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An interview with CoAbode's founder Carmel Sullivan…
By Audrey Ellis
What is CoAbode? - It's an online 'mom-matching' service which connects single moms for house sharing opportunities. It is also a forum for single moms to reach out to others in the same circumstances for friendship and support.
What does the expression CoAbode mean? - It means two persons sharing a home together. Co means together, with and abode means a dwelling place.
How does the service work? - It's a simple three step process. You register on the site by filling out a personal profile detailing your age, the location you want to live in, your price range, you include short descriptions about yourself, your interests and your parenting philosophy etc. This is for other members to read so they can decide if you might be someone they'd like to get to know. Then you search the listings by reading through other profiles looking for other members who might seem compatible as friends or potential housemates.
What is the average profile of the single moms who join CoAbode? - There is no average profile of a single mom, although to hear critics talk you'd believe all single moms were sixteen year olds on welfare. Women of every race, creed and economic circumstance join our service… they're bound together by the fact that they're all single moms, some by choice but most by circumstance, usually divorce.
What is the age range of the membership? - I think our youngest member is 19 years old and our oldest is 56. There is a fairly good distribution but the highest concentrations seem to be between 25 and 44.
What about economic range? - It runs the gamut I believe… a fair cross section of the population even including wealthier women who own a large house but want some company for themselves and their children. Many successful professionals come to our site looking to create ideal living circumstances… the big house, the lovely garden, the affluent neighborhood… It makes absolute sense that a mother would want to try to maintain something she had before divorce or to attain something she may not see happening in the traditional way with a spouse/partner… so she looks toward finding a likeminded friend to pool resources. But that's only one side of the picture. We have a very different constituency of members, women who are suffering though gravely distressed circumstances. They're trapped in abusive marriages or have been abandoned by their partners. They have no family or live too far away to get any real support. These single moms are socially, economically and emotionally impoverished and they come to CoAbode looking for hope.
How does CoAbode help them? - Right now we can offer a forum for these mothers to connect with each other, to explore pooling what few resources they have to get new accommodation or just to reach out to another mom for friendship and comfort.
What more could CoAbode do? - My vision for the future is to make CoAbode part of the infrastructure… economic, political and commercial that provides actual brick and mortar communities for single mothers where hotel housing, apartment buildings and even whole condominium complexes cater to their families. I dream of actual villages with play structures and picnic areas and co-operative child care facilities and anything else that would enhance the life of these single moms and their kids.
How far away is that dream? - Not as far away as one might think. Already we're connecting with developers who have built fantastic new complexes with promises to accommodate key workers who cannot afford higher rents. If they have the property we have hundreds of qualified tenants in all the major metropolitan centers so that is one place for us to start. Meanwhile if CoAbode isn't an actual village we can function at least as a cyber-village where we've created this nurturing environment for ourselves and our children.
How can a woman alone at a computer feel nurtured? - It only starts at the computer. When things got really rough for me I comforted myself with the thought that I wasn't alone. I knew there were hundreds of women right in my own community who could easily connect with my son and me. Now any single mom, in any town or city in America can log on to our site and find women in similar circumstances in her neighborhood. Whether she connects with these women by e-mail, by phone, for play dates or babysitting co-ops she's reaching out to someone who understands exactly what her life is made of. If out of this communication one new friendship develops, or even better, a house sharing opportunity is born, that will have a profound effect on those women's lives, and by transfer, on their children's lives.
Because they won't be so alone? - Absolutely! One of the greatest tragedies of our time is that we're all separated. The nuclear family has disintegrated and the extended families of the past (cousins, grand parents, etc) are vanishing. But no matter how post modern we think our world has become, most of us yearn for the old familiar environment - a place where our children can feel that they are loved, that they are welcome, that they belong. I think the CoAbode ideal of two happy single moms supporting each other won't just benefit the mothers and the children, it will serve society as a whole long into the future. We're all looking for that link to each other and I'm hoping our service will provide a way to bring us back together.
