While at the dentist last week, my hygienist started peppering me with questions about my unique living situation. I gave her all the details and she finally admitted, “I’m thinking of asking my brother-in-law and his family to move in with us. I don’t know how anyone can afford to go it alone these days.”
Two years ago, when my sister and I told people that we shared a communal household with our combined seven kids and two husbands, we got one of two responses: jealousy or pity. Often the pity was disguised as jealousy:
“Oh, that’s so great for you! I could never do that … ”
“Wow! That must be … fun?”
But recently, with the economic downturn that’s affecting almost everyone, the responses have become less judgmental and more curious. I can see people calculating the savings in their heads. One house. One set of utility bills. One mega-shopping trip to Costco each week.
What started as a temporary practical solution has become an experiment in communal living, one that has proven to be successful from financial, practical, and most importantly, social standpoints. I can say without hesitation that the quality of life has improved for all the people living in this house—that’s my husband Matty and me, our two sons, Declan (3 1/2) and Ronan (2), my daughter Molly (3 months), my sister Amy and her husband Andy, and her five kids, Jonah (9), Erika (7), Hilary (5), and twins Aaron and Gretchen (2).
We live on the Main Line of Philadelphia, a string of upscale suburban towns heading out west from the city center. It’s a beautiful area, full of wealth and promise. And I feel fairly confident that if we’re not the only communal household in our zip code, we’re at least one of a small handful. Like many wealthy towns, Villanova is full of sprawling mansions and perfectly manicured lawns. Residents value their empty space rather than fill it, as we have done.
But why not? Our kids go to the same schools, play together, take the same extracurricular activities. We share car seats, a minivan, and for mass outings, a fifteen-seat passenger van. (Why drive one kid to school in a gas-guzzling minivan when you can drive five, as we’ll be doing in the fall?)
We all share toys, from play tents and Thomas trains to DVDs and margarita machines. Our three little boys share swimsuits and (clean) diapers, and like any good sisters, Amy and I share clothes and jewelry (alas, her feet are two sizes smaller than mine). Combining forces under one roof simply makes practical sense.
From an economic perspective, we’ve made things work for all of us. My sister and her husband own the house (we moved here from Boston two years ago) and cover most of the household costs. In return, we contribute according to our abilities.
My husband and I, both trained chefs, handle all the cooking. In addition, Matty has been working full time on household renovations at a reduced cost, and acts as resident handyman during his off hours.
But I think what’s far more valuable to all of us, more so than the saved dollars and in-house repair services and gourmet dinners, is the fact that our kids are growing up as one loving family. Declan has told me before that he loves his “sisters,” Erika and Hilary. I have never once heard any of the kids complain (as I so often did as a child), “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.” There’s always something to do, and someone to do it with.
Sometimes, Declan and Hilary will pretend they’re puppies for an entire afternoon. Ronan, Aaron, and Gretchen can dance in the foyer to the Free to Be You and Me soundtrack for hours. Declan and Gretchen like to snuggle and look at books together, while Erika and Ronan love to draw. Do they fight? Of course. Are they closer than any other first cousins I know? Absolutely.
Don’t get me wrong, we haven’t created a suburban utopia, but frankly, we’ve come pretty close. Yes, the grown-ups get just as annoyed with each other as the kids do, but we’ve all learned to keep our mouths shut and more often than not, the feeling passes. The fact is, the grown-ups don’t get bored, either. There’s always someone to talk to, to have coffee with, to watch American Idol with, to go to the gym with, or to complain about our children to. But there’s also plenty of room to be alone, or just with my husband, or just with my kids.
And that’s what I told my hygienist. She confided that her husband had been out of work for months and was now looking at jobs teaching rather than practicing law. Her brother-in-law was in a similar situation. She couldn’t see supporting her family and maintaining her house on a part-time hygienist’s and teacher’s salaries.
I can’t see it either. While our situation is unique, there’s no question that combining families under one roof can save money all around. For us, it also allows us to live in an area we wouldn’t be able to afford on our own. And if that means we have to get up a little earlier to cook pancakes for twelve before school, it’s well worth it.
By Keri Fisher for Burbia