When my husband and I decided to move to Madison several years ago, I was pregnant with our first child and planning to quit my job to care for her full time. I started envisioning my new situation, and it sounded isolating. How could I create a fulfilling life for my family and myself?
I recalled the three years I lived in a cooperative house in college. My perspective shifted considerably during that time, as I was open to a much larger sphere of influence. My husband and I wanted to raise our children in a dynamic environment, and I knew that being part of a flourishing community was one way to make this happen.
Intentional communities are a sure cure for isolation, setting the stage for close relationships and interdependence. Such living situations don't just exist in reality television shows and on college campuses. Madison is a mecca for these communities, with two dozen cooperative houses and three co-housing communities, many of which embrace families with children.
We chose a seven-bedroom co-op house on the near east side, owned by the Madison Community Cooperative (MCC), a nonprofit organization with 11 houses founded in 1968. This co-op had recently experienced difficulties; all the previous members left due to internal problems, opening the way for a fresh start.
When we signed one-year leases for two bedrooms, I wondered what we were getting ourselves into. We would be eating meals and sharing a kitchen, living space and bathrooms with people I barely knew and trying to create a community where the last members had failed.
Our co-op house is now a thriving community with eight adults and four children, ranging in age from 0 to 45. We share household chores and enjoy meals together on an almost daily basis.
"I've lived in everything from retreat center cooperatives to teepees to yurts to mega-yachts to mega-estates, and I think [this co-op house] is the best all-around living situation I've ever been involved in," reflects the newest member of our community, Stephan Emery. "I'm thankful for the multitude of benefits I experience every day."
My daughter, Leona, often tells me, "I want to go downstairs." She is curious whom she will encounter in the common areas of the house. When she first learned to talk, she would approach our housemates saying, "book...book...book," until someone sat down and read to her.
Leona likes to go in the room under the stairs that we use as a pantry and pretend to prepare tea. Then she invites our housemates to have a tea party. At the co-op, her world is full of rich experiences like these, shared with many people.
"Co-op living gives my kids a variety of perspectives of the world, not just limited to my point of view," says my husband, Kiril Lozanov.
For the adults in the community, my children, also now including a young son, have become an important part of their lives.
"I'm in my early 40s, and I'm not sure if I'm going to have children," says member Steve McClure. "It continues to blow me away that I've been in Leona's life since she was a month and a half old, and that she probably doesn't remember a time when I wasn't her housemate."
McClure enjoys the impromptu interactions that accompany the co-op lifestyle. "When I lived in my own apartment in Chicago, human interaction had to be scheduled on the calendar," he explains. "Here, we can have spontaneous conversations, and if something is really going on, it's not too difficult to find someone to talk to."
Food brings people together in our house. "Group meals are the social glue of cooperative communities," says Dennis Fiser, a member who has lived in three different co-ops. "The community bonding that occurs over a meal is enormous." Fiser also likes that he only needs to cook for the house three times a month, yet enjoys a home-cooked meal from scratch almost daily.
When dinner is ready in our house, the cook usually shouts "Dinner!" a few times from the first floor. Leona's eyes light up, and she starts to echo the call throughout the house.
I often feel that I have a higher standard of living in ways that matter most to me, without investing a lot of money and time. I live in a house with a yard, yet I'm not exclusively responsible for yardwork, snow shoveling, paying the bills or household repairs. My family has one main income, and I have the luxury of being home full time with Leona and our infant son. Many people who are attracted to co-op living enjoy this benefit.
"I feel like [co-op living] really enables me to pursue a life that fits my passion, without being dependent upon making enough money to live in a more expensive place," says Fiser. "I work in agriculture, and that barely gets me above the poverty line, but I live perfectly well, with all of my needs met and then some."
Fiser's partner, Anne Drehfal, appreciates "the ability to not accumulate a lot of stuff. I don't have a kitchen table, a dining room table, a couple couches or a television. I could make a whole list of things that eight adults and four children share and don't have to own individually. Co-op living allows me to have very simple and basic belongings, yet live a very comfortable lifestyle."
The cooperative experience is not all wine and roses. If my daughter has a meltdown just before bedtime, I need to be aware of how this may affect others in the house. The bathrooms or washing machine are sometimes occupied when I want to use them, and group decision-making can be time-consuming. I usually have to go to my bedroom if I want privacy. I've also learned that the definition of the word "clean" varies widely.
