Lessons from the Mommune

In August 2016, after living alone with my daughter for three years, I took a leap with two other moms with kids the same age, and we rented a 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom duplex in a hip section of lower Manhattan. I had met one of them through a mutual friend in the NY dance world. The other we met on coabode.org, a roommate matching service tailored to single moms that want to team up on housing, bills and childcare. Commune living is something I’ve been actively working on for over a decade. I knew since I was about 20, after breaking up with my second boyfriend, that marriage, the two-car garage, picket fence, and lifelong monogamy were not things I was cut out for. It wasn’t just about sexual partners — I’d found sharing much of life with just one other person, be it a roommate or boyfriend, utterly myopic. I wasn’t sure if I wanted children, and when I imagined it, I imagined it alone, or living in a big house full of my friends.

When my daughter was born, her father and I were sharing a 4-story brownstone with a dozen other adults (none of whom had children) in an ambitious attempt at architecting the postmodern commune. I learned a lot about group dynamics in that house, and by the time I was ready to make the leap again a few years after leaving him, I knew that living with other parents, with whom I could trade and split childrearing responsibilities was of paramount importance. I also knew I wanted to live exclusively with other moms. While the modern cry of women with children is to demand that our men equally share the burden of household and parenting responsibilities, I find this is regularly contradicted by the playground-mom past-time of volleying stories of fatherly incompetence with the other exhausted moms. I wanted to live with other soldiers, not rookies.

Shared Values

Our first conference call (for one was arriving from out of the country) centered around a google spreadsheet I shared with the group for collaboration.

Don’t you just WISH you had done this with your spouse before moving in together? Love is blind, and makes us think things like that having great sex means living together will be a breeze. Which is why it’s actually very cool to have a platonic relationship with your co-parents — your perception is not clouded by having your brains fucked out.

Pros: This was incredibly helpful in determining what sort of apartments we should look for. It also served as a casual springboard for conversations about custody arrangements and annual income, which are not generally ice-breakers.

Cons: Not everyone was honest. Gee, kinda like dating. It constantly baffles me that people lie their way into relationships, but oh well, we accept these truths as self-evident. Hell, my ex lied to me about his income so I’d feel safe having a baby with him. Would that we could all accept that we are flawed, push past our fears of rejection, and courageously express our true selves to others right off the bat. Would that others weren’t so easily rattled by what is new and different — for it’s true that people often flee from what is unfamiliar. As I tell my daughter, everyone is a little crazy, you just have to find the people that are crazy like you. The sooner you can get it all out an uncomfortable on the table, the quicker you’ll weed out the people that you don’t jive with and zero in on the kindred nutballs.

The Setup

Real Estate

The three of us co-signed the rental lease, which meant we all had equal footing in terms of rights and obligations, and we all had to be transparent about income in order to figure out what we could afford and qualify for. Home or Lease ownership has a direct influence on your relationships. When I was co-owner of a house with my daughter’s father, living with a bunch of people with tenant status, the power imbalance was a clear obstacle to that fuzzy feeling of an egalitarian commune. If your roommate is also your landlord, you are less likely to go next-door and tell them to turn down their music so you can sleep. Additionally, as the landlord, your assumed role as ‘fixer’ means fielding copious requests for repairs, even when you’re also working a full-time job, taking care of a baby, and paying the equivalent of your tenants towards the mortgage each month. When it comes to decision-making, Democracy is slower and messier than a benevolent Monarchy, but I unquestionably prefer it. Regardless of how you arrange it, transparency and consensus are critical.

We measured all the bedrooms that the moms would occupy (the kids would share the fourth), divided the total rent by the combined square footage to ascertain a price per square foot, then multiplied that by the square footage of each bedroom to determine each occupant’s rent obligation. In retrospect, the prices between bedrooms were pretty drastic, and I think a better formula would have incorporated shared-use spaces into the equation as such:

bedroom price = bedroom area * total rent/total square feet

There are also factors like windows, privacy, balcony access, or which floor a room is on that can alter the perceived value of a space. Regardless of what your equation looks like, the numbers should “feel” right to everyone, and make it difficult to choose. You know you’ve got it wrong if one room has way higher demand.

