • $75 childcare: what we would have spent on babysitting if not traveling with my parents
    Total: $3363 more than we’d have spent otherwise, or $120/person/day for the 4 in our immediate family.

It’s worked well for us as a low-key place to go with young kids. There are more exciting things you could do here if you’re traveling without kids (water sports, hiking, dancing/clubbing).

Many US stores and brands are here, which might be good or bad depending on what you want. Lily currently subsists largely on English muffins, so it was nice to be able to buy them at the local supermarket. Restaurants usually have a kids’ menu with grilled cheese, etc.

We’ve stayed in an AirBnb and kept a relaxed schedule, with expeditions around San Juan in the morning and evening and afternoons napping at home. I’m happy we got a standalone house with a garden, where we enjoyed eating and looking at lizards and plants, rather than an apartment. This way even time noodling around the house with kids felt like we were enjoying vacation.

Part of the reason to go with my parents was so they could do some childcare and Jeff and I could have some time without the kids. We only did this for one morning while Jeff and I went kayaking and swimming without the kids. I took some afternoons to explore alone while Jeff stayed with the napping kids. A trip with just two adults would have worked fine, maybe with some time from a babysitter.

The waves and riptides can be strong on the oceanfront. Our favorite place to go was the Condado Lagoon – the lagoon side has very gentle water, and the swimming area on the other side of the street is protected from large waves by a breakwater. We didn’t see the lagoon’s manatees but did find lots of coral washed up on the shore. On Mondays the place was pretty deserted, but on other days there was a food kiosk and a kayak and paddleboard rental.

Favorite Spanish overheard: the dad we heard in the park telling his son that, lamentablemente, they would need go to home in 2 minutes. “Lamentably” is my new favorite parenting expression.

Notes on Oneida community

Passages I highlighted about the Oneida community from Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings. The Oneida Community was a Christian communal society founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 in Oneida, New York.

“At the community’s peak, three hundred Oneida “Perfectionists” lived an intensely intimate, intellectual existence in a rambling, Italianate mansion. They saw their community as an earthly branch of the Kingdom of Heaven, a sort of portal through which the millennium would come to earth. Under the influence of their utopian forebears, the Perfectionists renounced private property, raised their children collectively, embraced gender equality, perfected a novel form of birth control, experimented with every health fad of their day, pursued rigorous self-improvement, practiced a complex system of free love, and initiated an unprecedented experiment in eugenics.”


Early decision from the founder on cooking:

“When it occurred to him that the practice of eating three hot meals a day subjected women “almost universally to the worst of slavery,” he simply stopped it. The thirty-odd members of the Putney community ate one sit-down meal in the morning and then foraged for themselves from an open pantry “as appetite or fancy may suggest.” The door to the pantry was marked with a card bearing the motto “Health, Comfort, Economy, and Woman’s Rights.””


After the woman he loved married someone else, Noyes decided that “complex marriage” in groups was the proper way for Christians to live. He was a virgin at the time.

“By the 1860s, with three hundred people living at Oneida and Wallingford, the Perfectionists’ struggle against “the marriage system” was going surprisingly well. While moralizing critics described the community as an “orgy” or “brothel” or “harem” or “seraglio” or “whoredom,” the Perfectionists insisted upon their own conservatism. Their erotic delight, they pointed out, came with all the usual pledges and sacrifices of the marriage bed. Any two Oneida lovers, by dint of their membership in the community, were obligated to support each other through sickness and health, to hold all of their wealth in common, and to care for any offspring born of their coupling. . . . Sex, as practiced within the community, was understood as a sacrament—“a more perfect symbol of [a union with Christ] than eating bread and drinking wine,” as Noyes put it.

“Every adult in the community was loosely ranked according to a system of “ascending” and “descending fellowship.” To hasten spiritual growth, novices were encouraged to go to bed with those who were more enlightened. In practice, this meant that the young or recently converted slept with older, more experienced Perfectionists. . . . [such as the founder, Noyes].

“At Oneida, unlike at so many other sexed-up religious enclaves, the May–December loving went both ways. “Spiritually ascendant” older women erotically baptized teenage boys. Given that the mechanics of male continence were difficult for young men to master, receiving their sexual education from postmenopausal women offered one practical benefit: there could be no risk of an unplanned pregnancy.”

