This much I can state as truth: the key to working on many disparate but engaging projects at once (and I include raising children here) is to forge strong relationships with a mutually supportive network. Not just a virtual network, or a social media network, but actual, physical people close to you. Author, publicist and mother Sharon Bially just put up an interview with me on her own blog, which I am, with her kind permission, posting here as well. She wanted to find out more about the actual history and inner workings of my unusual living situation which seems to intrigue many. So herewith, her questions and my answers.
Q: When you first met the neighbor, Kathy, whose family you now share daily life with, you were total strangers. Tell us how your relationship began.
AMD: It all began about seven years ago. My family was living in a typical New England triple-decker, on the middle floor. We had a cordial relationship with the couple who had been living downstairs for the previous 2-3 years. During that time, we’d been tantalized by the aromas of cooking which wafted up through the ventilation system. Whenever the heat or AC came on, we were first hit with the mouthwatering smells of sizzling garlic, Szichuan peppercorns, star anise and the like. Kathy is Vietnamese, and makes fabulous soups (like pho), dishes with rice noodles and grilled catfish, fresh rolls… I could go on. Anyhow, one day she called us and said she had made a vast amount of pho, and would we like some? Next thing we knew, she was at our door bearing two steaming bowls of fragrant soup, along with dishes of Thai basil, lime, bean sprouts and various other condiments.
The next time I made something easily scaled up to a larger quantity, we offered her and her husband a meal. I think it was boeuf bourguignon. She accepted, and a new tradition was born. We each had a baby or toddler at home, and having one night a week of a fabulous, tasty and home-made meal delivered to our door was wonderful. For the person cooking, it was hardly any more effort, and for the one receiving the food, it was a major help. This has been the basis for the whole arrangement.
Q: How did this evolve into the current arrangement where you intentionally plan meals together, share grocery shopping, watch each other’s children and take joint vacations?
AMD: It was all a very gradual process, and I think that has been key to its success. If two sets of friends set off right from the start to have such an integrated arrangement, I think it is highly likely it would fail. For one thing, we were not really friends to begin with. Of course, we got along well, but there was none of the emotional baggage of a friendship—what if I say no to a dish, will I hurt her feelings? What if she feels this is a burden? There was none of that. And as each system worked well, we gradually added more aspects, in a very organic fashion. From an organized you-cook-on-Mondays-I’ll-cook-on-Wednesdays type of arrangement, we gradually became flexible about which day would be whose, depending on our schedules each week. We were both working, juggling many things, and the whole point was for it to be a help, not an additional chore. And then, it morphed into a system in which one of us, upon planning a meal that could easily be doubled, would simply call the other and offer it, even several times a week. It made sense.
Then came the other aspects. I had to run out to do an errand, and the baby was asleep, so I dropped off the monitor with Kathy, who was right downstairs in the same building, and did what I needed to do. While I was out, I was going to stop at a grocery store, so did Kathy need anything? In this way, we started piggybacking the other person’s errands on our own. Once this started, we began a running tab, which lives on my fridge. The funny thing is, money hardly ever crosses hands! Without a conscious effort on our parts, the spending of money has always been quite even. We could probably do without the tab, but we are both very practical and pragmatic, and we believe it’s good to have, even after seven years. Here’s an amusing fact: we’ve gone on vacations together, our two families, and usually kept a bowl in which we drop our initialed receipts during the week. At the end of the vacation, we tally it all up, and see who owes who what. On one of our trips, to Savannah, the difference ended up being $2! And more recently we shared a house in Portugal, and had a similar experience.
Yes, you read that correctly. We’ve gone on vacation together several times. You might wonder why, since we live near each other, but it’s been fantastic for everyone. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we do everything together. When each family had just one child, it meant that the kids each had a playmate, and the parents could relax a bit more. For example, each morning, one parent of the four got up early with the kids. The other three got to sleep in. And during the day, one family could take the other’s child, and in this way one couple could have a day and/or evening together, sans children. Four parents with two children, it was a perfect ratio!
Now we each have a second child, and they are just four months apart. They might as well be twins. They benefit (suffer?) from having four parents each, and our economies of scale have simply grown with us. The older children have sleepovers, and help watch the younger ones, and their own relationship has continued to be essentially that of siblings.
Q: Can you describe how the cooking, grocery and child-care sharing works on a day-to-day basis?