Household Expenses

We set up a spreadsheet for household expenses like toilet paper and dishwashing liquid. There are necessities that are split without question, and there are other things that are more complex to divvy. If I replace the kitchen light fixture because I personally can’t stand bad lighting, are my roommates obligated to split the cost? Not necessarily, but there’s no fault with asking – with a quid pro quo that contribution is optional. My belief that the cost and ownership of furniture should never be split came from an incident in college with my first-ever roommates; the four of us purchased a wall-unit from IKEA, which none of us liked, but it was the only thing in the store we could agree on because we all disliked it equally (and there you have it: Why Democracy often produces poor-quality legislation). When we all moved on and moved out, we each wanted our $75 contribution back – but no one wanted the ugly thing enough to cough up the cash and take possession.

P set up a multi-sheet spreadsheet compiling rent, childcare expenses, and household expenses, summarized into a composite sheet to determine who owed what to whom at the end of each month.

Pros: One spreadsheet to rule them all.

Cons: Indecipherable to anyone that did not put it together, which makes it hard to troubleshoot when there’s an error. Also, one can and should keep expenses well-categorized for tax purposes, or if you need to show financial records to a child support magistrate. Therefore, you shouldn’t be rolling childcare and household expenses and utilities into a single check you give to your roommates at the end of each month – you should be making multiple transactions with detailed memos. Because our spreadsheet was so complicated, settling up at the end of the month was a dreaded task for everyone, and sometimes would lapse 2-3 months because everyone hated the additional 2 hrs around a table with our laptops out to figure it out. So we would put it off… and put it off.

Childcare

The spreadsheet below took us at least one bottle of wine, one joint, and a few tense exchanges to put together, and it still wasn’t perfect. Principles we agreed on and attempted to translate into the payment structure:

  1. The more childcare you are doing, the more you should get paid. In theory it would be nice to just assume that whoever is home takes the kids but you have to offset the inevitable differences in everyone’s work schedules, custody schedules and extended family support. I feel this way about marriage too — wives should get paid for their labor rearing children, not in equity. (Seriously, would you go into your job every day if they started paying you in equity instead of cash? Haaaa) So we decided it should be paid for hourly. It should be less than what we pay the babysitters, but enough that taking on another kid when with your own is not a chore but a perk. Only douchebags expect free childcare from their housemates.
  2. When going out, a mom shouldn’t have to calculate the cost based on how many adults or kids are in the house – she should have one flat hourly rate whenever she walks out the door. We tried a formula where your cost was contingent on how many moms were home at the time, but the math will make you want to stab your eyes out with a fork. Generally speaking, $5-8 per hour is a comfortable rate. Of course this is subject to economies of scale – the more moms in your Mommune, the greater the potential proportionate savings in childcare costs.
  3. When a mom does NOT have her kid with (maybe they are with the father or grandparents, or at a class), she should not be obligated to watch other kids; this time is her precious grown-up time. If she does watch kids, the rate must be exponentially higher, comparable to the babysitter’s rate or her hourly rate in her profession so as to make the sacrifice worthwhile.
  4. Childcare charges cease when the kids are in bed. Or rather, at the agreed-upon household bedtime (as an incentive to get the sweet little fuckers to sleep on time). This rests on the condition that not all three moms simultaneously have plans and want to go out, in which event, the mom that takes a hit for the team will be justly compensated. I can’t think of a single time this happened – when there’s 3 parents in the mix one can pretty much always rely on at least one adult being home at night.

And we were off and running. The kids quickly became a silly triumvirate, in the bath, at the park, and on Sundays mornings in the building’s shared garden. Their cohesion as a group would quickly attract other kids on the playground, and when schoolmates came over over for playdates, it was a party. The pooling of toys meant each kid’s available toys tripled, and we patted ourselves on the back for saving so much water because they shared baths. New rules had to be devised to manage lemming-like behavior; At dinnertime, if one kid decided to stand up on their chair, pull down their pants, and start doing the conga, the others would of course follow. Some sharing of school pick-ups occurred, but because we had all made different school enrollment choices in the neighborhood, this was logistically limited, as was our ability to combine drop-offs, which we lamented after the fact.

Economies of Scale

For the moms, going out on a weeknight became an affordable possibility. I found I could also get a lot done in the after-bedtime hours, be it a craig’s list pickup, or laundry, or running to the corner store for milk — because there was always another adult home with the sleeping kids. And when the kids were awake, it was far easier to do work from home, or clean, or do home improvement while they played in the garden or the living room; when living alone with my daughter, she was solely reliant on me for entertainment, or I had to break my resolve and give her an iPad so I could focus on a task. I already knew from previous group-living that many adults could comfortably share one iron, one blender, one juicer, one pressure-cooker, and so on – which saves an enormous amount on appliance-expenditures. I learned new tricks from my housemates, like that putting conditioner in my daughter’s hair and combing at bath-time saved the tearful arguments that occurred while brushing it dry. I was complimented on my clever usage of the day’s dishtowels to wipe down the kitchen floor each night, instead of fussing with a mop and bucket. If we all needed a sitter, we could split the cost 3-ways.