Seems to me this still holds benefit for Noyes, though. If the young men are paired with older women, it leaves young women available for older men.


Women in the community designed a costume suited to work:

“The result was a long-sleeved blouse and a matching knee-length skirt worn over loose “pantalets.” They called it “the uniform of a vital society.” After some snickering, all of the women in the community adopted it. This so-called short dress was soon supplemented with elastic sneakers, which, like true utopians, they called “the final shoe.”

…The women at Oneida cut their hair shoulder length or shorter, a style then associated with adolescent girls. While their sisters in the World routinely spent an hour arranging combs, pins, and extensions atop their heads, the women of Oneida boasted that they went directly from bed to the breakfast table. “Any fashion which requires women to devote considerable time to hair-dressing,” they announced in the community paper, “is a degradation and a nuisance.”

“In the 1860s, a group of community women started an “express service” to convey visitors and packages back and forth between the mansion and the nearby train depot. The venture presented local non-Perfectionists with the jarring sight of “unattended” women in sporty dresses and childlike haircuts loading parcels, wrangling horses, and operating a prosperous enterprise.”


“Labor “bees” were common at every utopian colony of the era, but the Perfectionists raised them to an art. They held bees for every large task—brick making, planting, broom corn harvesting, bag stitching, vegetable picking, and fruit preserving. “Working in storm,” as they called it, made tedious jobs go fast and gave the communists an economic edge over their neighbors. Neither “isolated” householders nor wage-paying bosses could quadruple or halve their workforce from day to day. The Circular regularly trumpeted the efficiencies of the system. Four thousand quarts of strawberries were picked in a single day. A barn was raised in a weekend. A large trap order was filled in one night. One “storming company” was tasked with stitching the bindings of nine hundred religious pamphlets. They ran out of printed matter so quickly that they went looking for other things to sew, turning their needles upon a large heap of flour sacks in need of darning. Laboring in “mixed company”—especially when combined with breaks for cake or brief bouts of fiddle-accompanied contra dancing—helped give tiresome undertakings a flirtatious, festal atmosphere.”


“In July 1852, at the height of the Observer-stoked outcry over complex marriage, the communists opened their gates to a skeptical public, inviting people to come in and be impressed. That event, a free “strawberry festival,” was the first of countless subsequent picnics, performances, and concerts, all of which were orchestrated for the pleasure of the World. The outreach worked. The Perfectionists’ upstate neighbors gradually became their best defense against periodic attacks by crusading politicians and churchmen. When the district attorney in Utica agitated for the community’s expulsion, a prominent local businessman wrote Noyes, promising that “the people in this vicinity will not consent to have you disperse.”

. . . .”An illustration on the cover of the magazine Puck depicted a clutch of scowling churchmen gesturing toward the peaceable commune. “Oh, dreadful!” reads the caption. “They dwell in peace and harmony, and have no church scandals. They must be wiped out.””


“A community notice from 1858 declared that “child-bearing, when it is undertaken, should be a voluntary affair, one in which the choice of the mother, and the sympathy of all good influences should concur.”

“The community’s unusual method of birth control was surprisingly effective. Among roughly two hundred sexually busy adults, there was, on average, about one accidental pregnancy each year, a rate that compares favorably with that of modern birth control pills. Those few men who were unable to master male continence were paired with those women who were, in the poignant euphemism of the day, “past the time of life.” In 1852, the Circular boasted that “the increase of population by birth, in our forty families, for the last four years, has been considerably less than the progeny of Queen Victoria alone.””


“As the community prospered, the Children’s House became increasingly deluxe. A large, steam-heated playroom was outfitted with indoor seesaws, balance beams, swings, and a miniaturized wood shop in which a group of boys attempted to build themselves a “flying machine.”

. . . .The children conducted their own sort of self-governance. In 1851, they raised their small hands in support of a series of resolutions denouncing their homemade dolls as a medium of “the mothering spirit”: “This doll-spirit that seduces us from Community spirit in regard to helping the family and that prevents us from being in earnest to get an education is the same spirit that seduces women to allow themselves to be so taken up with their children that they have not time to attend to Christ, and get an education for heaven.” After a discussion about their “idolatrous” toys, the children voted to put their dolls to the flame. The little boys were particularly “loud in their clamors for the great massacre.” Following the vote, a group of nine- and ten-year-old girls stripped their dolls of the bloomer-style outfits they had sewn for them and, one by one, tossed the toys into the woodstove. When the burning was over, “all hands rejoiced in the condemnation.””


