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Group-house living, with a baby

Austin Graff, 33, holds his 19-month-old daughter, Adelynn Graff, on Aug. 5 in the D.C. group home he shares with his wife, Theresa Graff, 35, second from right, and their roommates Laura Hoffmann, 31, and Keith Dykstra, 34. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“I have two mommies and two daddies.” That could be the first sentence our 19-month-old daughter says, and it will require an explanation. My wife and I are raising our daughter in a group home. There’s Mommy, Daddy, and an uncle and an aunt, who aren’t related to us (or each other). By living this way with a baby, my wife and I are experimenting with an alternative way of life, one different from the usual D.C. transplant narrative.

That narrative reads like this: Move to the city ripe with ambition, happy-hour through your 20s, maybe settle down in your 30s, move to the suburbs once that pregnancy test reads positive, travel the world once the kids are out of the house.

There’s nothing wrong with that story; it’s just not what happened with my wife and me.

Yes, I moved to the District from Grand Rapids, Mich., full of professional hunger. I went to one too many happy hours in my 20s. Meeting, dating and marrying my wife in my 20s is where I started to veer from the norm.

After one year of marriage, we were evicted from our Capitol Hill apartment to make room for a big development. We jokingly emailed two friends: “You’re looking for housing. We’re looking for housing. Let’s all live together!” They replied the next day suggesting we really consider it. Months later, we signed a lease on a rowhouse in the city.

Five years passed and we defied the odds — a married couple and two single people living blissfully together. Then, we found out my wife was unexpectedly pregnant, news we thought would change everything.

We were wrong. Not only did we not move out, we bought a house in a nearby neighborhood, and our two roommates moved in. What started as an experiment morphed into a beautiful community. Each of us values living with close friends. After the birth of our daughter, we chose to continue living in our community.

Having survived the first year of parenthood, we know there are definite benefits of raising a child in a group home. As I shared our story with others, I met multiple families who also lived with roommates after having children. Collectively, we make the case for raising a child in a group home:

It saves you money.Living in cities such as Washington comes with a steep price tag and little space. It’s no wonder growing families retreat to suburbs where housing is more affordable. What about urbanities who want to stay? Our first group house on Capitol Hill was spacious; we each had our own bathroom, and it came with a front and a backyard. Rent came to $750 per head, and utilities were split four ways.

It guards against isolation.Isolation was my biggest fear going into fatherhood. Now that I have 19 months under my dad belt, I can report I still have friends, but fatherhood has forced me to prioritize my closest friends.Living with two of them makes it easier to stay connected. In the dark, sleepless months of new parenthood, we could have gone days without speaking to anyone if we didn’t live with our housemates. Other parents feel the same way. Jesse and Lindsey Kellner felt “alive and in action” living with roommates as new parents in a nearby Maryland suburb. There is value in creating family connections with people who aren’t family, they said. Isolation wasn’t their reality.

It makes you a better person. We’ve found that choosing to live with people to whom you aren’t legally bound forces you to work through even more issues. “Raising a family in a group home reveals how selfish you are and identifies things you need to let go of,” Anu Mathew, a Philadelphia mom who lived with her family in a group home for three years, told me. The experience made her family “more human, more whole.”

Her husband, Saju Mathew, says, “Humans are far more capable to stretch than what we think.” Exposing their family to roommates built them into better people.

It exposes your child to other adults. “It’s good for your children to have other adult voices in their lives,” says Jim Martin, who raised his children for five years in a group home in San Jose, Calif. After all, there will come a point in your child’s life where they won’t listen to Mom and Dad, author Tim Keller says. Ithelps to have adults in your kid’s life they can ask questions and learn from, he says. It’s even helpful at an early age. Compared with her age group, our daughter seems to have less separation anxiety and is more comfortable around strangers, probably because she’s used to living with other adults.

“You can’t do everything yourself,” Anu Mathew says. “Someone else may be a better teacher in a certain area for your child.”

It can give you extra help. “Free babysitting” is often mentioned in response to our living situation. My wife and I decided right away we’d never see our housemates as mere “baby help.” Our house is their home, too, a place to be honored and respected. We budget for babysitting. There are times when they plan to be home and offer to watch the baby monitor so my wife and I can enjoy a night out. Raising kids in a group home works only if you respect that boundary. Never expect or assume your housemates will babysit. If they offer, great. If they don’t, that’s cool, too.

Of course, it’s not all a slice of heaven. Here are some tips:

Buy earplugs for your roommates. Unless you live in the basement with your partner and child, your roommates will hear your baby scream. A sleepless night for baby means a restless night for everyone. To avoid a cranky, tense household come morning, pad your baby’s room, buy your roommates acoustic doors, and stock up on high-quality earplugs.

Protect family time. Living in a group home is a lot of fun, but it’s important to steal moments for just your family. Plan vacations. Explore your city without your roommates. Plus, it’s healthy for your roommates to create a life outside of your family. At times, they will need space from you.

Set rules for rent and expenses. My wife, Keith and I co-own the house (my wife and I are considered one unit to give him an equal voice), and Laura rents from the three of us. Groceries are paid for separately by each person. Household items such as paper towels, toilet paper and cleaning supplies are divided four ways. We share the kitchen, dining room, living room, TV room, and the front and backyards. We each take one weekend a month to do a deep clean of the shared spaces.

Communication is key. Every Friday, we gather around the table to connect, a reminder that we are friends first. If we invite others into our house for a meal, we ask permission and make it clear if the entire house is invited. We have a house text chain for all of this communication. If an issue arises, our policy is to be direct, and, if it requires the entire house, we tackle it together. Just in case, we have a written agreement to bring in ­already-chosen mediators to help us ­resolve conflict (we haven’t needed this).

There may come a day when our daughter tells her classmates she has two mommies and daddies. When that day comes, Mommy, Daddy and her adopted aunt and uncle will explain to her how it is that she became our fifth and most precious roommate.

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