AMD: Well, there’s how it works, and why it works. The why is key: Kathy and I have very similar temperaments. We are planners. We are practical. We know that if something slips the mind of one, it will likely be remembered by the other. We have similar educational backgrounds (in fact, by coincidence, all four of us went to the same college, although the two couples didn’t know each other then). It’s all rather uncanny. But the compatibility is not just between the two of us. Our families are compatible. The two husbands have many interests in common, and some similar personality traits. The two families have nearly identical values when it comes to parenting, spending money, all those areas which are key to harmony. I know that if one of my children does something for which she needs to be disciplined, and she is Next Door (as we each refer to the other household), I can trust that the issue will be handled the way my husband and I would handle it ourselves. (Our oldest children have been known to grumble and say to one of us “That’s exactly what my mom would say!”) And this is the area which I can only attribute to miraculous luck: it was total coincidence that our families ended up being neighbors. And of course, it helps that we all (at least the adults) eat everything, and are always happy to try out new things. There are several cultures and backgrounds represented among us—Indian, French, Vietnamese, Filipino, Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, and, more tangentially, Italian and Polish—and we’ve all integrated elements of all of these into our lives. I speak in French to Kathy’s youngest daughter, and she speaks in Vietnamese to mine. It all works out.
As to how it works on a day-to-day basis, Kathy and I joke that we need a direct feed between our brains. We talk several times a day. The kids go in and out of each other’s homes. (We connected our back decks to facilitate this, although we miss the days in our previous home, when no one had to step outside. A couple of winters ago, we literally had to tunnel through the snow to get back and forth, and that’s not easy with trays of soup!) It’s a bit like a sit-com. I’ll float into Next Door in my pajamas with my cup of tea in the morning and vent at Kathy about some random thing (another advantage: a built in outlet for venting, a sounding board for ideas, a source of advice), and while I’m there I’ll pick up the (clean) dishes from the last meal I sent over, and drop off some clothes that my daughter has outgrown, and we’ll plan the next couple of dinners. Kathy will mention she needs to go to Target, and I’ll text her my list. Later in the day, I’ll hear the garage door open, and she’ll drop off the purchases. Once the children are home from school and daycare and my work day has, whether I like it or not, come to an end, we often pool the kids on one side, with one of us keeping an eye on them, the other getting started with dinner prep. Sometimes, especially if a husband is running late for dinner, we’ll feed all four kids on one side, so at least there’s only one home which is a total mess. (Two of the children are now two, so the downstairs usually looks like a tornado hit it by bed time.)
Q: When my husband and I looked for a new home, it took us a year just to agree on what we wanted! How did the house-hunting go with not one, but two, couples involved?
AMD: Again, a lot of luck. And sticking to what we cared about. We were fortunate to work with a realtor who “got” what we were trying to do. She represented us (each family) on the buyer side, and her partner, both in life and in business, helped us on the seller side, since we each had to sell our condos. All in all, they stood to gain from four transactions! So they were motivated, too. Nonetheless, it was a long process, and we are so grateful that they stuck by us for two years. (They also benefited from a few “commune” meals as we met to discuss offers.) What we were trying to do was unusual, unorthodox, and probably, for many of the agents or owners of the places we looked at, just plain weird. You should have seen their faces when we’d ask if we could build a door between the two units! We live, at least here in the US, in a society which believes that “good fences make good neighbors” and people want to have their own possessions and their own land, and here we were, a jumbled mix of people speaking a jumble of languages, wanting to take down fences and make holes in the wall! It’s not that we don’t believe in clear delineations (for example, we have never mingled any finances, and even when we connected the decks, we made sure to do it in such a way that they could be disconnected again when we sell our units) but we might appear that way to many.
In the end, it took us two years to find what we wanted. Every now and then, our realtors would gently suggest that we consider two houses on the same street, but we just shook our heads. How could we bring meals to each other that way? How could our children wander in and out of each other’s homes that way? In the nick of time, we found our place. I gave birth to my youngest just three weeks after moving in.
Q: How has your partnership with Kathy and her family helped your writing and your other outside endeavors, both creative and professional?
