Years ago, watching the documentary Happy, I learned about communal homes in Denmark, where multiple families and single people of all ages share a big space. (They had their own bedrooms and small living areas, but shared a huge cafeteria, gardens and playgrounds.) To me, it sounded like heaven! Then, last month, I met a woman whose family shares a house with another family in San Francisco. Curious to hear more, we spoke about how it all works…
Ann Larie, a psychotherapist, shares a house in southwest San Francisco with six other people: her husband Derek and two-year-old son Dashiell, plus another family, Thor and Amy, and their children, Tesla, 8, and Quinn, 13.
On deciding to share a house: When I moved from Athens, Georgia, I realized that communal living is a big thing out here. There are 30-people houses all over Berkeley. I was fascinated by it. I was like, it’s so Californian! We had a group of friends, who lived in several houses overlooking a shared courtyard. They had dinners together, shared childcare, helped each other out. One day I saw on Facebook that one of the dads was creating a pulley system for kids below to send messages to kids up top. We were just about to start a family, and suddenly I had this big desire to have multiple families all together. I had a vision.
On making a plan: Weirdly, just a few days later, I went to yoga with my friend Amy and she told me she and her husband were struggling to find a place to live because apartments are prohibitively expensive here. She said, “Maybe we should go in on a house?” And I said, “That is really weird that you mentioned it!” And we were like, no… are we thinking about this? Oh, my God…
On feeling tentative: My husband Derek got on board, but I’m pretty sure he figured he might throw up a roadblock later. He had never lived with anyone except college roommates and a romantic partner. Meanwhile, Amy and her husband Thor were up for anything. They’re the type of entrepreneurial creative spirits that say, it sounds cool, let’s try it out, there are different ways of being in the world!
On finding the house: Amy found it. We were all like, holy wow. The amount of house we could afford was so much beyond what any of us would find individually. That clinched it for everybody. And then Derek was like, oh shit, this is happening, I thought we were just ideating!
The day we signed the lease.
On setting up the house together: We moved in three years ago, when I was pregnant. Decorating was surprisingly easy. They liked our art, and we liked their furniture. We have two shared living rooms, so there are places to watch TV, spots for kids to play, a corner to curl up with a book… Both master bedrooms are on the top floor. Everyone’s first questions are always about sex, but sex has not been that much of an issue — we all have kids so we’re already used to not having sex in such a loud, raucous way!
On tricky parts of living together: When we first moved in, we had to get used to kid messes. And after we had a baby, I had to shush everyone every five minutes. It was stressful for me, but luckily the baby is old enough now that Thor can bang away again on the piano at night, which is such a big part of our experience together. Also you can’t just have a fight with your husband in the kitchen, since other people are around, which is sometimes good. You have to wait until your physiology calms down!
On raising kids jointly: My son, Dashiell, and their daughter, Tesla, are obsessed with each other. We’re planning on having only one child, but Dash still gets to have “sibling” relationships with children who live in the same house and eat breakfast with him and know him so deeply. And, at 13 Quinn is now old enough to do some babysitting. At bedtime, Dash runs through their names before he goes to sleep: May-May, Coco, Tata, Tor… they’re his touchstones. I’m sure we’ve all sometimes fantasized about moving out, but the way the kids are so attached to each other, it would be a big deal. Now we can’t get out of it! Haha.
On naming our family: We call our house The Lighthouse because it’s filled with windows, plus there’s the double entendre of being a beacon, a shining light guiding the way. We call the kids “lighthouse siblings.” We’re not just friends but a “lighthouse family.” That’s how we create a language around it. We’ll say we’re having a “lighthouse family dinner” or a “lighthouse family outing.”
On enjoying the company: My husband and I are both extroverts, and we like that someone is always around to talk to or watch a movie with. I’ve talked to introverts, too, who like sharing a home because it allows them to feel social but in a much less out-at-a-party way. And if bad things happen to us — if one of us loses a job or has a bad day at work — there’s a coming together. Usually we’re all in the kitchen preparing our dinners at the same time, and if someone has big news, they’ll bring home Champagne and we’re all tipsy, or if you have a rough day, we’ll all listen.
On helping each other: Child management has been completely 100 times times easier than it would have been. Even just, I need to go to the bathroom, can you watch Dash? And there’s a constant stream of grandparents, there’s always a Pop Pop to jump into the arms of.
On chores: Nightly kitchen duty is the most important thing. The kitchen is the place where people get their feelings hurt the most. Maybe because food is so central to our existence! So, every night, someone will wipe the counters, empty the dishwasher, wipe down the stove, sweep, take the trash and compost out, change the dish towels. Every morning you wake up to this gloriously clean kitchen, it makes you feel happier. That has kept the household sane.
On prizing quality time: One thing that surprised me was how you have to set times to hang out as friends differently from housemates. The grown-ups do movie nights at home or go to dinner together to maintain our friendship. It’s the same thing as when you set a date night with your husband and you remember why you like each other. When all the adults in the house hang out as friends — when we’re off duty, not managing the house and kids — we’re like, oh yeah, these are the people we love so much! When you set aside that time it helps heal over any bumpy places or minor irritations that come up living under one roof.
On rare quiet moments: When their family is out of town, and my husband is working late, I love being about to watch whatever the heck I want on TV. Or, I’ll come home on a weeknight and no one will be home yet and the stillness will be really lovely. As the mother of a two-year-old you learn to savor the quiet. When the other family is out of town, sometimes we’ll walk around naked just for fun.
Would you share a home with another family? It’s funny, it seems like people fall on one side or the other. So curious to hear what you all think. Thank you so much, Ann Larie!
P.S. 24 surprising things about parenting in the United States, and co-sleeping in a family bed.