What a stark difference to doing everything alone as a single mom, or living with my daughter’s father, and uh, doing everything alone while some asshole stood over me telling me how to do it. It wasn’t until much later that I found a theoretical explanation in Engels’ examination of the evolution from tribal society to the privatized family in Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State: “With the patriarchal family and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost it’s public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production.” I reveled in the new dynamic.

Of course, there were challenges in our little congregation. When one kid or mom got sick, we all got it. And when one kid came home with a positive lice-check result, we all had to get checked. The kids would fight over toys, and we fumbled our way through defining ownership and rights in our micro-economy. Grabbing a toy away from another kid was not allowed, even if you were it’s owner prior to moving in together – if it had been picked up by someone after laying unused, handing it over was at the discretion of the kid playing with it (but of course, one could always ask). Amongst the moms, there were disagreements over furniture, digital devices, toy guns, and where to put the brita. It started to become evident not everyone was honest on the initial “Values” spreadsheet, and discovering after move-in that one roommate was really into video games and fast-food while the other two were into sports and eating organic threw a wrench into the works.

Relationships 101

I credit polyamory, and specifically The Ethical Slut for giving me the tools to get through sticky, awkward talks with little to no shouting or personal insult. I am repeatedly shocked at how many people in long-term relationships choose to let problems fester, raise their voices at the slightest transgression, resort to personal attacks in an effort to win an argument, and rely on a scorecard of grievances for defense when asked to move over a few inches. If you’re like me, you believe that it’s not our differences that divide us, but how we work though those differences that determine our ability to co-exist. Whether you want to live with just one person or a motley crew, you need self-knowledge and diplomacy to make it work.

There are also unique aspects of commune living that just take some getting used to. Having shared a house with my ex and a bunch of other adults, I was used to the fact that living with a lot of people meant never expecting the furniture to be in the same arrangement when you came home. I imagine that during the tribal dawn of civilization, such truths were obvious, and for neo-liberal adults making the jump to collective living, there will necessarily be some growing pains. There were some tense arguments in the Mommune, not unlike the harrowing fights that we who have been married have experienced. Living together is hard. If P came home with KFC, I would put my foot down and say no to my daughter. Her pouting disappointment would hang in the air accompanied by P’s silent disdain. If P was in her room playing videogames with her son, it hypnotized the other kids away from all other activities, Pied Piper-like, and caused much friction over screen-time policies. P was not only different than me and E, but very resistant to doing the work of coming up with creative mechanisms to secure the peace (aka, talking about the problem). E was inclined to yelling during disagreements. Over time E and P stopped speaking to each other, and would pass by each other in the apartment without a word. I did not take sides.

Mommune 1.0 -> 2.0

I think P felt how different she was from me and E, and after the first year, decided to move out. We looked for another roommate, and met some cool people, but had a very difficult time finding someone that could satisfy the income requirements for lease approval, despite the modest annual income required after the significant sum of our two incomes. The apartment was expensive, I’ll give you that. But it’s also a sad statement about the financial state of moms in 2018, when not attached to a male: Moms is broke. So we moved back to my old place, where the sublet was ending right as our lease was up. Having weathered Mommune 1.0, E and I already knew we were pretty compatible. The fact that she was a dancer and I was a martial artist meant we used space in similar ways. And because we were both dedicated to a physical art-form, we cared about nutrition, even if our dietary philosophies differed slightly. I also think that the way we met increased the probability of success – it was on the insistence of a mutual friend in the dance world, who’d known I was working on commune concepts for several years prior, and who knew she was searching for something different after her divorce. P was someone we met online, and I suspect may have been so eager to get housing in order prior to her international move that she was willing to gloss over some of our differences – differences which would have been immediately apparent in-person. The Web allows us to cast a bigger net, but the holes are much larger and error-prone.

The Setup

Real Estate

The apartment was a small 3-bedroom I’d held the lease on for some 20 years. There were pros and cons to the two main bedrooms that cancelled each other out (one was larger, but got little light and required walking through a railroaded room in order to access), so I suggested we split the rent and I would leave it up to her which bedroom she wanted; the kids would share the railroaded third bedroom. I emailed her a copy of the lease and asked her if she wanted to be on it. She didn’t care, and neither did I so we left it as is. I didn’t sense that it being my apartment for so long before bothered her, or otherwise inhibited her expression of how she wanted things to be, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t bother someone else. As I write this, I have recently been saddened by my nextdoor neighbors moving out after a roommate dispute. The roommate that my daughter and I had befriended would frequently drop by to lament being treated like a tenant by the lease-holding roommate, who gave him no say in apartment matters that affected him. Transparency and consensus are critical.

