The above scene is the dining room at my brother-in-law’s, also effectively known as my back yard. Of interest to no one except my cat, who can’t read, is that the critter to my left is Emma, also known as She Who Can’t Stop Raiding My Cat’s Food Supply.
We co-house with my brother-in-law and his family, but in the cheating way, since by now (after 5 or 6 years in the same duplex) we have our own discrete homes on the shared lot. They’re heavy investors in our home, and we share finances and water bills and vehicles and lawn mowers and waffle irons and the gargabe & recycling cans and, up until recently, a phone bill (my brother-in-law’s tweens began to have their own cell phones and the number of accounts just got an eensy bit too much to manage).
We have neatly printed lists, sequenced by general food category and aisle, for our two local grocery stores (the mainstay, Trader Joe’s, and the organical produce source, Berkeley Natural Grocery), and we alternate taking on grocery runs for each household weekly. The cashier usually gapes at the groaning shopping cart (to the brim! every time!) and I have but to say: “Co-housing for the win!” It being Berkeley, they pause a beat, get it, and then tuck into the multi-family haul.
The pièce de résistance? We swap childcare. They get our kids and we quid pro quo with their kids. Not every week, and yes, since the boy child in their house has begun to babysit some kids up the street, their childcare needs are lesser and lesser. But I have to honestly admit that it has been a rare night that Mrs Dad and I have born the typical fiscal brunt of a date night, because we moved heaven and earth to pull off this extended family co-housing thing and we hella reap the rewards with date night childcare. All the true fax about having a lighter footprint on the earth notwitshtanding (and those are core), if you’re a parent, the childcare swap possibilities alone are well worth giving co-housing a long, serious look.
What makes the whole co-housing dealie a bit less cheating, a bit more authentic, is that my old pal of 25+ years bought and lives in the adjacent duplex. So all three households share the same yard, and the same sense of extended enlightened self-interest, and a deep concern for one another’s well-being. Also we share the same butter/ sugar/ eggs/ whatever-it-was-we-forgot-to-stock-in-the-larder. Also we all stare at the lawn and wonder: will the 13 year-old mow it this week? Or will the old lesbian have to do it again?
I’m the old lesbian, by the way; my old chum and my partner are the other lesbians. Slightly less old than me. My brother-in-law is the solitary adult (hetero) male, his spouse is the solitary adult (hetero) female. We five grown-ups encircle four kids smack dab inside a big, honkin’, process-happy, self-employed/ self-empowered wolf pack of non-nuclear arse-kicking extended family. They don’t know how good they got it, is our perpetual line. Later, when they’re in therapy, we’ll discover the tidbits we’ve overlooked. Ahem.
Still, at family-gathering times like Thanksgiving, so very much feels so very worthwhile. We spent the first five years here processing and calculating and negotiating and conceding the bejeepers out of every element of our home lives, wondering, at various enormously stressful milestones: is it worth it? We each gave up much more than we expected. And times like this–if it’s not already abundantly evident in the bright, confident shine in our children’s eyes–we know why.