After thirty years of a deliberately limited birthrate and cautious recruitment from outside, Noyes announced the start of a positive eugenics program (“stirpiculture”, from the Latin for “stem,” as “eugenics” wasn’t coined for another twenty years) in 1869.

“The ability to actually achieve “scientific combination”—as opposed to the “promiscuous scrambling” of the World—was opened by the twin innovations of male continence and complex marriage. In hindsight, Noyes’s hat trick of erotic experiments form a chain. Male continence, first inspired by Harriet Noyes’s birthing traumas, created the possibility of complex marriage. And it was complex marriage, the community’s civically oriented ménage à trois-cent, that made their experiment in controlled breeding possible.

For a time, selections were made by a six-member committee that included two Yale-educated physicians. Mostly the selections were left up to Noyes and his inner circle. Like breeders of flowers or dogs, the Perfectionists had to choose which traits they were aiming for. While the intelligence and health of the volunteers were taken into account, the main criterion was a highly subjective notion of spiritual inspiration. On the dubious assumption that good sex makes good babies, mutual attraction between volunteers was considered a plus. Practically speaking, the Perfectionists had their ideal target close at hand. “The existence of Noyes,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “simplified the breeding problem for the Communists, the question as to what sort of men they should strive to breed being settled at once by the desirability of breeding another Noyes.” Not surprisingly, Noyes personally fathered a sixth of all the “stirpicults.” Ultimately, a total of fifty-three women and thirty-eight men were selected. They pledged themselves as “ ‘living sacrifices’ to God and true Communism” and went upstairs in pairs.

“Between 1869 and 1879, forty-five “stirpicults” were born. They were raised and nursed by their biological mothers for nine months and then transferred to the nursery of the Children’s House, where they were cared for by specially selected teachers and generally fussed over by the entire community. The biological parents renounced all rights of parenthood.

“In 1891, after the breakup of the community, Anita Newcomb McGee, a final-year medical student at Johns Hopkins who specialized in gynecology, studied the stirpicults for a report in the American Anthropologist. By then, the eldest were twenty-two. McGee found that most of them had been impressive students, with both boys and girls earning scholarships to top universities. With a single exception, all were perfectly healthy. Many were unusually tall. They were highly literate, and when they convened at the Mansion House each summer, they entertained themselves with debate competitions and concerts. With the exception of Noyes and a few other lawyers and clergymen, the volunteer parents had all originally been farmers, laborers, and craftspeople. All but one of the stirpicults (a machinist) pursued nonmanual professions. Among the eldest boys in the group—those for whom a career could reasonably be predicted in 1891—there were medical students, law students, businessmen, a math prodigy, and a successful musician. The eldest girls, in the estimation of Dr. McGee, were also bound for intellectual careers. One was a scholar of Greek at a women’s college; another was studying the new kindergarten system. Of course, much, if not all, of the stirpicults’ success in life can be attributed to their carefully administered upbringing in the Children’s House and the intellectual, self-improving tenor of the community in which they were raised.

Ironically, the stirpicults’ main “failing” was a distinct lack of faith.”

One interesting thing about this is that it goes against a lot of modern findings that institutions are terrible places to raise young children 24/7. It seems that a community of loving and motivated adults was able to do a very good job at institutional childrearing. I don’t know much about kibbutizim but that would also be an interesting area to look about this.


Ultimately the community disbanded after failing to find a suitable leader to replace the aging Noyes (he tried to install his son, who was a flop.) Many younger members wanted to try monogamous marriage. Noyes fled to Canada in 1879 after it looked likely that the town would charge him with statutory rape, and the community ended complex marriage at his recommendation. The community lasted two more years before disbanding. The transition from group marriage to monogamy was extremely difficult, as members who had thrown themselves into arrangements radically different from mainstream nineteenth-century society now tried to live in a halfway arrangement neither here nor there, in the blended family to end all blended families.

In the same year, an unpopular ex-member assassinated president Garfield. I’d be curious to know whether this association, even by  a member the community found unpleasant and unstable, would have done them in if they hadn’t already been disbanding.


The book covers five American utopian movements, of which I found Oneida and the Shakers the most interesting. If you liked these passages, I’d recommend the rest of the book.