Mom Strong

After A Divorce And Layoff At The Same Time, Communal Parenting Saved Me

Mom groups in China are sharing the workload of parenting, and I have to admit, they may be onto something.

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In 2020, childcare and job security went flying out the window for millions of parents. For me personally, I experienced the (un)holy trinity once the pandemic hit: divorce, lay-off, and childcare shutdown. How did I survive, you ask? To put it frankly, other moms. Communal parenting allowed me to work, have childcare I could trust, and gave me emotional and physical support, all without breaking the bank or losing my sanity. They say it takes a village, right? That's exactly what I created, right in my own home.

In a world where parents are subjected to constant societal pressures to "do it all," I realized that there was no way I could. I was a newly single mom to a four-month-old and freshly unemployed with a four-bedroom house I was now solely responsible for. I searched for nannies, but I couldn't afford them.

I thought, Maybe I can work remotely and care for my son, but I had barely mastered finishing a full meal yet. First-time mom'ing is like suddenly turning into a baby deer — you know you have the ability to walk, yet you wobble around for a while as you try to figure it out. I quickly realized that I needed to get creative, and then something completely unorthodox came to me: Find another mom who needs help, too.

How It Worked

Not so surprisingly, a good friend came to mind quickly, and we realized we could really help each other — she was looking for an opportunity to be more independent and financially stable, and I was looking for someone to help me around the house and care for my son. I asked her flat out, not expecting much from the proposal, but to my surprise, she agreed immediately.

Here was the deal: She'd become my live-in nanny (she had done this professionally before) who watched my son while I worked. In turn, she would live in my house for free with her three children. Cooking and cleaning duties would be split equally, and we could be flexible on this to hash out the kinks if necessary. I even drafted a contract for the arrangement to protect both of us in case this went sour or if she needed proof of employment or residency in the future.

Thus, a sister-wife duo with five kids under 11 was born. And we were, by far, not the first people to realize the merits of communal parenting.

One example that recently made headlines? A mom group in China that created their own mom communities, too. Back in June, author and sociologist Shi Yunqing shared her experience during fieldwork with that mom group in Shanghai, China. The group was started by a mom (addressed under the pseudonym "Sun") who wanted to work without sacrificing seeing her kids grow up, but didn't want to choose the life of a homemaker. The group, which simply started as an online reading group to encourage social interaction and connection, quickly turned into something much bigger. Eventually, it ran a full program and even provided a solution to address the all too relatable "3:30 p.m. dilemma," which is the window of time parents often need childcare till 5 p.m.

"The mom group holds evening and summer classes, with mothers taking turns to lead neighborhood children in studying, making crafts, and playing games until their parents get off work," Yunqing explained. (In China, it's customary for parents, most notably fathers, to leave their families to secure and maintain jobs that will financially provide for them, while other members, such as the grandparents, are left to raise the children).

Lessons in Communal Parenting

Of course, deciding to bring together two separate families isn't always sunshine and rainbows. It takes hard work, a lot of patience, and even more love, but here's what I learned.

The sisterhood bond is unmatched.

Though one could argue that living with five (young) kids is most definitely not better than living with two, the highlight of my communal experience was not just extra hands during daily routines but the immense camaraderie and empowerment that came from my relationship with my partner in the trenches. We taught each other things and experienced many "firsts" together as this unconventional unit expanded our perspectives and changed how we approached parenting — in the best way.

This was parallel in the mom's group, as Yunqist revealed, "Perhaps the most significant impact the mom group had was on the mothers themselves. The group not only introduced women to new parenting allies but also empowered them to rethink how they wanted to raise their children. Membership awakened many moms to possibilities for childcare outside the boundaries of the family, alleviated the pressure of raising kids, and expanded the range of childcare resources available to them."

Through every hard day in delayed divorce and breastfeeding difficulty, I had a friend who had experienced similar things. That support got me through a very challenging chapter in my life.

It diversified the way my children see "family."

Just like our parents had the support of a friend during the transition of our family dynamics with dad, the children also found solace in each other as they navigated new waters or the co-parenting dynamic. They could see that they weren't the only kids to split time between their parents and that this change could be good and healthy.

They also experienced a variety of family outings, not just with their other parent but also as a new family unit that lived together, making homemade pizzas and opening Christmas gifts together. I'd like to think these moments expand a child's awareness that family can come from the heart, not just from our blood.

In the blog, "Burn The Rule Book Of Life!" 4 Single Moms Move In Together To Create 1 Big Family," these families decided on communal living for the same reasons, sharing, "The financial, social, and emotional benefits have been life-changing. Not only do I get to save money every month, but I get to live beyond my means by pooling our extra belongings and using them when needed."

However, if the communal unit decides to go their separate ways, this can also affect the children who have made close-knit bonds. In our house, we always intended it to be a temporary situation. So, we made efforts to say periodically or in an appropriate conversation that one day we would transition to single-family living when we were ready. Though our kids were prepared for the transition, my 10-year-old did grieve the separation. We decided to plan weekly outings together, as we were now just a 10-minute drive apart, so the kids still had some level of familiarity.

Privacy is slim to none.

Unlike the clever moms above who purchased a home with multiple separate units, I experienced shared spaces, which definitely adds another layer of adjustment. I think I speak for all moms when I say that the time frame between your kid's bedtimes and yours is priceless and almost always a necessary break to keep from losing your marbles. When I was sharing my home with another family, their bedtime was different. My communal parenting partner's kids were up till around 9 p.m. This cut heavily into that golden pocket, and I found myself unable to enjoy my fave shows on the couch with snacks in peace. Instead, it was tantrums or the scuffling of arms and legs as her kids protested sleep. Or, when my son was still taking naps and hers had outgrown them, we had to wrangle them all and entertain them long enough to not wake up my son.

Even though we were both co-parenting and had days with no kids, we learned our schedules were opposite, so neither of us could enjoy the house totally empty and quiet. While the company was one of my favorite things, it also got to me sometimes.

It can be hard to set boundaries.

When there are different age groups among children (and different routines and schedules), it can quickly pave the way for frustration and, frankly, walking around on eggshells to keep the peace. I learned that this would only work if we set healthy boundaries, but I wasn't excited about enforcing them. Though they were small things, like asking to keep the families separate till a certain time in the morning before we came together for the day, it was hard to do. It took a lot of honest and respectful communication with me and the other parent to admit that though we love living together, we also deserve space apart.

The Big Takeaway

If there's one thing that my experience — along with the incredible efforts of these women mentioned — has taught me, it's that we have the power to implement the change we seek. An important first step? Realizing that, sometimes, help is actually right under our noses. Whether you resonate with shared spaces, multifamily living, or just creating a supportive group outside the home, there's an opportunity for community; you just might have to make it.

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