“Family mode” is what Sandy calls what happens when you live with someone for a while. She lives with three housemates in an apartment in downtown Brattleboro. She says, “I’ve been co-housing all my life. In my early twenties I had an open marriage. We lived with people we loved. My parents had an open marriage. As a teenager, my friends were allowed to live with me in a barn we had. I have a history of comfortableness with other people. I never had a traditional family, though I’ve been married three times.” Shared housing is a great way to build fulfilling relationships provided you know how to find a good housemate.
According to Sandy, ”I have the best apartment in Brattleboro. It on the top floor with eleven huge windows and a view of the Connecticut River and Wantastiquet Mountain. The common room is massive and there are four bedrooms.”
Currently she has three housemates. One pays a third of the rent. One pays less than that and in exchange manages the recycling and the compost and offers massages (he is a masseuse). The third housemate is a teenager whose family lives in the woods and she lives in town so she can easily hang out with her friends.
One of her housemates she has lived with a long time. “When you live with someone a long time you do a natural human thing of dividing up the tasks according to preferences. Someone tends to do one thing, so someone else does something else. It can be weird things like, ‘You always buy the wine, I’ll do the dishes.”
“If you are with someone a while you go into family mode. Things change from keeping things fair and even, making deals to more of a caregiving mode, a symbiosis. It’s human. It’s the cave.”
Dishes Get Done
“We are a household that does dishes. I’m a stickler about this. The sink is without dishes. I don’t want to see them. If someone can’t get them done, they can put them in their room. I don’t care what you do in your room.”
“I have a sense of who I can live with. I know I can’t live with slobs. I’m not totally neat all the time, but I do try to keep my messes in safe places. People who are too chatty or too needy are not a good fit for me. I need to really know people before I will live with them. I vet people, I know their work ethic. Do they show up on time, how do they communicate, how do they work with kids?”
Sandy is a costume designer at a youth theater company. “I won’t have someone move in who I haven’t done something with. We have to have done something together, something hard, so I know what a person is really like and whether I can live with them. I don’t think you can have one interview and then live with a person. People will always show up well.”
“A big piece is whether I can have a frank conversation with the person. For instance, can I say ’I don’t like it when you do this and have it stay in the realm of lightness.’ Can they take and give it?”
“We have no leases and nothing is signed. It’s all verbal agreement. It’s a good idea to ‘bake-in’ a plan to have a meeting, say two months after a person has moved in, to check out how it’s working out, and if it’s not working out then we can talk about it.”
“We have sections in the fridge including a common section that everyone can eat from. It’s fairly relaxed.” Sandy keeps a small fridge in her room that she’ll use if things in the kitchen fridge get too crowded. She shares food with the one housemate she’s lived with for a long time.
Most of the household is vegetarian. One person isn’t, but he is “super respectful.” There are times we find ourselves eating together but not often. When it happens “it’s kind of a delight,” says Sandy.
“People clean, it’s not an issue. We don’t have pets. They make mess!”
The rent is paid using an app called Venmo. Sandy thinks this is huge progress because it makes it so easy.
“It’s very important to me that I’m the best tenant the landlord ever had. I let them know all the time if there is anything that they should know about. We are careful that the neighbors should never feel disturbed. No big noises unless we have a party but then we ask ahead of time and invite them.”
Sandy retains control of the space and is the gatekeeper for this space. She has a waiting list of people who’d like to live there, so finding housemates is never a problem.
I love Sandy’s expression of “family mode.” For her it means a caring familiarity. It means being comfortable with one another. It means loving one another.
I suspect that there are readers for whom “family” does not evoke those feelings of comfort. And in fact, the resistance to the idea of sharing housing is precisely because past experiences of living with others were not warm and comfortable. But the past does not have to dictate the future. It is possible to choose differently, it is possible to have a different experience.
Notice Sandy’s selection criteria. She needs to know the character of a person before living with them. As she says, she has to do something “hard.” In other words she wants to know what someone is like when under pressure – is the person nice to be around or difficult and making everyone else unhappy?
How could you learn the character of a person with whom you might live? Here are some ideas:
- Participate in a volunteer project
- Take a trip – for a weekend or longer
- Play golf
I suspect that there are more ways than this. Can you add to my list?