Ladies Home Journal
Strapped for cash, desperate for child-care solutions, and hungry for emotional support, solo moms are signing up for an innovative service that is creating a new kind of American family.
"Well, Im just going to make him my brother!" insisted 4-year-old Reagan after her mother explained that she and Dorian were not related. Dorian, 7, and his mom Sheila Hays are housemates with Alison Sherrill and Reagan
Alison Sherrill cant remember exactly what her 4-year-old daughter Reagan was doing that day to provoke her leaving blobs of Play-Doh all over the living room rug? Pouring herself a glass of water and missing the glass completely? Whatever it was, it was pushing the Atlanta single moms buttons. "I was done. I was finished. I was about to have a meltdown, " says Sherrill, 33. Fortunately, Sheila Hays, 41 a fellow single mom and a pro at spotting kid-induced exasperation was nearby, picked up on the cue and invited Reagan to help her in the garden." It was so nice, "recalls Sherrill. "I was able to lie on the couch and read my book for 15 minutes. I was like, Oh, Lord, thank you. Thats the main thing you need most as a single parent. Sometimes, you just need a break. "Sherrill and Hays are more than just good single-mom friends happy to give each other a break. They are housemates, and as such are among an increasing number of divorced, separated and never-married moms who are saving money, time and a big chunk of their sanity by moving in together. Many of them are meeting through CoAbode.org, a successful online roommate-matching service designed for single moms. It couldnt have come at a better time with 10 million single mothers living with kids under the age of 18 (nearly triple the amount in 1970), nearly one-third of whom live below the poverty level (versus 9 percent of all families).
CoAbode provides modern-day single moms with the kind of support and structure that socially at-risk groups, unmarried mothers, immigrants and the elderly have had throughout American history. Indeed, sharing living quarters with non-family members has long been a way for struggling families to save money and create a greater sense of community, says Deborah Skok, Ph.D., assistant professor of history at Hendrix College, in Conway, Arkansas. The need today may even be greater than before. After the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 mandated that the benefits of recipients many of whom are single mothers be cut off after five years, growing numbers of people are seeking out alternative living situations, says Dr. Skok.
I thought, I dont want to do this alone, says Carmel Sullivan of raising her son, Cooper Soon after, CoAbode was born
Finding an alternative living situation was the last thing on Carmel Sullivans mind the year her divorce was final and she decided to move from Boulder, Colorado, to Los Angeles with her son, Cooper, then 8. Even though she had two sisters living in Los Angeles, she felt profoundly lonely and extremely overwhelmed. Explains the mom and former painter, "Once youre divorced and on your own, youre wearing every hat. Youre the disciplinarian, the nurse, the cook, the shopper, the carpooler. And when its 10 p.m. and your kid is in bed, and suddenly you realize youve got no milk for the morning, youre stuck."
Then it occurred to her that getting a roommate, preferably a single mom with a child her sons age, would solve many of her problems. Not only could a roommate provide logistical and emotional support, she thought, but that womans child could be "a playmate for Cooper, someone to get him off the computer and the TV."
She started looking for a home large enough for two families and settled on a three-bedroom house in West Los Angeles. She then placed a roommate listing with a local agency. Within a week, she received 18 responses from local single moms. After speaking with each of them, she chose Susan Baden, because the fellow artist had two sons close in age to Cooper. Plus, Sullivan says she and Baden had similar tastes and sizes in clothing and CDs, both of which they shared like sisters.
Still, Sullivan couldnt get the 17 other applicants out of her mind. She kept looking over the list and started to notice how many had similar interests and needs. Perhaps, she wondered, they would be compatible with each other and would appreciate an introduction. When she phoned a few of them and heard their enthusiastic responses, she had an epiphany:" I thought, Oh my God, Ive tapped into a real need here."
Sullivan drew up a business plan, commissioned a designer to create a Web site, and launched CoAbode.org. Running the organization has become Sullivans full-time job; the site, which survives mostly on private donations, now has close to 9,000 registered members. More than 350 women have paired up in almost every state.
Sherrill and Hays, of Atlanta, are among the most successful pairs to find each other through CoAbode. In the summer of 2002, Hays, a hairdresser who had been divorced for four years, needed help with the mortgage payments on her four-bedroom home and companionship for her son, Dorian, 7. She read about CoAbode in a magazine and signed up. After entering her zip code, she saw that six single moms in her area were looking for housemates. Sherrills profile seemed the most compatible. Both mothers are outgoing and athletic. Hays swims, cycles, runs and in-line skates; Sherrill is a Montessori teacher whos also a runner and spinning instructor.
Over the next three months, the two got to know each other by chatting on the phone and meeting for meals. Through their many conversations, they learned that their parenting styles were in sync. They both were trying to raise independent, loving and respectful children and believed in discipline in the form of time-outs and taking away privileges, or talking through problems. They hammered out potential sticking points, such as the issue of Sherrills boyfriend (Sherrill supported Hayss strong feelings about not letting him, or any other men, sleep over) and TV watching. Sherrill didnt want her daughter, Reagan, to watch TV on weekdays, so Hays agreed that she and Dorian would only watch on her bedroom set on those days. Hays calculated a monthly rent for Sherrill that included electricity, water and cable TV and asked her to put down a deposit to cover potential damages.
During this three-month "courtship, "the women brought their children together a few times to see if they clicked. They did. This was no surprise to Hays; for as long as she could remember, Dorian had asked when he was getting a sibling. When she introduced him to Reagan and explained that she and her mom might move in with them, the boy was thrilled. Hays laughs,"He kept saying, When are they coming, Mommy? I cant wait, I cant wait!"
