In follow-up to my last post, I’d like to introduce you to the concept of our “commune.” I put this in quotes, because it is not REALLY the nature of the arrangement I’m about to describe, but the term that our friends use in jest, and also I suspect, for some, in mild jealousy.
You see, one of the key things that enables me to do anything, including (and perhaps especially) maintain my sanity, is the symbiotic relationship my family has developed with another family. (And this is no hyperbole. When my book is published, they will be among the first to be acknowledged.) Because four adults raising four children is collectively far, far easier than two adults raising two children and, completely separately, two other adults raising two other children. Now lest you think this is something it’s not, or that you’re going to get some voyeuristic glimpse into other people’s bizarre behavior, I’ll point out that our two households maintain a strong degree of separation. There is no mixing of finances, no swapping of spouses, no juicy stuff like that. We don’t even know intimate secrets about each other, although we do know things like what brand of toilet paper the other family uses, because we routinely do each other’s shopping errands.
What makes our arrangement of shared child chare and shared meal preparation and shared errands so functional is the very fact that we did not set about to do this on purpose. We were not good friends who decided to try to mesh our lives because we thought we made for a perfect match. It’s a relationship that grew out of convenience and necessity (and the tantalizing aromas of massive vats of Vietnamese pho traveling up the HVAC system of our previous home), and it was possible because—and here’s the incredibly lucky part—it just so happens that we have eerily similar values when it comes to our homes, our children, our use of money and time, and our food.
The other family, whom we refer to as “Next Doors” (and who were “Downstairs” in our previous home), happens to have two children, L and E, of about the same ages as ours, happens to have attended the same college (although we did not know each other at the time), happens to have uncannily aligned interests, and happens to have similar personalities, i.e. Ms. Next Doors is very similar to me, and Mr. Next Doors to my husband. Ms. ND and I are able to have entire conversations around logistics by uttering only a few, incomplete sentences, while other folks look on in bewilderment.
“Oh, it’s an early release day, so could you…”
“Yeah, sure, but the baby…”
“No problem, I’ll ask the sitter…”
“Oh then bring them over here…”
“Won’t that mean…”
“Right, ok, why don’t you do it then…”
All this compatibility was complete coincidence, and discovered over the course of a couple of years after they moved in to the apartment below ours over ten years ago. (Now we live in two side-by-side homes with a shared yard and trundle beds in the older kids’ rooms for easy sleepovers.) In this, we were all supremely lucky, and I am reminded of this daily, when Next Doors takes my children for the half hour gap between my departure for a writing group meeting and the return of my husband from work, or when there is someone to stay with my youngest so I don’t have to wake her from her nap to go pick up the oldest and thus am spared a cranky baby, or when I can spend the two hours of quiet time when one child is asleep and the other at an after-school class doing some writing because I know that Next Doors will be providing us all with a fabulous meal and I don’t have to think about making dinner.
While our circumstances are particularly fortuitous, it is within anyone’s power to make the effort to help build a community, a neighborhood, a little ecosystem of co-assistance. Everyone can cultivate other people and families with whom there can be exchanges of favors, shared errand-running, car-pools and child-minding. Everyone can go the extra step now and then to lend a favor, a helping hand, and what better feeling than to know that there will be a resource to draw from when one is in need? An extra 5% effort on the part of one person can mean a savings of 95% effort for the other. It’s no skin off my back to double a recipe and feed an extra household when I’m cooking anyway, and it saves Next Doors a lot of effort.
We live in a world of fences, fragmentation, wariness of others. We are off-grid, wireless, disconnected in the name of greater connectivity. We upload to the Cloud and work remotely. But the human-to-human connection, the physical sharing of goods and services, meals and bulk rolls of paper towel, the in-person network to which one gives when it is easy to do so and from which one takes when it is necessary, are the connections that make so many of the daily details manageable, and so many of the greater achievements even conceivable.