Household Expenses

Goodbye spreadsheets, hello Venmo. When we ran low on dishwashing liquid or toilet paper, whoever noticed first would place an order and then let the other know by forwarding the receipt, and whatever the owed balance was would be Venmo’d. I think this works when there’s only one other parent to interface with, but would have been too complicated with three moms. We settled up immediately so there was no lingering accounting hanging over our heads.

Pros: No need to balance the books! Immediate transactions means bookkeeping does not pile up.

Cons: Limited to a two-parent household or it’s too bloody complicated. If you’re content in a dyad, great, but I’ve never been a fan, as mentioned above. Besides the tunnel-vision of singular other consciousness to interface with, you miss out on the whole economies of scale thing.

Childcare

We decided to pay each other $5/hr of childcare, but otherwise stuck with the principles established above. For a couple months we tried using two marble-jars to manage childcare hours. At a certain point, we realized it performed the same function that money does, and that the additional layer of abstraction was not only superfluous, but confusing. So we switched to just paying each other via banking app, which was settled the night of or morning after any babysitting that took place.

We immediately noticed that relying on just one other person for childcare, as compared with the previous triad, necessitated a great increase in the coordination of our schedules. Previously one could lackadaisically make last-minute plans because it was so much more likely that someone would be home. It also made us ships passing in the night, and I once remarked to her that we were in an inherently antisocial arrangement — one is always with the kids if the other is out, and being at the same event would require hiring a sitter. It’s an awful social reality forced on many married folks that don’t have extended family to rely on for childcare or can’t afford a sizeable babysitting budget.

Menopause

Yeah, we have to talk about this, and no one does. And that’s why it’s a real shocker when a co-parent you rely on starts displaying unpredictable behavior. Sometimes it’s a snide remark, sometimes an out-of-proportion outburst, and sometimes it’s a whole conversation she doesn’t remember having. A couple years into Mommune 2.0, discussions that were once relatively easy became volatile. I started to feel like I was walking on eggshells. For someone in the throes of perimenopause, the joys of parenting can morph into a burden.

In Confessions of a menopausal mother, Joanna Moorhead concludes that the drop in estrogen marks a time when a woman is supposed to transition out of the mommahood hampster-wheel in favor of savoring her remaining years for other self-actualizing endeavors. And why shouldn’t she, after spending so much of her life-force tending to snotty noses and school registration forms? Where I disagree with Ms. Moorhead is her inability to look outside the institution of the nuclear-family, and subsequently tells her family to suck it up. I don’t believe in “suck it up” and I do not accept that I should make a Sophie’s Choice between being a great parent and being a great artist/professional/entrepreneur. I am the foolish idealist that believes in creative solutions that get everyone what they want.

Being up close with it caused me to see it the same way I see PMS and post-partum depression — as situational conditions. I’d go so far as to call both misdiagnosed PTSD (Post-traumatic stress syndrome) in reaction to an environment that not only refuses to accommodate the behaviors that normal chemical changes demand, but actually responds with hostile invalidation; aka “have you thought about seeing a therapist?” The result of course, is irritation — not caused by the hormonal changes, but by the friction with society’s blindspot to biological reality.

So this happened to my roommate in Mommune 2.0, when it was just the two of us living together. It eventually resulted in me asking her to move out, despite my belief that we should stick by our loved ones through hard times. It’s colored the way I want to set up my household for my daughter. I am dismayed to think that when she is discovering the wonders of sex, I will be an irrational, estrogen-deprived harpie, unable to impart the accumulated wisdom of a life of salacious freakdom to my little one. I intend to line up some younger, sex-positive moms to be there for her before I go off the deep-end.

Safety in Numbers

I believe the only way to weather perimenopause in a co-parent (or really any sort of behavioral quirk, cuz we’ve all got ’em), is to have other parents in your household that you can rely on, such that there’s someone else available to watch the kids while she’s feeling down. An additional perk is the surprising diffusion of outbursts — I found that if a friend or babysitter was over and could shoot me a raised-eyebrow while she was yelling about some small transgression, it relieved my tension considerably. When you’re alone with all of this change, it can be overwhelming and isolating. It’s easy to internalize and wonder if it was you that did something wrong to deserve this treatment. What a familiar feeling.

