Single Mom Cohabitation: Is shared housing the new way to parent?

When Ramona Lee Perez, 38, of New York City, divorced her husband after 10 years of marriage, she found herself spending money – lots of money – on childcare for her 6-year-old son while she worked part-time teaching Urban Studies at Queens College. “Last year I easily spent $1000/month on evening childcare. I asked for a schedule change, but I still had to work one night a week,” says Perez. Not only was it expensive, it was stressful for her son, who was experiencing separation anxiety. “He hated being with a sitter. We had two different ones in one year, and backups, and it was too unstable for both his and my needs,” says Perez. When a friend from La Leche League mentioned that she was thinking of leaving her marriage but wasn’t sure where she would move with her (now almost) 6-year-old daughter, Perez suggested they join forces and blend the households. “Our kids had known each other for their whole lives,” says Perez of the natural fit, which got both families through a rough year. Though Perez’s housemate has recently moved in with her boyfriend, the pair (and their kids) are still friends and play regularly in the same East Harlem neighborhood where they lived together.

Teresa Coates, single mom to a 13-year-old girl and 18-year-old boy, has been living with another single mom for close to four years. Unlike Perez, the 41-year-old communications manager didn’t know her housemate beforehand – she found her on Craigslist, Ground Zero for roommate searches of all kinds. They’ve just moved together from an apartment to a new home in Portland, Oregon (which the other mom’s dad helped her buy). Coates’ route to a blended household was a little more circuitous – after divorcing their father, Coates brought her children to Vietnam, where she taught English, and the whole family loved the experience of shared housing. She thought, why not bring the adventure back to Oregon? “I emailed [my housemate] and we hit it off. She has some of the same parenting ideas that I do. She’s not a hitter, she doesn’t have a TV in the house (she’s more about going out and doing things), and she had also lived abroad. She’s not religious and is liberal politically,” notes Coates. The transition came with a few humorous bumps, she recalls: “The neighbors thought we were lesbians for about six months.”

Go Where The Moms Are

The first step is finding other single moms. A service like CoAbode is a great place to start, since the women on the site often have similar issues in terms of needing housing and another adult around. And the specialized matching system makes vetting your new possible living partner that much easier.

Check Out Craigslist, Too

Yes, you’ll have to carefully weed out any weirdos and sift through the mass of candidates carefully, but Craigslist is still a solid option for reaching out quickly and effectively and possibly finding the right match.

Reach Out To Your Network

Spread the word to your support system, from single mommy chat rooms to real life friends and family. Just like looking for a roommate post-college, going through people who know you (or in the case of online bulletin boards, have similar interests) can increase your chances of finding the right person.

Think Through Housing Options

Vetting your new roomie is paramount but so is picking the right living space for your combined households. Obviously, money is an issue for many looking to live together, but separate bathrooms, living rooms, and even floors can go a long way to making a situation more comfortable and sustainable.

Communal living might be experiencing growth because of the anemic economy, but it’s not exactly new. Among the American communes of the 1960s, kibbutzes, and the oft-quoted “it takes a village” sentiment, Americans aren’t exactly in the dark about the idea. But with the dramatic rise in unmarried mothers giving birth (from 18 percent in 1980 to 41 percent in 2008), as well as a rise in the likelihood of single mother households falling below the poverty line (a scenario 9 times as likely to happen in 2009 as it was in 1990) single moms are facing persuasive – if stark – reasons to cohabitate. Add to that the reality that the average single mom makes just over $25,000 and the average cost of raising a child per year weighs in at $13,860, and it’s easy to see why a “mommune” makes good financial sense.