In October the four of them made it official. Now the makeshift family eats breakfast together every morning. A few nights a week after the kids are put to bed, Hays and Sherrill hang out in the den and chat or watch TV; as often, they go to their separate rooms and relax. Occasionally, one of them goes out with friends, leaving the other mom in charge of the sleeping kids. (Both kids spend weekends with their fathers, who are supportive of their ex-wives living arrangements.)
Despite age and gender differences, Dorian and Reagan have bonded.
"They are very sibling-like," says Sherrill. "One minute they love each other. The next, they cant stand each other. "The two have plenty of moments of screaming "Hes in my room!" and "Shes touching my stuff." But after the families spend time apart on vacation, the kids run to hug each other when reunited. Sherrill thinks that some friction is good for the kids. "Reagan gets to deal with the issues that children who have siblings do, like sharing toys and attention, "she says, which is great practice for life."
Im living with a really great girlfriend after being alone, says Lili Feldman (on the floor with her daughter Sofia) of housemate Cynthia Muldrow and her daughter, Zora
Cynthia Muldrow, 45, and Lili Feldman, 47, would no doubt share that opinion. Muldrow, a lawyer, and Feldman, a therapist and artist, also met through CoAbode. Feldman and her daughter, Sofia, 7, moved into the three-story Brooklyn home Muldrow shares with her 11-year-old daughter, Zora, last summer. The two families have a bit more privacy than the average CoAbode pairing. Feldman and Sofia occupy the houses third floor, which consists of two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen/living room, and Muldrow and Zora live on the second floor. The first floor which has a living room and a kitchen and is considered Muldrow and Zoras area is often used as a communal space where the mothers hang out and drink coffee in the mornings and the families watch movies or TV in the evenings. Several times a month, the families have dinner together. But theres a casual mingling with kids, grownups (and dog Nikki) clattering between floors and rooms, calling each others names, laughing and talking. (Both daughters spend half their weekends with their fathers.
Like the Atlanta women, Muldrow and Feldman had pre-cohabitation
powwows on how to make their living arrangement work, such as how to
combine their furniture, when to share meals, and where the kids
should do their homework. But as move-in day approached, Feldman
realized that implementing their plans was harder than she anticipated. "I thought, Whoa, Im not sure how much I can do right now. Its a big deal moving into someone elses house without worrying about the details. "The families kept their possessions and routines separate at first, creating distance that Muldrow, recently separated from her husband, and Zora especially needed. Today, Feldmans furniture remains in her suite of rooms, and Muldrows is in hers. The girls do their schoolwork in their own rooms.
One process that both moms have observed with interest is their
daughters evolving relationship. While Zora has an older half brother who lived with her parents most summers while they were together, Sofia has always been the only child. When the Feldmans moved in, Muldrow says, "Sofias expectation was that shed have a playmate whenever she was ready. Zora was initially annoyed by Sofias neediness until her mom explained the younger girls perspective. Now, Muldrow says, "I hear Zora tell her, Im going to make time after my homework to play with you."
Although the womens families and exes are now accepting of the womens arrangement, they expressed doubt and confusion at first, a fact the moms found surprising. Feldman says, "Cynthia and I joke, You can meet someone on a bus and fall in love after two weeks, and everyone thinks its great. But you meet someone like this, and people just dont know how to understand it."
Still, Muldrow and Feldman consider their living situation temporary; they both assume they will eventually remarry or move into separate homes one day. Similarly, from the day that Sara Brown* and her son, Sam*, moved into the Centreville, Virginia, townhouse owned by Erin Andrews* and her son, Aaron*, Brown made it clear that the cohabitation would not be a long-term commitment. "We planned to be here for a couple of years at the most, "says Brown, who moved in October 2002. What neither woman counted on was how close they would become.
Ever since they became housemates, Andrews, 37, and Brown, 28, have relied on each other frequently to baby-sit for their sons (both are 6) when one of them has to work late (Andrews is a college administrator; Brown is a former software executive), run errands, or go out, but also for so much more. For one thing, theres the instant empathy for their everyday struggles. "When youre a single mom and you talk about it with people who arent, they feel bad for you and it makes them feel awkward, "explains Brown. "Its more comfortable talking with other single moms. Theyre not trying to fix it, and theyre not pitying you. Theyll understand and share their own stories."
Last spring, Browns boyfriend, Luke*, proposed to her. While she gladly accepted, she says, "I was comfortable living with Erin. I wasnt really ready to change that. "When Brown gave Andrews the news, Brown asked her, "What would you think if we all lived together? Andrews embraced the idea; she needed Browns rent money to help make her mortgage payments. Plus, she says, "We were all getting along so well!"
The townhouse continues to be a happy, if crowded, home. And as of November, they have yet another member to add to their unconventional family: Luke and Brown now have a baby boy. Andrews is as excited as the parents: "Its an incredible opportunity for my son because hes going to experience having a newborn around, she says.
But the new baby means that Brown and her family plan to move out of Andrewss house and into their own home. Andrews says she will use CoAbode again after they leave. Even so, Brown, Luke and Sam have already invited Aaron to sleep over on the first night in their new place, and the women have vowed to maintain the close bond between them and their sons. "Having another mom who knows me, knows my child, cares about him, and respects me, has enriched my life so much, "says Brown. Ill never forget what CoAbode has done for me and my son. Words like these warm CoAbode founder Carmel Sullivans heart and make her hard work so rewarding. Yet, she is modest about its success. "This is an idea whose time has come, and Im just the vehicle, she says. Her next project? Finding a new roommate of her own. Carmels housemate and her sons moved back to their native Australia. Both families remain fast friends.
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