Way back in Commune 1.0, let’s call it, when I was 5 months pregnant with my daughter, I started feeling the strain on the relationship with her father. Asking for help was something I was not used to doing before I was pregnant, and her father used to jokingly call me “an island.” When I did ask for help, I found out that my “island” was something he did not want to depart from, and the answer was always “No,” inevitably followed by an argument. I began to have doubts. One day while airing my grievances to a friend/housemate in the car (which I was driving to move some things, because my other half refused to get a driver’s license out of “principle”), I got back a thudding confirmation: “Well I wasn’t gonna say anything, but…” I suspect that many a couple would be broken up faster by a rational third party weighing in to confirm nagging feelings of injustice. Maybe that’s why the commencement of couple’s therapy is usually a relationship’s death knell.

Growing up, I learned implicitly that relationships are heavy with sacrifice and compromise, and no matter how unhappy you were, you stayed. It wasn’t until years later in therapy that I realized I had been raised to believe that to be a wife and mother was to be a doormat. The steady ideological diet served by parents, school, media and church, claiming that success in relationships equalled eternity, sealed the deal; Constancy, not happiness, was the goal. This sort of ingrained bullshit likes to pipe up when the doubts in your soul bubble to the surface. I used to stay in shitty relationships based on a self-imposed demand to give, bend, sacrifice, and suffer MORE. It’s a mixture of shock and relief when you get confirmation from an external observer that your soul is right, and the winged doormat chirping on your shoulder is a total asshole.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 7 years thinking about abuse – physical, sexual, financial, emotional, and it’s victims — children, elders, spouses, employees. Abusers, deliberate or unwitting, always wait until their target is isolated before launching an attack. To remove this isolation is to eradicate the pathological space in which the abuse can take place. There is a safe harbor in the scrutiny of others.

Mommune 3.0… TBD

You may be wondering why I’m still into this, even though things didn’t work out in the arrangements described above. Relationships are never perfect, and you have to expect a certain level of conflict in each. So the chemistry wasn’t quite there – but what do you do? You get over it, review the lessons learned, and get back on the horse. Hetero-normatives are fond of blaming any and all relationship failures on your alternative lifestyle, whether that’s polyamory or commune-living or not having children — and I almost wish it was that simple, but every relationship is it’s own animal, regardless of template. There was something that felt inherently right about living with other moms that finally quelled the free-floating anxiety I’d acquired upon my daughter’s birth. I’d never felt right parenting with my daughter’s father — things had only felt right when we were living together child-free, and once that changed, I felt like an engineer paired with a janitor, tasked with building an iPhone. WTF. Additionally, the exit from the co-mom relationships was smoother than the nuclear fallout that resulted from me leaving my daughter’s father. Sex just makes people crazy.

Separating Sex and Economics: Not Fucking My Co-Parent

I remember times I would argue to exhaustion with my daughter’s father, all the while having no idea if we were arguing about cleaning, or money, or sex, or gender discrimination, or where to put the garbage can. If there was a disagreement with my Mommune housemates, it was mostly just about that thing — nerf guns policy or how to fit a laundry hamper. There is a simple serenity to keeping one’s personal life and one’s domestic life separate. Everyone comes with baggage, but it’s much simpler when a romantic relationship isn’t part of the equation and no one can exclaim “If you’d loved me you’d [insert expletive] [insert obligation].” I also prefer the romantic freedom as compared with other approaches:

  • Monogamous nuclear family = going out on a date will make the other parent really upset.
  • Non-monogamous nuclear family = going out on a date means a long drawn-out discussion about needs and boundaries.
  • Mommune = Your co-parents compliment your outfit and wish you a good time.

Wilhelm Reich succinctly sums up the challenges of co-habitating with one’s sexual partner in The Sexual Revolution. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing to bind up one’s sexual needs and financial needs into the same relationship for a time, there can be grave consequences when the two fall out of sync. Financial stress pollutes the sex, a loss of sexual interest erodes the financial promise, and affairs pose threats to stability of the home, especially when there’s a mortgage in the mix. Reich calls it “Sex economy,” building off the Marxist-Hegelian dialectic of materialism by describing the basic economic necessities of a citizen of a sexually liberated society — contraception, a private room, education about sexual functioning and pleasure, and healthcare to treat STD’s or a resulting pregnancy. On a personal note, I prefer my home-life to be plodding and predictable and my personal life to be spontaneous and uncertain. Mixing the two didn’t work for me.