AMD: Wow. I can hardly even begin to answer that. When my book is published, she’s going to be among the first to be acknowledged. Having an extra “me,” essentially, has saved my sanity, my creativity, and probably my career. On the writing front, I’ve been able to attend workshops and events knowing that Kathy and her family could take my children for the gap of time between when I needed to leave the house and when my husband could get home from work. I’ve managed to eke out extra hours of writing time when my youngest was napping in the afternoons by sending my oldest next door for a while, and knowing that I didn’t need to think about making dinner. As I type this, Kathy is picking up both older ones at school so I can have an extra half hour. I’ve had to be on work calls (I freelance as a writer and project manager) early in the morning before the sitter has arrived, and Kathy has been able to take the little one. Similarly, recently, she texted me from Next Door because she was on a phone interview and her daughter woke up crying in her crib. I swooped in and watched her while her mother fielded questions about how she deals with crises and juggles many projects at once. And of course Kathy and her family have seen me through the ups and downs of writing a book and trying to get it published. Kathy has read and commented on my manuscript.
They’ve also been a tremendous help when I’ve gone away. I am planning a research trip to India for my next book, and I can only really contemplate leaving the kids back home because I know there is a whole additional family to help out. (My husband will be here, but he tends to have to work long hours.) I attended a four day kathak (Indian classical) dance retreat in California in August, and Kathy picked up children after camp, her husband helped with morning drop off, etc.
Q: Has it influenced your children and family? How?
AMD: Beyond the obvious influence on my own life, I think it has helped our family maintain a certain level of sanity and standards that might have otherwise slipped in a household with two working parents who also have several other activities (my husband, for example, also teaches martial arts while I’m quite involved in Indian dance). The standard of our meals, for example, I think has remained quite high, because when either Kathy or I cook, we are more likely to make something tasty or creative or elaborate, from scratch, than if we had to cook every single day. Similarly, we don’t mind shopping in several different locations to get the best combination of produce and fish and meat because we divvy up the errands, so one of us picks up fresh produce at a farm stand while the other gets the staples at the supermarket. Still just one trip for each of us, with double the rewards.
I think the children have also been influenced tremendously, although they probably don’t realize it now. Most likely, it will dawn on them when they are older how special their childhood was. For example, they have all the advantages of multiple siblings each—built in playmates, pals to team up with, other children who will commiserate about the unfairness of parents—without the down sides. They still each get to have their own room (although they like to do sleepovers), their own toys and books, etc. Culturally, they are also gaining a lot. Just the number of languages in our households is a benefit to them, especially for the younger two who entered the scene when the “commune” was already in full effect. And the variety of foods they encounter at the dinner table is greater than it would have been otherwise, especially for us with the addition of the Vietnamese component. Soups made with oxtail and dried squid are nothing unusual here.
Q: Tell us about your novel, Faint Promise of Rain.
AMD: Throughout these years, in addition to helping to run a dance non-profit, Chhandika, and freelancing, I have written a historical novel, and am now working to get it published while I begin to write another one. (That’s a whole other post!) Set in sixteenth century northern India, FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN tells the story of Adhira, who is born into a family of Hindu temple dancers on the day of the first rains in five years. Around her, fear of change under a conquering Muslim emperor abounds. Adhira’s father, however, turns a blind eye to the political happenings, and places all his hopes for his sacred tradition in this youngest child of his.
I developed, with a documentary videographer, a trailer for the book, which is at www.faintpromiseofrain.com. The inspiration for the story came from my study of kathak dance, a centuries-old storytelling art form of North India. The start of my dance training coincided with a recent return from Jaisalmer, a truly magical fortress city in the Thar desert of India, and the strong visuals I retained from that trip, along with the dance and a glimpse into its history, along with my inclination to write and my own Indian heritage, all came together and enabled me to write this book.
Q: And just to whet our appetites even more, can you give us an idea of some of the dishes you and Kathy like to cook?
AMD: For the dishes Kathy cooks, the easiest would be for you to hop over to kathynle.com and check out some of her recipes and photos. Be forewarned, however, that you will get hungry! As for me, I don’t make nearly as many Indian dishes as I’d like, but I do a lot of French-inspired cooking, having lived 18 years in France, and like to explore foods from Mediterranean regions. Tonight I am making a salade niçoise, and my recipe, along with a week of summer meals, can be found here. My husband is also a big fan of grilling and BBQ, and will make North Carolina pulled pork, ribs, or brisket, as well as Korean galbi or any number of grilled meats and vegetables.