“In a culture of excess, even overabundance is deficient.”
I know, I know. The c-word is scary for some. It makes you think of socialists, hippies, cults, and poor college students but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Communal living can provide tangible, resource-saving benefits.
My first encounter with non-family communal living began in my sophomore year of college. My friend and I were tired of cramped dorms, crazy dormmates, and bad cafeteria food. We made plans of living off-campus and somehow the word spread. By the time we ended freshman year, six of us were committed to living together and prepared to sign a lease for a five-bedroom, two-bathroom house, located 15 minutes from campus.
To this day, my grandmother still can’t fathom how six young women shared a home and “kept the peace”. Little did she know, at some point we were seven and two male friends joined us toward the end of our three-year living arrangement. It was a colourful experience that we survived unscathed. What worked to our advantage was that we all had common views and values and enjoyed each other’s company. We were our own little community, so on the weekend, we didn’t need to go far for companionship or entertainment. A quiet evening at home filled the living room and Sunday dinner filled every setting at the dining table.
After senior year, many of my roommates continued to board together, but I moved on. I first went to live with a friend and her pre-schooler son. Then, I went on to live with another friend and her toddler daughter. My affinity for moms and children, I guess. Eventually, I had enough of an income to live on my own and that I did. Living alone was what I needed at that time, but it certainly contrasted the communal living I previously enjoyed. In a house full of people, there was always food in the house, rent remained incredibly low, there was always activity in the home to wake you on your lazy mornings, there was always someone to talk to, to eat with- it was nice.
Once you grow up and get married, it’s time for your own home, your own car, your white picket fence, 2.5 children, and a dog, right? Not if you’re us. Urbndervish and I had dear friends, who were also a childless couple, and we all wanted to live in the same neighborhood. We thought that we definitely wanted to be neighbors but at some point we considered sharing a two-story home. Sharing a home was a positive experience for us all. We lived in a way nicer area than we could’ve individually afforded at that time, shared our trips to the supermarket, cooked meals together, hosted dinners together, and gave each other great companionship. The home we rented had two separate entrances, three floors, two separate bathrooms, and a den that we used for a shared prayer space and library.
In the Hadhramaut valley, Yemen, we practiced communal living once again. In this scenario, our housemates had an energetic two-year old son and were expecting. An added benefit that I really appreciated was being able to share in the pregnancy and parenting experience of our housemates.
Some may assume that double occupancy means double the utilities and double the space, so how do you actually save? We definitely found that the cost of rent and utilities were higher to accomodate two families, but overall we found that each family had a lesser financial burden to bear. Some bills, like telephone service or internet service, were much cheaper shared between two families. Also, we found that we were living a higher standard of living by sharing our home, as opposed to living separately.
But, what about privacy? Everyone wants and needs privacy. Any communal living arrangment needs to be considerate of everyone’s need for privacy. Bedrooms and bathrooms should be adequately distanced. There should be enough space for one family to host company without significantly encroaching on the other family’s existence. If the kitchen is shared (as it was for all of our communal arrangments), it should be able to accomodate both family’s cooking simultaneously. Separate entrances also help to give each family autonomy to function independently. Remember, sharing a home doesn’t mean you’re sharing your life. Co-families don’t need to have the same friends, interests, or schedule. However, mutual understanding and respect is key.
As for sharing responsibilities, it’s best to practice a little give and take. Don’t be a stickler about dishwashing, taking out the trash, replacing groceries, etc. Generosity and kindness can beautify your communal living experience, whereas “keeping tabs” and only cleaning up after yourself can create disunity.
Does communal living mean communal parenting? Not necessarily. Don’t assume that you’re a co-parent of someone else’s child or that your housemate is your automatic babysitter. We all have lives and lifestyles to live and should act like neighbors that happen to live in the same home.
Communication, communication, communication. Have a healthy rapport with your housemates and discuss financial matters, house responsibilities, food-sharing, etc. Feel out if your lifestyles and habits are compatible enough to prevent inconveniencing each other. Inform each other of plans to use shared space, having company over, etc.
Communal living is only as good as the people you’re living with. Both families need to feel comfortable with sharing their living space. It’s not for everyone- I repeat- it’s not for everyone! If you’re very particular and anal, maybe you need your own space to sort that out. Don’t bother making someone else’s home life miserable just to save some money!
These are just a few reflections from our communal living experiences. Our experiences don’t include home ownership, only renting. Maybe home ownership offers more flexible options for design and space usage. Maybe it involves more hassle and paperwork. Not sure. We just wanted to suggest the idea that communal living can work efficiently for small families too. Sharing is caring! 😉