Single Moms Unite
By JEFF ZASLOW
It may not take a village, but some single parents are finding it's easier to raise their children when they share a home.
In Deerfield Beach, Fla., there are two little boys who assume they are brothers. Stephen Montgomery is 3 years old, and Ryan Westergren is almost 3. From the minute they wake up, they are playing, tussling and tag teaming their way through the day. "They call each other brother," says Stephens mom Heather. "We had to explain to them, Youre not brothers. Youre buddies." The bond between the boys was conceived on the Internet last November, when their moms, Heather Montgomery and Kerrie Westergren, visited a new website devoted to matching up single mothers to share homes.
CoAbode invites single moms to share expenses, child rearing and their lives, and 50,000 of them have already posted their profiles on the site, looking for housemates. Other single-parenting websites also help parents network and build extended "families." It's all reminiscent of Kate & Allie, the 1980s sitcom about two single moms combining households. Only now Kate and Allie are more likely to have met online.
"A lot of single moms are stuck home at night, and they're finding a community online," says Patrice Karst, a single mother who has shared homes with other moms and is the author of The Single Mothers Survival Guide. "All through history, women took care of children together. As a culture, we need to stop worshiping privacy and realize we are tribal by nature."
There are more than 8.8 million single mothers in the U.S., up 26% since 1990, and 2.6 million single fathers, a 62% increase. The U.S. Census Bureau does not track single-parent home sharing, but parenting groups and housing specialists point to a surge in communal living. The tight economy is a key reason. But there's also a sense that parents are rethinking what constitutes a thriving family.
"There's been a stigma that if you're a single mom and you're not living by yourself with your kids, then you're not independent," says Russell Mawby, a housing facilitator for the city of Saskatoon, Sask., whose job includes helping low-income residents find home-sharing opportunities. By sharing babysitting expenses, cooking duties and more, "you're at a huge advantage," he says. "That's how you get your independence, by having a support system."
Kim Sever, 31, was raised by a single mother, and her grandparents were nearby for help. But now Sever is a single mom herself, and she doesn't have a support system. Her mother works full time and is often unavailable to lend a hand with Severs son Casey, 7. "I knew I had to create a network for myself," Sever says. So in August 2000, she bought a two-family home in Highland Park, N.J., and searched for another single mom to live in the upstairs unit. At a local grocery store, she saw a house-hunting notice posted by Karen Van Blarcum, 35, who also has a 7-year-old son, Morgan. The match was made.
Van Blarcum says people tell her that her son will someday resent not growing up in a nuclear family, but she values their current living arrangement. All day, the boys dash between floors, playing and eating together in whichever kitchen offers the best meal. Both mothers provide discipline, direction, and love.
Like many moms who cruise the Internet for housemates, Natalie Johnson, 41, proceeded carefully. She and her son Davis, 12, were living in a condo, but she could not handle the expenses. Last fall a friend suggested CoAbode. Johnson, a poetry teacher, met with five mothers and their kids. She felt the strongest bond with Audrey Ellis, 38, a screenwriter with two daughters, 6 and 8. Before deciding to live together in a Los Angeles town house they spent hours discussing CoAbodes questionnaire, which solicited their views on ex-spouses, God, drugs, nutrition, parenting philosophies, boyfriend sleepovers and dishes in the sink. They agreed to alternate weeks for cooking and shopping, to be discreet about boyfriends, to come to a consensus on setting boundaries for the kids and to splurge for a housekeeper once a week.
Though the kids liked each other at first, the honeymoon was soon over, says Johnson. "My son started torturing the girls, and they annoyed him beyond belief." Concerned about the friction, Ellis ex-husband, who has joint custody of his daughters, flew in from Oregon to reassure himself that the living arrangement was O.K. The kids rallied and got along while he was there. The ex-husband thought Johnsons organic cooking was great for his daughters, and he returned to Oregon satisfied. The kids have now settled into sibling mode, and the moms are close. "I try harder for Audrey than I ever tried for any guy," says Johnson, explaining that she talks to Ellis more respectfully and is more apt to compromise. And, she adds, they no longer feel like damsels in distress, waiting to be rescued by men:
"Our lives are really good. A year and a half ago, I felt desperate to form a new family. Now any man who comes into my life will have to be a really great addition."
In Dearborn, Mich., Jessaca Sanchez, 19, a college student with a 22-month-old son, shares a home rented by Sue Yowell, 47, the dean of student affairs at the University of Detroit Mercy, and her two sons, 7 and 8. Despite the women's age difference, they feel connected by single motherhood. "We talk about how the world is not geared for single parents," says Sanchez, "and we both say its up to us to raise a good generation of men." The women split housework evenly, and Yowell picks up a larger share of household expenses. For Yowell, the benefits are beyond economics. She sometimes gets called back to campus for late-night emergencies. Before sharing a home with Sanchez, she says, "my kids would have to come with me. Its a relief to be able to leave them with Jessaca."
Some moms are moving in together in even larger groups. In Anaheim, Calif., four moms, ages 26 to 49, share a four-bedroom house. They have seven kids among them. One of the moms, Yolanda Torres, 26, says a small apartment would cost her about $900. "Here, the other women give me emotional support, the kids play together, theres a pool, and my rent is just $550."
Some single dads are also seeking housemates. Curtis Batiste, 45, is using RoommateAccess.com to find a family or single mom in the Chicago area who would welcome him and his daughter, 7. "I'd like my daughter to be in an environment where she could relate to a woman," says Batiste, who is sifting through 114 potential matches.
There are risks, of course, to home sharing. Kristen Lam, 29, says she and her son, 5, spent almost a year sharing a home with an acquaintance "who pawned her child off on me. Shed sneak out in the middle of the night." Still Lam remained committed to the housemate concept because it made sense financially and she felt her son needed a playmate. She interviewed 10 prospects, but no one seemed right. Then Lam met Laura Fettig, 32, and her daughter Erika, 5, at a McDonalds last summer. Fettig, too, had been considering going online to look for a roommate. They hit it off and moved in together in Redondo Beach, Calif.
As the single-parent population grows, such arrangements may become more common. Helena Tuma, 33, and her daughter, 3, share an apartment near Los Angeles with Anne Barber, 28, and her son, 5. They recently looked into renting a house together--they plan to sign a one-year lease--and a real estate agent assumed they were a lesbian couple. They are not, but Tuma says their platonic friendship has advantages over married life. "It is like having a marriage," explains Tuma, "without all the ties and the yucky stuff."