In theory I like the idea of a mixed-gender commune for raising children, but to avoid sex-relations within, I think I would opt only for gay dads and straight moms due to my orientation. Maybe across the street there could be a gay-moms-and-straight-dads commune that we party with. Even if you begin with platonic intentions, having a bunch of people new to each other in intimate quarters is potentially very problematic. In earlier tribal structures described by Engels and Morgan such as the Consanguine or Punaluan families, sexual attraction was less of an issue, presumably because of the decline of attraction over time, and exogamy was common practice.

There was a brief moment when two heterosexual married friends and I were poised to move in together, with the intention of helping each other out with childcare and bills. Our platonic friendship of 15 years had extended from the carefree childless years of late-night talks about art, to playdates when our respective daughters were both small. I knew they were exploring polyamory, but I wasn’t interested in becoming involved — they were like brother and sister to me. I found out by random accident that the husband thought there might be a possibility of shared romantic relations, which came as a bit of shock — not because the suggestion itself was offensive, but because I could not fathom why someone wouldn’t bring this up BEFORE looking at apartment listings together. I must have spent an hour on the phone with the guy trying to smooth his feathers. I’m grateful we all found this out before moving in together, but saddened that a over-decade-old friendship took such a sour hit. Sheesh. Men and their dicks.

A locked front door would spare many women the steaming shrapnel that comes off a man that’s been sexually rejected. And I don’t think it’s any sort of obstacle to having great male attention around. In fact sometimes I think monogamous, cohabitational marriage throws a wrench into the dance between Natural Selection and great Parenting by allowing the lazy and selfish to keep procreating with their spouse, while limiting the truly involved parents to offspring only with their spouse. At preschool drop-off I notice about 1 in 15 dads actually stick around to doodle and build block sculptures with the kids. And ALL the moms want to have coffee with THAT dad. If it was a free-for-all, that guy would be spreading his seed like confetti. In the context of the Mommune, the guy that knocks on the front door with a bag of snacks under his arm offering to take the kids to the park will have plenty of offers to spend the night. The guy that shows up wanting to sit on the couch playing video games and eating my groceries all day will not get his foot in the door. Pay attention next time you hear a man exclaim with anger how important it is for fathers to live in the home. Does he seem like the type that builds block sculptures, or the type that plays video games?

An Alternative to “Mr. Right”

Being in love is a wonderful thing, but I have be a Debbie Downer and warn you that people change, and Mr. Right can become Mr. Wrong very quickly. Often this seems to happen after moving in together or when the first child is born. They say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and when you’ve been isolated in the home with a dependent child, and your employer starts treating you like your brain fell out through your vagina, and your parents are far away or uninterested, Mr. Right acquires absolute power. Only in the most furtive confidence, mom-to-mom, does anyone tell you that Mr. Right screams at you if you turn on the Tiffany lamps before he gets home. Or that when you found out you were pregnant again and wanted to get an abortion, Mr. Right threatened to divorce you and take your kids away. Or that Mr. Right held a steak knife against your neck when you came home and found him fucking the housekeeper.

Please don’t mistake this as an argument against love or commitment — that wildfire connection and comfort that makes everything seem complete and all of life’s sundry problems insignificant. Everyone should experience it multiple times before they die. Mine is an economic argument, for an alternative to the traditional dysfunctional family model, an alternative to being stuck in any relationship that has run it’s course, and an alternative for all the ladies out there longing to be moms, repeatedly hitting their heads against the emotional shortcomings of heterosexual men. It’s an offer of sympathy to women who are married with children and wondering why they’re so unhappy. I know what it’s like to be there with the kid, the house, the job, and the man, and feel other women looking at you like ‘damn, she got it all’ and all the while you’re thinking about jumping off a bridge. It’s surprisingly easy to maintain a believably blissful façade while suffocating.

Mean Moms

Feels like they’re everywhere, doesn’t it? Married or single, white or black, rich or poor, pretty or ugly, seems everybody’s got some reason to one-up or shun someone. If I had a nickel for every time I smiled and said “Good Morning” to some mom at school drop-off, only for the cunt to silently avert her eyes. Jesus.

A common explanation I read online is that Mean Girls grow up and have babies, ’nuff said. Then why are there so many more mean moms than mean female co-workers, or mean chicks in college? Sure, here and there I’ve encountered a snippy workplace bee-otch, about as often as an insecure male colleague out to throw me under the bus for fear of being shown up. These are the tiny fringe exceptions to the rule; I have gotten on well with the vast majority of women I worked with, dormed with, partied with. The index of mean moms is exponentially higher. Mean Girls grow up, yes, and growing up means dealing with your shit, learning the consequences of your actions, and being a productive member of society. It means arriving at the realization that career advancement is often not what you know but who you know, cooperation accomplishes more than warfare, and that good friends are harder to find than lovers.