Are you looking to create a new concept of 'family'? - The concept of family changed long before CoAbode came into being and to me it really doesn't matter how a parent or parents define their family, the most important thing is that environment they create for their child is loving and nurturing. I do also believe in the notion that "it takes a village to raise a child." All of us move in and out of 'villages' every day of our lives… at work, with our friends, our families. Whether we're there voluntarily or not is irrelevant, because we're affected by the dynamics anyway. I see CoAbode as a means for single moms to create their own village… to hand pick who they live with, who they hang out with, who they can turn to for support.
Are you a single mom by choice or by circumstance? - I never planned to be a single mom. My husband and I grew apart after seventeen years of marriage and our problems ended in divorce. Cooper, my son, was seven at the time and it was a sad experience for all of us. Divorce is not an easy solution no matter what people think.
What was life like for you immediately after the divorce? - Tough… very tough. My husband and I had had a good life. We were secure emotionally and economically. Divorce when it came, was a huge shock to the system. After seventeen years in a happy, prosperous marriage I suddenly found myself utterly alone, plagued by worry and doubt.
What worried you the most? - I had no idea how I was going to support my son on my own. I felt such a sense of doom and gloom. But it wasn't just about money; it was the loneliness, and not understanding my place in the world anymore, not knowing where I now belonged. For the first time in my adult life I felt powerless. The thought came to me to find another single mom to house share with but there wasn't any resource for that.
How did you start CoAbode? - At first I went in search of a house big enough for two families. When I found the house I placed notices at my kids school and on a local rental service, "single mom seeks same to pool resources and share a house with a garden. Let's work together to create a safe environment for our children." I interviewed 18 single moms and found a match for myself. At first I felt that the something good that was happening was all about me. But as I started to have conversations with these moms, it became clear that this was bigger than me. This was about all of these women looking for a way to connect, and not just for house sharing, but as single mothers who needed to reach out to someone who understood what they were going through. But I only had one house… what could I say to the other seventeen? After chatting with several of the moms over coffee, it struck me that some might have more in common with each other than they had with me. Two had 3 yr old boys. One mother had a 16 yr old girl and lived close by another who had a 14 yr old girl. It made perfect sense to put them in contact with each other. And so I did. And they were grateful.
But how did you go about setting up the actual service? - I realized that if 18 single moms were looking to share with another single mom in my small neighborhood, how many hundreds must there be in the greater Los Angeles area? How many thousands in California? How many millions in the United States? I did some research and found that there were 13 million of us and no forum where single moms could find each other to house share. That familiar intuitive feeling came over me…and I was listening… Why not me? Why not take the initiative and create my own vision of a place for us single moms to connect, a place for us, by us where we can pool resources to build healthier, happier, more secure home environments. So I founded CoAbode…
You make it sound easy. - Actually it took time and incredible effort but within a year I had a full service website up and running. Today we have nearly 20,000 members, many of whom are sharing homes together all over the United States. The response has been phenomenal and to think that my own feelings of loneliness and fears lead me to listen to my heart and gave me this incredible will to try and make a difference for others in the same situation.
Why do single parents make good roommates for each other? - Because only another single parent truly understands how lonely and sometimes frightening it is to face every day raising your children alone. And you should hear the message from those single moms who've connected off CoAbode, it is so heartening. They rejoice in doing half the shopping, half the cooking, half the cleaning, and getting twice the house they couldn't have afforded alone. Women who've just come through divorces tell me how they've been able to hold on to the family home by bringing in another single mom to help share the financial burden. And instead of dwelling in a sad and lonely place, they now have a friend to laugh with, or a shoulder to cry on when the bad memories creep in. But more inspiring than all of this is what single moms say they've achieved for their children… I hear about warm kitchens full of children's laughter, two year old boys who assume they are brothers, and teenage girls who share the bus to school with new surrogate sisters, knowing that they have so much more to return home to than they ever had before. Knowing that possibility is out there for all of us can give a body hope.