When my husband and I decided to move to Madison, Wisconsin, several years ago, I was pregnant with our first child and planned to quit my job to care for our new baby full-time. When I started envisioning my new life, despite having a special new person, it sounded isolating. How could I create a fulfilling and vibrant life for my family and myself?
I started recalling the three years I lived in a co-operative house as an undergraduate. My world view and perspective shifted considerably during that time, as I was open to a much larger sphere of influence and ideas. The question was, how much of the world did I want to let into my home? My husband and I wanted to raise our children in a dynamic environment and I knew that being part of a flourishing community was one way to realize this.
Intentional communities set the stage for close relationships and interdependence. Such living situations don’t exclusively exist in reality television shows and on college campuses. Our new town is a Mecca for these communities, with a couple dozen co-op houses and three co-housing communities, many of which welcome families with children.
We chose a seven-bedroom co-op house owned by the Madison Community Co-operative (MCC), a nonprofit organization with 11 houses founded in 1968. Our particular co-op had recently experienced difficulties; all the previous members left due to internal problems, opening the way for a fresh start.
When we signed one-year leases for two bedrooms, I wondered what we were getting ourselves into. We would be sharing a house with people I barely knew and trying to create a community where the last members had failed. We would soon be sharing several dinners a week, and a common kitchen, dining room, yard, living room, and basement.
Our co-op house is now a thriving community with seven adults and three children, ranging in age from 0 to 45. We share household chores and enjoy meals together regularly.
“I’ve lived in everything from retreat center co-operatives to teepees to yurts to mega yachts to mega estates and I think [this co-op house] is the best all-around living situation I’ve ever been involved in,” reflects the newest member of our community, Stephan Emery. “I’m very thankful for the multitude of benefits I experience every day.”
My daughter Leona often tells me, “I want to go downstairs.” She is curious whom she will encounter in the common areas of the house. When she first learned to talk, she would approach our housemates saying, “book…book…book,” until someone would sit down and read to her.
Leona likes to go in the awkward space under the stairs that we use as a pantry and pretend to prepare tea. Then she invites our housemates to have a tea party. She doesn’t have to duck her head to enter the space, but everyone taller than three feet does due to the descending staircase. At the co-op, her world is full of rich experiences like these shared with many people.
“Co-op living gives my kids a variety of perspectives of the world and it doesn’t limit them to just my point of view, but exposes them to the perspectives of all the members,” says my husband, Kiril Lozanov.
Such impacts go both ways, and benefit the adults in the community as well.
For other residents of our co-op, my children — also now including our baby son — have become an important part of their lives.
“I’m in my early forties and I’m not sure if I’m going to have children,” says member Steve McClure. “It continues to blow me away that I’ve been in Leona's life since she was a month and a half old, and that she doesn't remember a time when Iwasn't her housemate.”
He enjoys the impromptu interactions that accompany the co-op lifestyle.
“When I lived in my own apartment in Chicago, human interaction had to be scheduled on the calendar,” he explains. “Here, we can have spontaneous conversations and if something is really going on, it’s not too difficult to find someone to talk to.”
Like many communities, food brings people together in our house.
“Group meals are the social glue of co-operative communities,” says Dennis Fiser, a member who has lived in three different co-ops. “The community bonding that occurs over a meal is enormous.”
Fiser also likes that he only needs to cook for the house three times a month, yet enjoys a home-cooked meal from scratch almost daily.
When dinner is ready in our house, the cook usually shouts, “Dinner!” a few times from the first floor. Leona’s eyes light up and she starts to echo the call throughout the house, usually at twice the volume.
I often feel that I have a higher standard of living in ways that matter most to me, without investing a lot of money and time. I live in a house with a yard, yet I’m not exclusively responsible for yard work, snow shoveling, paying the bills, or repairs. My family has one main income and I have the luxury of caring full-time for Leona and our baby son. Many people who are attracted to co-op living enjoy this benefit.
“I feel like [co-op living] really enables me to pursue a life that fits my passion, without being dependent upon making enough money to live in a more expensive place to get by,” reflects Fiser. “I work in agriculture and that barely gets me above the poverty line, but I live perfectly well with all of my needs met and then some.”
Despite the benefits, the co-operative experience is not all wine and roses. If my daughter has a meltdown just before bedtime, I need to be diligent of how this may impact others in the house. The bathrooms or washing machine are sometimes occupied when I want to use them and group decision-making can be very time-consuming. I usually have to go to my bedroom if I want privacy and I’ve learned that the definition of the word “clean” varies widely. My son may discover objects of unknown origin and attempt to eat them.
There have been times when the co-op has been in a state of transition and needed some of my attention, and I wanted to focus more on my personal life. When I was eight months pregnant with my son, two members were moving out and new members needed to be selected. I was preparing for a home birth and wanted the home environment to be stable and predictable, although I know how important it is to choose members that are a good fit for the house.
“If you get someone that has a toxic or domineering personality, it can have a really enormous influence on a co-op house,” says McClure, who has lived in MCC co-ops for nine years. “There was one person at my last co-op who was responsible for much of the house moving out, but luckily that person did, too, and we were able to start anew and create a healthy space. In the absolute worst-case scenario, 'Utopia' can turn into Lord of the Flies.”
In many cases, such calamities can be avoided. At one point, several members of our house were planning to move out due to irreconcilable differences with another member. After a couple of house meetings (where all members of the house were invited), the house voted in favor of asking the difficult person to move out. Communicating so honestly is an intimidating task.
“There are always challenges [living co-operatively] and it is directly related to the ability of house members to communicate,” says Fiser. “Even when issues are enormous and daunting, if people have the communications skills and are comfortable enough in their own skin, it becomes more of a learning and growth experience than a traumatizing or painful one.”
This level of communication requires maturity and a certain level of commitment.
“There is a tendency to think that your point of view is right and be stuck in that rut,” observes Fiser’s partner, Anne Drehfal. “Culturally, many people are. I find it important to have that time in our house meetings to listen and reflect upon my point of view. It has been an amazing experience for me to open up to different perspectives.”
That’s where the structure of a co-op house is priceless. Our house has meetings every two weeks. Although it can feel like a burden to have a structured conversation while my daughter runs laps around the room, many issues are resolved and a collective vision for the house is created in our meetings.
“I think it is really important to have a scheduled time to talk and reflect on what is going on in your living environment,” says Drehfal. “That is something that is unique about co-ops, and most typical roommates do not do this. It can be a challenging for those [roommate] relationships because little annoyances can keep building up.”
Ultimately, creating strong communities doesn’t require living in intentional communities. We can all take actions to bring people together to enrich our lives. Some neighborhoods have created a common tool shed, so each household doesn’t have to own redundant tools. Potluck meals, volunteer work at a local park, play groups for children, shared gardens, and block parties are all great way to bring people together.
Regardless of our living situation, we all have the opportunity to choose, if we want to live in a silo or as part of a greater community.
“Humans are designed to live in communities and it is much healthier to live that way, even though we shut down sometimes and isolate,” adds my husband, who grew up in a Bulgarian village. “It is a human desire to share and talk about ideas. Community interactions and dynamics also help me to progress with my personal development.”