And then you become a mom. You don’t sleep anymore. You’re partner turns out to be a large child that needs shepharding through childrearing. Either you’re stuck at home, isolated with this tiny screaming thing while trying to do all the housework, or you are ripped apart from each other because you can’t afford NOT to work full-time while a nanny takes on the job of being your kid’s mom. The prior subtle discrimination from your employer becomes audacious and unabashed. Mean people are just sad and angry inside and everyone’s mean when they aren’t getting their needs met. Modern moms have a lot of good reasons to be sad and angry. Compared with my child-free days, I work and clean more, and I create and fuck less. Yes yes, parenting is all that magical shit too, but it’s lonely and grueling work, and structured far differently than the work I do when I go to the office to carry out the work of “men”. At the office, I work in teams that share resources like a kitchen, bathrooms, conference rooms, internet access, and knowledge. Teams are assembled based on complimentary expertise and skillsets. We leverage specialization to achieve more for less effort, all of which was succinctly summed up by Adam Smith 250 years ago in his famous Pin Factory Parable. Parenting makes me feel like I’m constantly re-inventing the wheel.

What would happen if moms congregated and colocated in teams to help each other, instead of resigning their entire social selves to a single, staid sexual relationship for the rest of eternity?

Mommune 3.0 Setup

It’s not here yet, but here are some ideas I want to try out. How do we share expenses, distribute labor, and keep accounting simple and flexible?

Real Estate

I found renting to be profoundly less stressful then owning, but I could see a Mommune working in a group of co-owners, not unlike a building co-op. At the same time, I know from experience in real estate that some people just aren’t cut out for the hard work of maintaining a property, and might be better off as renters. For multiple owners, I recommend an LLC entity to manage ownership interest and equity investment (sweat or monetary). Agree on and draft the exit strategy in the Operating Agreement beforehand, for example, like that all new members must receive unanimous approval by existing members, and exiting members may sell their ownership interest at appraisal price, including some sort of clawback clause. Hiring a lawyer and/or accountant tasked with preventing conflicts, before entering into a partnership, can save a lot of heartache and legal fees later. While I generally don’t have a high opinion of lawyers, I’ve met some good ones that know how to listen well and devise mechanisms for avoiding landmines.

Household Expenses

Come up with a list of agreed-upon shared expenses, for example: Toilet paper, baby wipes, dishwashing soap, dish sponges, olive oil, salt, paper towels. For each item, a member is appointed as the responsible party for stocking and billing. When the item is running low, the appointed member is responsible for ordering and sending a payment request to everyone. Pre-smartphones, I’d never suggest such a complicated thing, but these days everyone’s got a calculator and banking app in their pocket.

Another approach is a joint or corporate account that everyone has access to and makes monthly deposits to, which means everyone with a card can place orders on behalf of the group while leaving a granular paper trail. This would offer more flexibility by centralizing the expenses and contributions. The downside is the additional paperwork required to manage members of the LLC and their account access.

Beyond the unanimous list of shared items, there might be others that subgroups agree are necessary. I shy away from the idea that anyone should shell out for anything they don’t use (for example, I avoid paper towels for environmental reasons, but am happy to pay for dishtowels and include them in my laundry). I repeatedly observe (and am confirmed by numerous economists) that scarcity is the root of all social conflict. If there is an abundance of household resources and buying in bulk keeps everyone’s overhead low, the likelihood of disagreements over the purchase of individual items decreases.

Childcare

A hybrid of rules developed in Mommune 1.0 & 2.0:

  1. A mom leaving her kid with other moms has a flat hourly rate (I liked $5/hr).
  2. Moms that are home with kids while one steps out share the profits.
  3. Childcare costs cease after bedtime.
  4. Settle up the night of or morning after, as you do with the sitter.
  5. If a mom doesn’t have her own kid with her, that’s her time to fuck-off as she pleases without childcare obligations.

Start/Stop/Continue

This was an Agile trick I picked up on the job. At the end of each work cycle (“Sprint”), teams typically convene for a Retrospective to review the successes and failures of the prior two weeks. If things went off the rails, you aren’t allowed to blame anyone, but you can offer up something you could have done better to prevent it (even if the task wasn’t at all your responsibility — when there is a failure, it’s because the whole team failed). Start/Stop/Continue is another method, where each person gets a chance to pipe up on a spreadsheet or with post-its, in three categories: Things you want to start doing, things you want to stop doing, and things which worked well that the team should keep doing. Retrospectives are great for preventing festering issues by making discussions a regular task (in contrast to the dreaded phrase “We need to talk”) and instilling the idea that suggestions for changes are not personal attacks but an expected driver of ongoing improvement. Retrospectives offer little room to argue that something should be done a certain way simply because it was done that way previously.

