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Extending the Family 

click to enlarge ELLIE LEONARDSMITH
  • Ellie Leonardsmith

On the afternoon that the Taylors were moving into their new house, their friend Ellie Leonardsmith heard the movers chatting outside with a neighbor. As she introduced herself, Leonardsmith learned that he was a developer and flipping the house next door. She glanced at the light blue house next to the Taylors' new one and told him right then, "I'd like to buy it." And she and her wife, Kelsey, did just that.

The Leonardsmiths and Taylors joke that their two houses are now a co-housing community, but with a new fence encircling a shared backyard, a communal toolshed with newly co-purchased lawn mower, an extra bin on one house's garbage service, and a reflector to aim Wi-Fi from door to door, that description of their situation isn't that far from the truth.

Imported from Denmark in the 1980s by American architects interested in a mix of design and sustainability, modern co-housing is a living situation where individual houses share a common space or facilities. (Cantine's Island in Saugerties is one local example.) Unlike a 1960s-style hippie commune, cohousing doesn't often pool finances or provide for organized communal decision making. It's an informal sharing economy based on personal attributes and favors among chosen neighbors. Similar to religious communes like Israeli-style kibbutzim or Christian monasteries, there might be a focus on mutual values, but the autonomy built into the cohousing model often leads to a flexibility and open-mindedness around variety in individual tastes. At the heart of cohousing is the ability to craft the community to suit each inhabitant's needs.

The Leonardsmiths had a longtime fascination with cohousing and were looking to shift away from what they call the individualistic, consumerist dream of having your own house and your own stuff. When presented with the opportunity to buy the place next door to the Taylors', it felt like the moment to achieve their ideals. And with the variety of personalities involved, it's a well-rounded and full parenting experience for everybody. Two-year-old Graylyn Leonardsmith, currently an only child, goes over to the Taylors' house most afternoons to run with their pack of three kids. She'll quietly craft and bake with the Taylors, and engage in loud, extroverted, and musical play with her moms. The families often eat dinner together, preferring to prepare a dish or two for everyone over cooking a whole meal for just a few. "For us, it's already relieved so much of the stress of child-care needs," says Leonardsmith. "A half an hour here, 15 minutes there—if you don't have family support, you're hiring a babysitter or schlepping the kid around. It's stressful."

There's a culture of isolation in modern day parenting when people, like the Leonardsmiths, find job opportunities far from their families. That translates to a sometimes overwhelming amount of parental responsibility falling on the shoulders of parents alone. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey on time use, 56 percent of mothers and 50 percent of fathers find juggling work and family life to be difficult, and 40 percent of working mothers and 34 percent of working fathers say they always feel rushed. The convenience of relying on their neighbors for child care while the Leonardsmiths run to the store for milk makes the arrangement feel more like an expanded family. They don't have to calculate their requests and diminish the burden on any one friend. With a cohousing neighbor watching all the kids play in a shared backyard, it's just not a big deal. "Our vision would be, as houses go up for sale, to buy out the whole block with more friends," Leonardsmith says. "It would be amazing to have more internal space for the kids to run around; add goats and greenhouses. This is small, but it's a beginning."

Open Houses

When her kids were four and six, Marika Lindholm became very sick. She was recently divorced and parenting alone. "It felt like I swam awkwardly in a sea of couples. Slowly my circle of friends expanded to more moms like myself, who, for a variety of reasons, were raising kids on their own. It wasn't a conscious process but more of a social comfort in finding a group of women who didn't worry about you stealing their husband or judge you for the pile of dishes in the sink." Her network of solo mom friends took her kids for sleepovers, brought them food, and pushed Lindholm to get more tests. Her illness turned out to be a curable blood disorder, but that feeling of vulnerability Lindholm experienced crystalized how alone a single parent is sometimes and became a driving motivation for her.

A sociologist, Lindholm knows that a parent's social network is pivotal to her well-being. And for solo moms, reclaiming the group's status was key. Last July, she launched a confidential online community called ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere), based in Red Hook. It's a parenting village for the digital age, providing articles, resources, and databases, and bridging diverse communities of solo moms in an inspirational and supportive environment. Lindholm wants solo moms, who are collectively tasked with raising 22 million American children, to feel proud and connected. Run by solo moms or the people who love them, from the writers to the PR agents, the impetus is to help solo moms build a network of support from people who "get it."

Lindholm advises that effective social networks should be a blend of people who are closely connected (strong ties) and acquaintances (weak ties). She draws inspiration from her former colleague at Northwestern, Mark Granovetter, now a professor at Stanford and the author of The Strength of Weak Ties. She says that people should recognize practical and emotional support might not come from the same source. "There might be another mom or dad that's always willing to help with a school pickup, but you would never cry on their shoulder," Lindholm says.

That goes for parenting couples, as well. Monique Heenan of Gardiner thinks of her parenting circles in terms of tiers of support: there are the friends or acquaintances who share carpooling, playdate hosting, and everyday favors (first tier); and there are the close friends who respond in a crisis (second tier). "They're different relationships," Heenan says, "but at the foundation of both is reciprocity."

The Heenans have moved three times since relocating from Albany to the Hudson Valley 10 years ago. Each time, they've lost some of their first-tier circle, and Heenan has worked to rebuild it. In Woodstock, she initiated a taco-and-sundae night on Fridays at their house for a gang of kids her son and daughter knew through homeschooling. Appreciative for the invite and the night off, some of the parents reciprocated in kind, indicating that they were looking for the same thing for their families.

In the Hudson Valley, parents create support circles for various reasons. Aside from single parenting or co-parenting in divorce, very often one parent works in New York City or travels for work, leaving the other to fly solo for several days each week. In families where both parents work, it may be born of necessity, especially during afterschool hours. A child's extensive activities, like dancing five days a week, might only be possible with the help of other dance parents. Some families, like the Heenans, though, make an intentional choice to include neighbors and friends in the rearing of their children, hoping to create an open-door policy, and that's because they see a benefit to the children. "My kids feel like they're not alone in the world."

It's the same sense they might have with extended family, and a stand-in for that is what the Heenans are looking to grow. "When we came down here, we left family behind in Albany, and that was the thing that broke my heart," Heenan says. "How do I replace my sister or my mother? I have found, peppered here and there, those rare gems who love my children as much as I do."

Taking an interest in her children's friends' parents was the building block of it all, and that helps when differences in parenting styles come up or when kids outgrow their friendships. How those issues are dealt with by everyone involved often determines whether the relationship will delve deeper into that second tier. "It's interesting how, after 10 years, some people I thought we might remain close to, in the end, those relationships didn't flesh out because kids were developing and people's lives change." Heenan says building a parenting village takes time and organically self-selects through shared values. "I think it takes a generosity of spirit. If you put that out there, those similar souls are attracted to it." For the Heenans, it's about finding their people.


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