Two months ago, my husband, small son, and I moved across the street with another family (married with a son the same age as ours) into a large, previously abandoned home that we are renovating ourselves. We had been living separately in apartments in the same building, but now both families are sharing space: kitchen, bathrooms, the whole shebang. We live on South Saint Joseph Street with the Catholic Worker community in South Bend, Indiana, though our commitment to their life and work is not formal.
Why would we do such a thing? Even I sometimes think we’re crazy to take on the pressures of community life while juggling the circus that is being a young family, and I certainly wouldn’t say what we’re doing is for everybody. Well, there were several reasons, the most important being that we felt drawn to live more intentionally in community as families. We felt that God was inviting us to make a home together. The other reasons were slightly more practical: the house is too big for just our family right now, we help each other with cooking, cleaning and child care, we share the bills, they help us pay off the house via rent, and we want to experiment with how communal life looks for families.
It can be too easy to focus on what is hard or going wrong and not see all the good potatoes placed at our feet.
One of things we did which I highly recommend, should you be considering this crazy path, is go on retreat together first and hash out your expectations, hopes, dreams, and all the practical stuff. And I mean all of it: chores, food, schedule, life style preferences, how loud you like the music, everything. This was extremely helpful for us. We were able to generate a plan for each week that included meal shares, prayer, some childcare swapping, date nights, hosting nights, and free nights. We also talked through fears, and expectations for life together which allowed us to begin the road (sometimes rocky) of clear and honest communication so vital to community life.
And practically speaking, it has been an adjustment, particularly in the areas of privacy and shared parenting. Both families have one and a half year old sons who are great friends, but the reality of parenting is that sometimes you gotta do it alone. It takes a village, yes, but thank goodness the whole village isn’t raising the child the whole time. Two parents are a great team for raising children, so when there are four parents, it can be tricky. My husband describes it as having two weather systems in the house. Parents create the weather around their children, and two sets of parents each have their own system. This can be coordinated and respected, but it certainly requires openness between parents of different systems. We’ve discussed boundaries for discipline, time when the boys are together, and time when they aren’t, and we’ve really tried to honor the family community first, house community second. It isn’t always easy, but because both families believe in this and support each other, it can work. Last week I found a potato in my son’s bedroom . . . dropped off lovingly by the other toddler in the house. This made me smile and gave me some much needed perspective. We give each other all kinds of gifts, and we need to have the eyes to see them. It can be too easy to focus on what is hard or going wrong and not see all the good potatoes placed at our feet.
Sharing food has been a great thing, particularly because, well, both families love food! If we weren’t all interested in cooking and eating and generally appreciating good food, this would be much harder, but we all love to eat and we all make good food, so again, it works. Each family takes alternate weeks for doing the house grocery shopping, and during the week, any household item or food item can be added to the list. We try and make sure each family is spending roughly the same amount, and we hope to err toward the principle of generosity first, counting second. Additionally, each family takes one night each week when we cook for the whole house, ideally on a night it is difficult for the other family to cook. These meals are optional to eat together. Once a week, we have a community night when we try and mix up cooking teams, and we commit to eating together. Meals have been a great source of nourishment for all of us in more ways than just filling our belly.
Communal prayer likewise has been a gift. My husband and I have many ideals, but we’re not exactly the A-team when it comes to discipline. Having a regular schedule of prayer (although it’s only twice a week), really helps us be more committed to this oft forgotten bedrock of a healthy Christian life. We also meet weekly to share how we’re doing, look at the next week’s schedule, and discuss any issues or concerns we may have. This is important for maintaining open, honest communication; again, the absolutely essential element for doing life together. Given that three out of the four adults in the house have Masters of Divinity, getting into the hard stuff and really learning to listen to one another has been a process made easier by all the skills these Jedis bring to the table.
In any community situation, there is always the temptation to be critical, to air towards drama rather than healthy dialogue, and to lose sight of why you have come together in the first place. Having shared ideals and vision, knowing your own marriage and family well, being committed to that first, and genuinely desiring the good of the whole, places you at a good point to begin. But there is the daily work of generosity, kindness, and of course a sense of humor, that makes life good. These are the things we’re all learning, that help steer the ship. I’m also really excited to plant a garden together this spring. Oh and we’re both having new babies this summer! So life is going to be very full and very blessed. Come and visit some time if you get the chance.