Extensive vs. intensive communal living


A short note only today so I get back into blogging: On Saturday I got to talk with interesting people about living in an intentional community. And I noticed that not everybody seems to be talking about the same thing here.

Extensive community

People sitting outside in the sun togetherApparently, most people (of those I’ve met so far anyway) want to live in an extensive community, something like a group of small or even tiny houses, or like a caravan village. Basically somewhere where there’s other people and a feeling of solidarity and belonging, and something like a fireplace to gather around, but definitely living in your own rooms, in most cases with a kitchen of their own, maybe with communal bathing spaces in the case of the caravan village.

… or intensive community?

And then there are some – few – people like me, who actually want to live with others in the very same house, the very same flat. Who want to share a kitchen and a bathroom and a living room and most rooms and spaces with others. That is, of course, a much more challenging thing to do (and I’ll be the last to deny that), and requires a lot more communication, tolerance and trust. But where do these differences come from?

The way I see it

single mother with baby (the former being me)In my experience, the first kind of people don’t have (young) kids – and now I come to think about it, they’re probably also mostly able-bodied. For people who can do whatever they want with their time and are otherwise able to come and go as they please, extensive communal living is a nice arrangement. If you feel like meeting others, you just go outside and meet others, and when you’ve had your fill, you can just as easily retreat to your own home again. (I may have put a bit of a point to this.)

And how about extensive communal living when you have a small child (or possibly several)? When you can’t walk too well, or suffer from anxiety or panic attacks when you leave your home, or when you’re depressive? In a nutshell, in all these cases it’s unserviceable. Because in such cases, all the community that’s happening right outside your home is largely unreachable, because you can’t go there and leave again as you please – but in all likelihood you’ll still have to do your “fair share” of community chores. (Been there, done that.)

A bit of a disclaimer

I really cannot and do not mean to speak about disabled people’s problems here, since I do not share them myself. But I do see some striking parallels between the day-to-day reality of, say, someone needing a wheelchair and a single mother with two small kids. You’re in town with the wheelchair/stroller and there are stairs everywhere? Check. Getting dressed takes a stupendous amount of time and energy? Check. You’re constantly tired and exhausted and have no energy left for anything? Check. And then there’s all those “normal” people who want “just this tiny little thing that only takes a minute, really” from you? Check!

Definitely a difference I do see: Having kids is still easier by far. For one thing, it will pass sooner or later, and then you can once again do as you please. For another, you can drop them at granny’s or hire a babysitter while you take a break to recharge. And also, I think you have to deal a lot less with impolite and downright rude behaviour from other people. Accordingly, my respect for disabled people who still make it through their lives every day knows no bounds, because I already found life as a single mother of two small children mind-breakingly exhausting.

There are better ways!

I will definitely never forget those times, they were awful. And all that stress was unnecessary. When I was living in that communal living project I mentioned before, where my youngest child was born, I was very lucky to have a new housemate who was pregnant during the time that I was. Her daughter was born three months earlier than my son. We were both (mostly, but that bit’s complicated) single mothers, but whereas I had two older kids already, this was her first. We were living on the same floor, and our rooms were directly opposite each other. And I still remembered so well just how much you worry and fret over your first child, how you lie awake listening for their breath, how quickly you feel you absolutely need to see a doctor, how helpless you feel, how totally overwhelmed. And honestly, it does get a lot better by your third child. :-)

Anyway, it really was absolutely no problem for me to be there for her and share my experience. Your baby has red spots all over her forehead? That happens, if there’s nothing else, just keep an eye on it for a day or two (was gone fairly soon). Baby’s asleep and you want to go for a twenty minute walk outside? Excellent idea, I’ll keep an ear out and give you a ring if necessary. You need a shower? Go ahead, the kids are playing nicely here, and I’m around. The little one has a temperature? Is she still nursing well? In that case, see how it develops, she might just be teething, and you don’t need to rush her to hospital immediately. And so on…

And all of this was absolutely no big deal for me, not even with my own permanent exhaustion and my own three kids on top, because there were only two metres between two doors separating us. If we’d been next door neighbours, or even next flat neighbours, everything would have been much more complicated. I especially remember one incident when her child was crawling around already. She somehow had her arm in the balcony door, at the exact place where the metal thingy locks the door, and it fell shut. The metal parts cut into her arm, the little one started screaming, my housemate had an immediate panic attack. Have you ever tried to calm down a screaming baby when you’re panicking yourself?

Since I knew how well that usually goes I grabbed the kid before her mother could even get up, told her that I would handle this and to calm down herself first, and then proceeded to carry the baby out of earshot. I checked the wound, which wasn’t actually very deep – the puppy fat (of which both our kids had plenty) had cushioned the blow, and it hardly bled. Still hurt, of course, but I put a band-aid on and told the little one that it wasn’t too bad and would soon be much better while carrying her around a bit, I was quite good at that by then… and voilà, five minutes later all tears are dried and the baby’s happy again. Her mum definitely took MUCH longer to recover! :-) And I don’t even want to think about how that would have gone if I hadn’t been around.

My conclusion

Single parents and disabled people, band together!! Honestly. It can be so easy and feels so good to support one another. That was absolutely my best time in that house, because I could help somebody out so much while hardly doing anything (apart from that it was a horrible time, but that was for completely different reasons). It was definitely a wonderful arrangement for me, and I would love to have that again any time. Of course you need to communicate, and your topics are also going to be the really tough ones, no doubt, at least if you want to make this work long term. Like, child raising guidelines for example! But is it worth that? Yes, absolutely, it’s always worth it! Not only is that load carried much more easily by six shoulds or even ten – the kids also get a much deeper sense of being cared for when there are more grown-ups who care. In my experience, in extended families with more caring adults it’s much easier for them to eat well, they’re generally more well-adjusted, they get to know more diverse concepts of life, have more role models to choose from, and become self-reliant more easily. So at the end of the day, everybody wins! You have to care though, you have to want to grow with your kids and change for the better – but guess what? Spoilers: When you have kids, you don’t really get around that anyway.

Let me finish this with a tiny link: We are looking for housemates, preferably with kids! ;-D