Would you live on a family compound?

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To schedule adequate childcare for a tiny baby around a one-day business trip today took wrangling the schedules of four adults. What’s wrong with this picture??

I’ve never been one much for regional architecture but two New England specialties have inspired me in my quest to find childcare that doesn’t make me ache. As a newcomer to New England, I recently visited the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine and the Hyannis, Massachusetts Kennedy compound. Seen from afar the compounds resemble military stations but really they’re brilliant: a collection of small houses with central areas for dining and recreation (not unlike the polygamist family’s suburban set-up on HBO’s Big Love, actually). Fortunate friends grew up among a family-owned series of cottages scattered around Rockport, MA, and on coastal Rhode Island where everyone lives with in a mile of each other but has their own space.

Hillary Clinton reminded us that it takes a village to raise a child. Maybe it just takes your family, near by. I live in a typical Boston suburb where two family houses dominate: aluminum sided, two entrances off a small front porch, one unit upstairs, one down. These double deckers are incredibly practical although they’ll never win an award for design. A typical symbol of blue-collar semi-urban America, these houses, in my mind, present the ultimate solution to America’s childcare woes. In my neighborhood, mothers or mothers in law tend to live downstairs, young families upstairs. Doors can be closed, and (hopefully) walls are soundproofed, but dropping a kid off for day care can be as easy as a trip downstairs. Aging parents get the first floor with no stairs.

Living near our families is an ancient tradition for most cultures, of course. A recent trip to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst awakened me to my forebears’ life on the shtetl back in Russia: again, a squat collection of nearby houses conjoined by shared faith, education, and usually bloodline. The appeal of many of these communities, too small and tribal to be called villages, is that you were related to most of the inhabitants and so you had no choice but to help take care of them. How different that is from my experience as a new mom: feeling isolated in my house with so many questions and knowing the only way I can get reliable help for my is to pay for it.

Yes, our families drive us crazy. Sometimes they are toxic and it’s right to leave them. But how much would I rather have extended family near than to have to outsource care? I come back to this article in my mind: as Kate Michelman reminds us in her heartbreaking account of trying to support her family’s medical needs, when a child and a spouse needs medical care, we have no choice but to drop everything, often at great financial cost as we need to stop work.  From Kate’s article, it sounded like she faced these innumerable stressors alone. She needs a village.

When I left home I felt compelled to move away from my family, even though I love them. It starts with college:  upwardly mobile people go where the best school is, no matter where. Then, you graduate and go where the best jobs are, with little regard (at 22) for where it might be good to raise a family or what will happen when your parents are older and need your help.

Now that I have a baby, I want to live on a compound: Dad in one bungalow, mom and stepdad in another, sister on the other side. I’d even settle for a double (or triple) decker. Mrs. Obama’s mother Marian Robinson lives in the White House! I read with interest the account of California family that built a compound, “The Shiltses used some of Joe's retirement money to buy the land, and all three family groups pitched in for the down payment after selling their houses. They own the house as joint tenants, and each family contributes to a joint account that pays for the 15-year mortgage and other shared costs.” Sounds quite buttoned up and reasonable.

There are great incentives for green building, such as solar panel tax credits, but how about family friendly building? How about tax incentives for families who consolidate? Think of the economies of scale, the green possibilities when we pool resources. Think of the saved gas mileage and, best of all, no horrific Thanksgiving travel.

There are a lot of dilapidated double deckers in my area that could use some families.


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