“It’s been fabulous.” Rob and his wife have been living with his sister and her husband and their combined nine children for 18 years. He says, “The benefits are so big; the relationships I have, that the children have with each other, the ways I’ve grown personally. Yes, there are some costs but those too I see as making me a better person.” Their two families share a home and are a great example of how real people benefit from sharing housing.
How It Happened
Rob’s wife was a resident assistant in college. When Rob got a job in Connecticut, she found a job in a college as a resident assistant nearby. Rob says, “It was a blast. We really enjoyed living with all of those college students, we were just barely out of college ourselves. However, it wasn’t a relationship of equals because my wife had a big responsibility to care for things and keep them safe and all that. I got involved in campus ministry there, we would do retreats and we had a great time. Our first son was born in the dorm. We thoroughly enjoyed sharing the baby with all the other college students. We were there for three years, then my wife got a job with her alma mater. We did the same thing there and that was even more glorious. There was a cafeteria right in the dorm where we could eat. We would put our kids in the wagon and take them down to the cafeteria. It felt otherworldly in that it was so fun and full of life. We were on the guys’ wing of the dorm and occasionally I would have to go and ask the ask the guys to stop using the F-bomb so loudly. My other son was born there so that continued and then we went to an all-women’s College Regis College. My wife was a director there and then Lucy was born. Now we have three children and that was just even better with a preschool in the basement that we could walk the kids to.
It was just fantastic living with the college students. They were babysitters and they love coming in and we love sharing life with them. We had almost no expenses because living as a residence director they paid for where we live, they paid for our food they paid a very tiny salary, but we had no expenses other than a car. After six years of this my wife said, “I’m done. It’s too hard to raise the children and be the residence hall director. I don’t want to juggle all this with the kids.” I was crushed.
Deciding to Share a House with another Family
We decided to move to Brattleboro. Chris had fallen in love with Brattleboro years before. Chris found a job at Marlboro College with a pretty tiny salary, but it wasn’t a live-in position, so we had to find a house. We couldn’t find a house that we liked. Everything we looked at was really dumpy, tiny, and we had three kids. We were trying to figure out how to make it work. We looked at this one house that was out of our range. It cost 50,000 more than we could afford. We kind of looked at it randomly. In terms of size it was more than twice as big as the other houses we were looking at. There was this really strange phenomenon in real estate that with little bit more expense, one could get a lot more house. As we looked at the room over the garage, which was huge. I thought, “Gosh we could live here with my sister.”
Rob’s sister and husband had over the years lived in community housing in Philadelphia and Annapolis. These were intentional communities. When Rob and his wife would visit, he says, “We were very enamored of what they were trying to do and were curious about it. We thought it was something we’d want to do someday in the future.”
We called my sister the night we looked at the house and we explained that we found this amazing house and it would be so great if they would move up here with us and we laughed and that was it. Two weeks later we got a phone call. My sister asks, “Were you serious?” It turned out that things had changed in the community house where my sister was living because she found out she was pregnant with twins. She already had three children. The community thought having two babies and three children was too much of a strain for them. We said, “Yeah we are, but are you serious?” and they said, “Maybe.”
Help from Parents
When Rob’s mother and father got wind of this idea – both sets of children in one house and all the grandchildren together they got really excited. They live in Massachusetts about an hour and a half from Brattleboro. Like many grandparents, they pined to see their grandchildren more often. So they helped make it happen by supporting the purchase financially. Rob’s sister never even saw the house before they bought it and it all just came together.
Adapting the House
Rob continues, “When we moved in together we knew it was kind of an experiment. The house was just a bit too small for two big families. To make it sustainable for the long term we decided to make it bigger and redesigned it.” They put on a big addition and now the way the house is structured so that there is a center kitchen and a dining room and a big lounge area that’s our shared space. Off to one side is his sister’s living room and off to the other side is Rob’s living room. The truth is, people come and go pretty much as they please; however, if we ever want to have community engagement, we use the shared space. The bedrooms are on the second floor, with one family on one side and the other family on the other side. There is a pass-through on the second floor – but it is through the back of a bedroom closet into the other family’s bedroom, so not used often. There are two full baths, and three half-baths.
