Intentional Community: Cooperative Living With Children
By Sarah Lozanova
June 27, 2011
When my husband and I decided to move to Madison Wisconsin several years ago, I was pregnant with our first child and planning to quit my job to care for her full time. I started envisioning my new life, and 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 in college. My worldview and perspective shifted considerably during that time, as I was open to a much larger sphere of influence. 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 just exist in reality television shows and on college campuses. Our new town is a Mecca for these communities, with two-dozen co-operative houses and three co-housing communities, many of which embrace 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 dinners, and a common kitchen, dining room, yard, and living room.
Our co-op house is now a thriving community with eight adults and four children, ranging in age from 0 to 45. We share household chores and enjoy meals together on an almost daily basis.
“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. 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 a young 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 probably doesn’t remember a time when I wasn’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.
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 household repairs. My family has one main income and I have the luxury of being home full-time with Leona and our infant 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 time-consuming. I usually have to go to my bedroom if I want privacy. And. I’ve also learned that the definition of the word “clean” varies widely.
There have been times when the coop 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 chosen. 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 select members that contribute to the community.
“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 eight 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 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.”
While I enjoy living in a co-op, it is not for everyone. Co-housing, however, offers many similar benefits, yet with more privacy.
Cynthia Sampson, a member of Arboretum Co-housing (Arbco) refers to it as “condominium living with intentional community in which we choose in close relationship with our neighbors. We get to know our community members’ children and visiting family and friends—and those of us who are pet lovers get to know their pets too. I think of it as an urban village.”
Arbco, located in Madison near Lake Wingra, consists of 40 households altogether in a mix of new condos, older houses, a duplex and a triplex. The 6,000 square-foot common area includes a kitchen and dining room, guest rooms, a children’s room, and smaller spaces for socializing, exercising, and meetings. In a typical week there are two community dinners prepared by teams of cooks and a potluck.
Co-housing also encourages voluntary simplicity with a high standard of living. “Most of the people in the 29 condo units downsized when they moved here,” says Sampson. “Now they don’t need a guest room, which sits empty 95% of the time.” Each unit does, however, contain a full kitchen, bathroom, and living space.
The common space is also an asset to the greater community; Arbco has hosted community groups, neighborhood association meetings, fundraisers for nonprofit groups, and celebrations. In addition to benefiting the neighborhood, it also adds richness to the lives of Arbco members, as many activities are brought right to their doorsteps.
“I call it ‘reflected glory’,” says Sampson. “I take pride in the many ways we give back to our community, which are many more than any of us could ever engage in by ourselves.”
Sampson does say group decision-making can be time-consuming and requires dedication. She notes that most members share similar values, but arrange them in a different order of importance, and so that makes for a range of viewpoints and some sensitive issues in community living.
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.”
Sarah Lozanova is a freelance environmental writer who lives with her family in Madison Wisconsin.