When Carmel Sullivan’s 17-year marriage ended, she was suddenly a single mother to her 7-year-old, Cooper. She spent her days in Boulder, Colo., home-schooling Cooper. She loved her time with him but felt deeply, achingly alone.
Maybe moving to Los Angeles, where she could be near friends and family, would be the answer. It wasn’t.
At night, after Cooper fell asleep, she’d cry herself to sleep. While meditating one day, it came to her: She needed to find another single-mother family to share a home with. So she placed an ad with a local rental service:
“Single mom seeks same to pool resources and share a house with a garden. Let’s work together to create a safe environment for our children.”
Eighteen single mothers answered her ad. Sullivan met with many of them, and one seemed a particularly good match. The two families spent a month getting to know each other, then decided to live together.
Sullivan is one of millions of Americans living in non-traditional households, which have now become the majority. Nuclear families, for example, account for only about 20 percent of all U.S. households. One of the most significant changes has been the increase in births to unmarried mothers. In 1960, they accounted for only about 5 percent of all births. By 2008, that number had shot up to 41 percent and has since hovered around 40 percent.
Although the rate of divorce is no longer increasing, it is still high, resulting in many once-married women such as Sullivan raising their children without a spouse.
Sullivan kept thinking about those 17 other mothers who responded to her ad. “If 18 single moms were looking to share with another single mom in my small neighborhood, how many hundreds must there be in the greater Los Angeles area? How many thousands in California? How many millions in the United States?”
Within a year, in 2000, Carmel had set up an online registry, CoAbode, where single mothers can sign up and search for another single-mother family interested in sharing a home. Today, about 70,000 mothers are registered; they hail from every state in the nation, plus Canada.
Single mothers who sign up create personal profiles with information about themselves, their children, their parenting philosophies, where they want to live, and how much they want to spend on housing. They can then search for potentially compatible mothers. The families are encouraged to meet in person and spend lots of time together, including in each other’s homes, to be sure the adults and kids all get along before moving in together.
About one in four of the mothers have homes of their own they want to share, Sullivan says, but she thinks CoAbode arrangements work better when the two mothers look for and choose a home together.
Some of the single mothers of CoAbode came to the arrangement as Sullivan did – sharing a home with another single-mother family as the answer to their loneliness. Others live too far away from the people in their lives who otherwise might help with child care or share in the activities of everyday life. Many of the mothers have tight budgets, so splitting rent and utility bills eases their financial stress. Others, though, are well off; they simply want companionship for themselves and their children.
The camaraderie was Sullivan’s favorite part of living with another single-mother family: “the sitting down and having a cup of tea with somebody, and talking,” she tells me. She also appreciated that she could run out to take a yoga class: “There was always someone there to watch the kids if you need to dart out for a half-hour.”
From what Sullivan has seen, single mothers are good at jumping in and helping when the need arises, without being asked. If you are a single mother, “you’re the chauffeur, and doing the laundry and the homework; and there’s shopping; and then all of that and the house cleaning. That all gets cut in half when you have another single mother there. That does not happen when you have a husband.”
CoAbode does not run background checks on potential housemates, but Sullivan plans to add that in the future. She knows of no instances in which the mothers of CoAbode got into legal disputes, she says. There have, however, been home-sharing arrangements that did not work out. In one household, a 9-year-old girl became overly enamored with a 12-year-old boy. The moms felt that they needed to supervise too much of the time, and ultimately split up. In another home, one of the mothers worked nights, and the other ended up doing a disproportionate share of the babysitting; the families ended up going their separate ways.
In one instance, two mothers dissolved their Brooklyn CoAbode home because their daughters didn’t get along. The mothers, though, stayed friends, and even started a business together. The one who moved out found another single mother in the same neighborhood and created a new CoAbode household. A few blocks away, in a third home, was another pair of CoAbode families. In this way, the six moms and their children created their own village: They get together to help one another, exchange advice and just have fun.
There is one question that Sullivan gets asked over and over: What about single fathers? So far, CoAbode has been for mothers only, but that could change, she says. She also is thinking about adding other kinds of people who might also crave the kinds of deep connections that can come from sharing a home, such as seniors and empty-nesters. Someday, CoAbode may welcome them, too.