"If you get someone who has a toxic or domineering personality, it can have a really enormous influence on a co-op house," says McClure, who has lived in MCC co-ops for eight years. "There was one person at my last co-op who was responsible for much of the house moving out, but luckily that person did too, and we were able to start anew and create a healthy space. In the worst-case scenario, utopia can turn into Lord of the Flies."
In many cases, such calamities can be avoided. At one point, several members of our house were planning to move out due to irreconcilable differences with another member. After a couple house meetings (where all members of the house were invited), the house voted in favor of asking the difficult person to move out. Communicating so honestly is an intimidating task.
"There are always challenges [living cooperatively], and they are directly related to the ability of house members to communicate," says Fiser. "Even when issues are enormous and daunting, if people have the communications skills and are comfortable enough in their own skin, it becomes more of a learning and growth experience than a traumatizing or painful one."
This level of communication requires maturity and commitment. "There is a tendency to think that your point of view is right and be stuck in that rut," observes Drehfal. "I find it important to have that time in our house meetings to listen and reflect upon my point of view. It has been an amazing experience for me to open up to different perspectives."
That's where the structure of a co-op house is priceless. Our house has meetings every two weeks. Although it can feel like a burden to have a structured conversation while my daughter runs laps around the room, many issues are resolved and a collective vision for the house is created in our meetings.
"I think it is really important to have a scheduled time to talk about what is going on in your living environment," says Drehfal. "That is something that is unique about co-ops, and most typical roommates do not do this. It can be challenging for those [roommate] relationships because little annoyances can keep building up."
While I enjoy living in a co-op, it is not for everyone. Co-housing offers many similar benefits with more privacy.
Cynthia Sampson, a member of Arboretum Co-housing (Arbco), refers to it as "condominium living with an intentional community in which we choose a close relationship with our neighbors. We get to know our community members' children and visiting family and friends - and those of us who are pet lovers get to know their pets too. I think of it as an urban village."
Arbco, located near Lake Wingra, consists of 40 households altogether in a mix of new condos, older houses, a duplex and a triplex. The 6,000-square-foot common area includes a kitchen and dining room, guest rooms, a children's room, and smaller spaces for socializing, exercising and meetings. In a typical week there are two community dinners prepared by teams of cooks and a potluck.
Co-housing also encourages voluntary simplicity with a high standard of living. "Most of the people in the 29 condo units downsized when they moved here," says Sampson. "Now they don't need a guest room, which sits empty 95% of the time." Each unit does, however, contain a full kitchen, bathroom and living space.
The common space is also an asset to the greater community. Arbco has hosted community groups, neighborhood association meetings, fundraisers for nonprofit groups, and celebrations. In addition to benefiting the neighborhood, it also adds richness to the lives of Arbco members, as many activities are brought right to their doorsteps.
"I call it 'reflected glory,'" says Sampson. "I take pride in the many ways we give back to our community, which are many more than any of us could ever engage in by ourselves."
Sampson does say group decision-making can be time-consuming and requires dedication. She notes that most members share similar values but arrange them in a different order of importance, making for some sensitive issues in community living.
Of course, creating strong communities doesn't require living in intentional communities. Some neighborhoods have created a common tool shed, so each household doesn't have to own redundant tools. Potluck meals, volunteer work at a local park, play groups for children, shared gardens and block parties are all great ways to bring people together.
Regardless of our living situation, we all have the opportunity to choose whether we want to live in a silo or as part of a greater community.
"Humans are designed to live in communities, and it is much healthier to live that way, even though we shut down sometimes and isolate," adds my husband, who grew up in a Bulgarian village. "It is a human desire to share."
Everybody get together...
The Madison Community Cooperative has 11 houses of various sizes, with most located within a half-mile of the University of Wisconsin campus. (See the online version of this article for web links to referenced sources.)
In addition, Madison has around a dozen independent co-ops of various sizes that are not associated with the MCC.
Arboretum Co-housing is a diverse, multigenerational community on the near west side with approximately 80 members in 40 housing units.
Village Co-housing, on the near west side, consists of 18 complete units, with an additional shared kitchen, dining room, playroom and guest rooms.
Troy Gardens Co-housing on the north side has 30 units (20 under affordable-housing criteria) and borders on 26 acres of conservation land containing prairies, woodlands, an organic farm and community gardens.