Cohousing and Families

By Danielle Crawford Skov
Issue 111, March – April 2002

Children in a cohousing communityWhen my husband, Mike, and I signed up for a cohousing project in Steamboat Springs , Colorado , we saw it simply as a way to buy a home in a town with outrageously priced real estate. The ten houses in the project would share land, a garage, and other development expenses. We assured our friends and relatives it would be just like owning our own home in any other neighborhood; there was nothing “commune-like” about it.

Building the community was not easy. We met for several hours every other week over a year and a half to discuss and oversee the building of our homes. I remember one meeting when we spent two hours deciding if dogs would be allowed free range on the property. What made the project different from most other projects was that there was no developer. We were building our own community, for better or for worse. (Imagine ten women-four of us pregnant–coming to an agreement on kitchen layouts!) The process was tedious and frustrating but necessary; compromise was imperative and communication essential.

Because we all wanted to build our houses at minimal cost, we elected to do some of the work ourselves. We cleaned up the construction site, laid the flooring, and painted the houses. Occasionally tension arose when some people felt they did more work than others, and at times I wondered if we would all be able to live next to each other. But finally, months after schedule, we moved into our homes. Most of them weren’t completely finished. For the first several weeks, for example, my family had no kitchen sink or hot water. There are photos of Mike and me doing the dishes in a washtub on the front porch–a miserable but bonding experience.

Now that we’ve lived in our house for more than two years I can say that our original expectations were wrong: this is not like any other neighborhood. And, having survived the construction phase, I’m beginning to understand the ideals behind cohousing. No longer are we working nonstop and attending exhausting meetings. Now I get to enjoy the benefits.

One of the greatest of these is having three other moms with young children in the group. We watch each other’s kids while attending meetings or running errands. Once a week my next-door neighbor and I do a trade with our three year olds. They spend an hour and a half playing at her house, then she sends them over to my house for the same-no carseats, no diaper bags, sometimes not even socks and shoes. Moreover, a couple of the single women in the group have helped me out in a pinch when a baby-sitter didn’t show up.

I also love being able to let my kids play outdoors with other neighborhood kids without worrying about cars and traffic. The parking barn is at the entrance, and footpaths lead to the houses, leaving nearly three acres of land without roads or cars. Within sight of my kitchen window is a community playground where the children tend to gather each afternoon. With nine small children in the project, there is always someone to play with.

Every Tuesday four of us moms do a meal trade, taking turns making dinner for all four households. I enjoy the break from the kitchen, and the entire family looks forward to something new for dinner. There’s nothing nicer than walking over to your neighbor’s house at 5:00 p.m. with a couple of empty bowls and returning home with a piping-hot meal, complete with salad and dessert!

On summer evenings the basketball court, donated by one of the neighbors, attracts many of the guys, while others can be found in the vegetable garden. My family likes to walk down to the creek and take turns on the rope swings. There’s talk of building a community fire pit, but no one is quite up for another project yet.

My neighbor across the path is a physician’s assistant, and she answers most of the medical questions in the neighborhood. She has run over to our house late at night to check my baby when he was vomiting profusely. We are also lucky enough to have a couple handymen (my husband not being one of them), a hairstylist, and other talented people in the group. My husband, however, does provide the community pickup truck.

We have workdays in which we all pitch in to plant trees, side the barn, or clean out the garage. Community garage sales, Christmas parties, and association meetings also help to bring us together. Perhaps most important is the sense that we are all in this together: we own the land, share trash cans, and see each other every day in the garage and on the path. This feeling of community might be found in other neighborhoods, but here it is inevitable.

Stay-at-home moms often feel isolated and overwhelmed when their children are little. In a cohousing project like ours, there are always people around to offer help and provide female company. I can’t imagine raising my children and surviving life as a homemaker without the help of neighbors. I think Hillary Clinton was right: it does take a village. I am lucky enough to have found one.

Danielle Crawford Skov is a stay-at-home mom and editor of a local newsletter, Steamboat Parent Pages. She lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, with her husband, Mike, and their children, Lark (4) and Mac (2).

Photo by Elizabeth Holman.