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Mom Talk: Parenting with Housemates

Written by Jessie Zechnowitz Lim

Photography by Photo Courtesy of Jessie Zechnowitz Lim

Today’s Mom Talk comes from Jessie Zechnowitz Lim, a mother, designer, and art gallery owner living in the Bay Area. She writes poetry and creative nonfiction on the topics of self discovery, identity formation, art, grief, and love, and below she shares her first-person account of the ups and downs of parenting while living in a shared space. (You can read more of her work here).

I sneak out of bed in the middle of the night. My body melts down the side of the mattress so as not to jostle and wake the sleeping baby. I barricade her with a pillow, so she doesn’t roll out of bed now that my body isn’t blocking her. I turn the doorknob slowly, soundlessly, and glide the door open. I tip-toe down the hall. Oh no! I really have to pee and there’s someone else in the bathroom, AGAIN! 

In a nutshell, this is what it’s like to parent with housemates. There is a lot of care taken to be quiet. There is a lot of sharing. But it’s what’s best for us right now, and as much as it can be frustrating, there are silver linings that glow.

My husband and I live with our 2-year-old, my mother-in-law, her husband, his son, my brother-in-law, and a random (but lovely) college student. When I got pregnant, we lived in a tiny cottage ADU (accessory dwelling unit) behind a larger house that was full of college students on frat row. Our landlord decided to redevelop the lot, and offered us a good chunk of money to forego our lease. As low income artist-types, we couldn’t refuse the dough, it seemed like a miracle; although I should note that it wasn’t enough to secure a new apartment in the Bay Area for very long. Our previous rent was sustainable, but the contemporary housing market was not. We had sanctuary available to us just a few blocks down the street at (my husband’s) mom’s house to take some time and figure things out, so we took the money and ran. It all seemed surely temporary, but here we are, 3 years later.

Berkeley, California is mostly known for its outstanding university and its proximity to San Francisco, which lies 20 minutes across the Bay Bridge. Winters are mild, beaches and hiking are a short jaunt, there is a symphony of ethnic diversity, organic food is ubiquitous, and some of the best public schools in the country are here. I loved (pre-Covid), to take the subway to Oakland and enjoy the good food, good bars, and poppin’ lakeside scene. Museums, ballets, botanical gardens, opera, concerts, world class sports, festivals, farmer’s markets, architectural tours, ghost tours, mom-and-pop shops, and all manner of quirk are at our fingertips.

There is also massive income disparity, killer cops, and heartbreaking living conditions for over half a million houseless folks. A one-bedroom apartment can go for upward of $3500 a month. This is high-density city life in the 21st century American economic climate. The percentage of Americans living in multigenerational households has spiked from 7% in 2011 to 26% in 2021; which is in no small part due to the outrageous cost of real estate relative to median income. 

My husband and I are lucky to have a long term plan in place, but for the immediate future we’ll continue to live in a house of 8 bodies. Yes, the kitchen is large and there are 2 sinks and 3 refrigerators. Yes, there are 4 bathrooms. Yes, we rent 2 bedrooms. Yes, there is laundry onsite. For my daughter there is a stream of free book-readers, dance partners, looker-outers, food-sharers, song-singers, co-conspirators, and love-givers. These things make it liveable. These things are a privilege.

Nonetheless, the individualist sensation gnaws at me and I feel drawn to a home (or apartment) of my own: my own kitchen and a toilet for only my family’s butts. I often find myself feeling cranky living in our multigenerational house. There’s hair in the shower, the laundry is in use, my daughter is crying and I hope it’s not bothering the others, all the burners on the stove are taken, I can’t find my favorite spatula, someone’s cooking onions at 2 a.m., I’m being barraged by my mother-in-law’s relentless cheerful chatting—it’s always something. 

But sometimes… I’m putting away dishes in the evening and I hear soft voices from another room. The house is warm and my mother-in-law is baking some apple sweetness, its scent is dancing in my nose. I hear someone speaking Russian softly (the student), which delights me with its esoterism. I hear jazzy music issuing faintly from downstairs. I can hear the toddler running back and forth, dancing with her grandma, and babbling precious half-sentences of nonsense. In those moments I feel comforted by the din of human buzzing. I feel wrapped in love and luck.

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  1. Clair says...

    I too live in a multigenerational house with my husband, 3 kids and my parents. We are going on 10 yrs now of it and there is no end in sight. My parents are helping us with childcare as our jobs are not flexible and, in turn, I will care for my parents as they age. The sharing of resources, both tangible and intangible is just priceless.

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