Other Random Tidbits I’ve Picked Up from Communal Living

Do-ocracy and the 15%

In every cooperative group, whether it’s an intentional community, a public garden, or a school PTA, there will always be a small group of people that really get it and work doggedly for the greater good. Everyone else is just there because they can’t hack it on their own. The breakdown I’ve observed and heard anecdotally, is that 90% of the work is being done by 15% of the members. Downright disheartening, if you’re a part of the 15%. The good news is that in co-op arrangements (unlike in the world of corporate business), with great responsibility, comes great power. If you are the one that knows how to do carpentry, you decide how it’s going to get done. If you are taking care of the kids, you choose the activity. If you’re getting out your remnant box to sew curtains, the curtains will be the fabric and style you choose. If you are the one strong enough to move furniture, you decide where it’s going to go. Of course it’s best to consult and collaborate, but the point is that there are no rights without duties and vice-versa, so resentment need not accompany an imbalance of effort. The lazy people necessarily have less influence.

Living with Men, Living with Women: L’infer, c’est les autres (Hell is other people)

I prefer living with women, moms specifically, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my complaints. At this point, some 15 roommates and 3 communes in, I’m convinced that all men are on the Narcissism spectrum, and all women on the Borderline spectrum. In laymen’s terms, assholes think only about themselves and have to win, bitches are helpless and fly off the handle. Both are equally guilty of interpreting polite requests for change as threats to the fabric of their identity. Both can let things fester before dragging a scorecard of everything you’ve ever done wrong into a fight. Both can be slobs. And no one I’ve ever lived with, male or female, demonstrated an understanding or dedication to nutrition that impressed me.

Here’s a handy chart of blatant binary generalizations:

Pros Cons
Men
  • They know their way around a toolbox
  • Millenia of gender discrimination means they bring more income into the household
  • They are strong enough to move furniture
  • They take a proactive approach to problem-solving
  • They think with their dicks and will fuck anything that moves
  • Everything’s a competition, and they will fight for an inferior solution just to be right
  • They put their own perspective before anyone else’s including the kids
Women
  • They put the kids first
  • They do more cleaning and household work, without being asked
  • Better at cooking, especially healthy stuff
  • They come up with cool educational environment-friendly activities when you leave your kids with them
  • Most of them can’t swing a hammer
  • They don’t make real money (blame 3000 years of discrimination + more encouragement to find a mate than develop a ball-busting career)
  • They yell more and make personal attacks when there’s a disagreement

It’s gotten me to more fully embrace the anti-gender-binary movement. We all aspire to lofty ideals of intellectualism, awareness, health, strength, beauty. The ugly is the lowest common denominators on either end of the gender continuum: aggression, indolence, cowardice, ignorance, illustrated in technicolor every time you turn on your TV. The less binary our perspective, the more capable we are of embracing ideals that transcend gender. The further we swing to one end of the spectrum, the more co-dependent we are on another person to balance us out. The more binary our identities, the more likely we are to attack others for straying from the pack.

Relationships and Universal Flux

I believe people come into one’s life for a reason or a season, and eternal anything is fool’s gold. What I seek instead is a wealth of options for loving wildly while co-parenting stably such that we can fall into arrangements for one or many years, and when things inevitably change, move on without trauma or wreckage. I often hear people lament too many choices as the great underminer of long-term relationships, but I don’t buy it. If you have absolutely no standards, well ok, you have a vast array of choices and can flit from thing to thing indiscriminately forever. Most people however, given a wide selection of lovers, products, services and professionals, like finding something wonderful to settle into. If something more wonderful comes along, you should have the option to explore it. Why must love and family be all or nothing, eternity or nihilism? I fantasize about networks of co-housing groups, where the lovers and plumbers can come and go as they please and there’s a plethora of know-how and hand-me-down toys to pass onto the next generation.

Just looking for a killer real estate deal…

One Response to “Lessons from the Mommune”

  1. Lydia Hwang says:

    omg, what a treasure trove of on-the-ground insights on egalitarian communal living. thanks so much for sharing all the gritty details. oddly, it makes me both more and less inclined to try… 😀

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