“Cooking is a big deal for us. We all eat together and love to cook. Each family cooks and cleans half the nights of the week. Usually the way it works out is one person cooks one night, the spouse cooks the other, and the couple cooks a third night. The seventh night is take-out. Rob says, “I can focus all my cooking inspiration on one night and my wife can focus on all her cooking inspiration on her one night. If one of us had to cook seven nights a week we’d be spent. What ends up happening as a result we have amazing meals in our house because we get everyone’s best inspiration every night of the week. Okay, so not every night is perfect; sometimes we go to our tried-and-true comfort foods, but managing meals like this– that is a great benefit of living together.”
How do you manage food shopping?
We both shop at least once a week. We used to pool all of our receipts and my wife would tally it up. We tried to make it equitable with formulas about how many mouths we are feeding. My wife handles that. More recently we decided to get a credit card together and we just use that credit card for household expenses. So once a month my wife puts up a sheet with the bills and the total at the bottom and somebody writes a check to the other family.
How do you manage cleaning?
One of the benefits of families sharing a home is that there are a lot of hands to divide up the chores. I do the trash and recycling. The children wash all the dishes. We have a sink with areas on both sides, one for dirty dishes and one rack for clean dishes. The sink area is never really clean. For me that’s a downside, but I live with it.
For the house, only the common spaces need to be cleaned cooperatively by both families. Each family takes care of their own private spaces. We have a very large, finished basement so that’s my wife’s responsibility, sweeping the kitchen and dining room tends to be my sister’s family’s responsibility. We used to have a system about who cleans the microwave to make sure that everybody was cleaning the microwave, but we gave that up. I’m the one who cleans the stove top. People have their areas of responsibility and they manage that those areas of responsibility. If everybody just does what they need to do it’s not an issue. Much easier to simply do it than spend 20 minutes talking about it.
How do you manage guests?
We generally socialize together but not always. Sometimes we’ll have dinner guests and that’s nice time to be together. I just built this great outdoor fire pit area and then that’s great to be with one group of friends or we do whatever makes sense. We don’t use our guest room very much. I don’t think people want to stay with us. I don’t really blame them, it’s a kind of crazy place.
Coping with Conflicts
When families share a home, you have to learn to choose your ‘battles’. What we have in common is a distaste for spending long conversations trying to figure out the chores. We’d rather talk about other things. So we don’t bring up an issue we’re having unless it’s pretty important to us. And when we bring it up, we don’t assume we are ‘right’. We try to be understanding and know that we make just as many mistakes/messes as anyone else. And if you really want something cleaned, go ahead and clean it, and don’t harbor any feelings. It’s easier than talking about it. Then you can focus on things you really care about.
We had one difficult situation in which one of my sister’s children wronged us, and I mistakenly blamed my own child. I was hurt because I had blamed my son, and my son was hurt. It was one of the hardest times we had. Over time it became a beautiful thing, the healing that came from it and the sense of forgiveness became something very big and beautiful. You don’t get that in a life that doesn’t have shared relationships. These shared relations, that’s the richness that we have gained by living together and working through hardships which are not a joyful initially but when you do you really have built something that is beautiful and really meaningful. It has more value to me than just about anything else.
We’ve had some challenges living here for sure. I’ve always said that you kind of have to love the people that you live with. However that word “love” is a complicated word. I certainly love my sister and my brother-in-law. But in the broader sense of “love,” it’s a kind of love to deal with all of their stuff and hope that they can deal with all of your stuff.
My sister has five children, and we have four. The relationships between our kids are like siblings – strong as heck. They have such fun together. They will always be there for one another. It has been a delight, that their cousin relationships are that good – it’s very, very positive. Right now only one child is at home in high school. Five are in college, three of my sister’s and two of mine. Three others have moved out.
So we have this great big house now with nine bedrooms and in some parts of the year, only three of those bedrooms are used. Soon my daughter will also be gone, and while it’s nice to think that we always have space for the kids if they need a place to crash, it’s a lot of unused space. We could renovate to create a duplex with a kitchen and rent it out, or maybe could extend our living experience with other people who are not family members. We don’t know.
What would you say to Families thinking of Sharing a Home?
I would recommend they consider the benefits of sharing a home with another family. The benefits are pretty big. And while there’s certainly some cost – often times what we lose we need to lose. I lost my sense of what “should” be, and that’s something I’m very glad I lost because it helped me consider what I really think is important in this world. I lost my own sense of self-importance and ego in many ways and those are great things to lose. Financially, we’re much more comfortable than we might have been but it’s hard to evaluate, but it’s not about the money for me. I love the choices I’ve made and I’m really happy about the work Sharing Housing Inc. is doing because it means that more people could be encouraged to have and enjoy these great benefits.