And women are turning to communal families for more than just financial support. Back in 1999, Carmel Boss says that her motivation for moving in with another single mom wasn’t all about money or childcare but her own emotional needs. “I was coming out of a 17-year marriage and moved to a town where I didn’t know anyone and was shy and introverted. Up until that time I had home-schooled my [then 10-year-old] son, and he was now in school.” She started interviewing women with whom she could share the extra floor in her home, and realized there were a lot of women in need in her Los Angeles neighborhood. “One woman was living in a garage with two kids. Others were feeling trapped at their parent’s homes. I was shocked,” says Boss. This realization lead her to launch CoAbode [CoAbode.org], a growing organization that helps match single moms with other single moms in their area for shared housing, through a secure and anonymous email system. She says she thinks the economy has boosted that growth, and other experts agree. “There are quite a lot of people who are realizing that they have space in their houses and they can get help with their mortgage, or they simply can’t afford the rents required for a 1-bedroom apartment, but when they think about sharing a 2-bedroom, they think ‘I can do that,’” says Annamarie Pluhar, author of Shared Housing: A Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates.

CoAbode’s mission statement includes the view that “two single moms raising children together can achieve more than one struggling alone.” And there are certainly many reasons for single moms to make it an option for their families. First, there’s the free childcare (something that married or partnered moms, hopefully, have from their partner). And knowing that another mom is in charge, not just a paid babysitter, can help calm anxious nerves of both mother and child. “My son called [my housemate] Mama Judi and her daughter called me Mama Ramona. It was okay [to my son] for her to read them both bedtime stories. [Judi] had to be up before her daughter was up two days a week and I dropped them off at school,” says Perez.

For single moms with only children, the venture can create a new sense of family. “It was great getting to do a Christmas tree together in matching pajamas and opening presents,” recalls Perez. Plus, single children can have the siblings they may wish for. “It took some pressure off us [moms]. [The kids] could get into a three-hour make-believe game making a tent cave,” says Perez. Household chores can be tackled by two – cooking, cleaning, laundry, just like in a marriage. According to Co-Abode’s records, their moms report they gain “on average an additional 56 hours a month.” Even Coates, whose children are old enough to stay home alone, says she likes the idea of another adult watching over them if she’s out. “If I want to stay at my boyfriend’s, I’ll know someone else is in the house. And [my roommate will] let me know if she leaves her son here,” says Coates.

But just because this relationship doesn’t involve in-laws and divorce lawyers, doesn’t mean it’s not fraught with the risk of unrest. One of the issues that may arise is sibling rivalry, just like in a “real” family. This developed with the two kindergarteners in Perez’s household. “They could relate on a friendship age level. However they also fought. They went to the same school. They made each other nuts,” says Perez, who adds that issues also developed with co-parenting. “Judi and I had close but not identical parenting philosophies. Initially we sat down with intentions of writing an agreement but we didn’t follow through,” says Perez. Dinnertime became a contentious moment, when the consequences she had in mind for getting up while eating weren’t enforced. “I [say] ‘You get three warnings and then I take your plate,’” says Perez, whose housemate didn’t agree with taking away the plate.

For Coates, the idea of independence is still alluring. Although the two families in her home live somewhat separate lives, including having separate fridge and cupboard space and daily schedules, she’d still like her own space at some point in the future: “Sometimes I just want my autonomy. Sometimes sharing space can get tiring after awhile – little things like dishes being left in the sink or garbage not being taken out.”

Perez says details about parenting strategies are particularly crucial: “I think if we had set up house rules and agreed on the consequences ahead of time it would have been easier.” Not only easier for moms, but also for kids, she adds: “It’s important so they don’t get mixed signals in their own home.” Once you’re considering a match, the way you introduce your child may also help discern if the new “family” is a fit and help the transition start out smoothly, especially if they aren’t already family friends, says Pluhar. “The moms should get together first, then if they feel good about it, introduce the kids in a neutral space like a playground or at a picnic. [Then] visit each other’s homes to see how they each keep their houses,” says Pluhar.

Although her housemate Judi eventually moved out, Perez says she’d do it again and said she found her shared housing arrangement easier, in terms of parenting, than her marriage: “I had significantly less conflict with my roommate than with my ex, particularly in regards to my son’s [allergy-restricted] diet,” says Perez. She notes that distance has made the hearts of the formerly pseudo-siblings grow fonder: “Now that they have moved out they’ve asked for playtime.”

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