Choosing Your Family
This collection of article first appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Communities Magazine.
Finding My Extended Family
Keeping A Marriage Together
A Morehouse Divorce
When Your Parents Divorce
Living With Elderly Family
Moving Into Community as a Senior
Finding my extended family
Judy St. John
I have often heard it said that you can pick your friends but you can't pick your family. That never sat right with me. From a young age I knew I could feel a sense of family with a lot of people under the right circumstances.
I discovered this at summer camp. Raised in New York City with working parents, since the age of 5, each summer my sister and were sent off to the same camp in the Catskills. Seeing the same people each year, the other campers felt like siblings to me. The counselors and adults running the place were like parents, aunts and uncles. In my experience, all those people became my extended family, at least for the summer. I didn't know it then but basically what I was experiencing each year was communal living. The variety of personalities to bounce off of allowed me to express all the sides of myself. It was a rich, full, joyful existence that was what I thought family was meant to be - all these people behind my goals, interested in my life as I was in theirs. Returning home at the end of the summer to our nuclear family unit, as wonderful as my parents were, my sister and I felt like we were going back to a kind of fabricated social construct. We would wait patiently until summer came around again.
Later in life I looked for a way to recreate that environment. Living at college had some of the elements but it was transient. After graduating and getting a job and my own place, I longed for that feeling of being surrounded by people I care about and who care about me. But how was I going to create it?
I considered the Peace Corp, the Navy, working on a fishing boat - something that would entail living closely with other people, but I didn't want to go to a foreign country and being a poor swimmer was deathly afraid of floating around in water.
It looked like I could possibly find a reason to live with people if I would just subscribe to a philosophy or religion or take up some kind of a cause, like organic farming. Unfortunately I didn't have any of those callings. What I did have was the desire to have a big family and I didn't want to have to give birth to most of the members.
In fact, even marriage was not something I aspired to, which set me apart from my girlfriends growing up. I knew that, even if I were to find the guy of my dreams and fall in love, going off into the sunset and setting up a home with just him would likely turn into a nightmare. It just seemed unreasonable to expect one person to fulfill all of my interests and yearning for social interaction. From my experience of summer camp, it was clear to me that it would take a composite of several different people to keep me fully entertained.
So there I was, a group dweller in search of a group, knowing I would not be satisfied with the conventional model of a marriage and family. I wanted to be part of a pack where I could carve out my own lifestyle and live as I wanted in the middle of a bunch of people.
Fortunately my sister was looking for this too. Thanks to her, I found Morehouse. She had been living there for six months and knew I would love it too, just like we both had loved summer camp. I visited and liked what I saw. The central goal of the group was to live closely and overtly study the dynamics of pleasurable group living. Through deliberate living, could everyone have everything they wanted while getting along? This was clearly an active exploration that included a lot of communicating and examining of goals and interactions and discussing all proposed actions before they happened.
I also liked the diversity of the group and their acceptance of people with all different lifestyles. There were single people with and without romantic partners, married monogamous couples, couples with outside romances, divorced people who still lived together in the community but kept their friendships and raised their kids. It seemed like you could create the life and relationships you wanted as long as it didn't make anyone else's life uncomfortable. It was the Burger King of communal living. I could have it my way.
So at the age of 23, as a relatively shy, single person, I moved into Morehouse. I delved into the group social experiment investigating what it takes to have my life and the lives of those around me be pleasurable. I quickly befriended a nice guy in the group who was also single at the time. He did not seem like the man of my dreams so I felt free to enjoy myself around him and felt no pressure to have our friendship be anything other than it was. As the months passed he became the best friend I had ever had and a wonderful roommate. Because I had made friends with the other people living so closely with me, there was no pressure for him be my dance partner, my tennis partner, my shopping buddy or even like to eat the food I liked, read the books I liked or watch all the shows I like. I had the rest of the group from which to pick people to share my various interests.
I was happy. I had found my lifetime summer camp and a relationship that was thriving largely due to the interest and support of the other people in the group. After living here for a year it dawned on me that I could be married without making my husband be my sole companion. We got married and became parents.
27 years later we are still together. Our son was born and raised in the community and had the kind of childhood I had dreamt of. I have an unconventional relationship within a large unconventional extended family and it suits me perfectly. Of course having this large, extended family brings with it exponential problems. There are more people to disagree with, be betrayed by, leave messes behind and to see through difficult times. It doesn't get easier with more people in your "family", but it's never dull and there's always someone to relate to over something crucial. One thing I am certain about is that my relationship with my husband would not have started and certainly not have endured or increased in intimacy over all these years without the group around us for support, an extended family beyond what blood relationships could provide.
Keeping a Marriage Together
Like many Boomers, I grew up with women's lib. I had seen how my mom, a spirited free thinker, nevertheless became a housewife whose freedom turned out to be doing everything at home and also working a full time job. I was certain I was never going to get married, have kids and get into that trap and I thought I had the new freedom to help me along.
But after fending off my cute husband-to-be for a couple of years, he prevailed in his insistence on giving me everything I wanted even those things I protested about. He convinced me that I could be married and be my own person.
Still, two-in-a-box was not going to be for us.
Communal living seemed to be my destiny. Even though my parents immigrated to the U.S., I was raised to eventually go live on a kibbutz, my mother's unfulfilled legacy.
I went off and lived on a kibbutz for a few years after college and found a lot of good ideas there - you were friends with your neighbors, worked for a common goal, there were parties and holidays at home with the extended family, and the kids lived in their own house with nannies 24/7. You could be with them as much or as little as you wanted to be.
But when all was said and done it was hard to shake the freedom and multi-cultured society available in America. I found the mores and values of kibbutz life to be just too restrictive. I came back to the U.S. but the communal living paradigm stuck with me. In fact, my husband and I only lived in an apartment alone together for the first few months of our relationship. We quickly moved people in with us including my sister, Judy (see article above) who was also looking for that group feeling.
But he wanted kids; we were getting close to buying a house, having a mortgage and growing our business. I was headed for being a vegetarian, Californian version of my mother... and without her tremendous patience!
Before I could say "I will never be June Cleaver," some friends introduced us to Morehouse which was everything I had been looking for! It was structured in many ways like a kibbutz, including having a house where the kids are raised together. But Morehouse had much more, including an emphasis on pleasurable group living, an interesting and dynamic philosophy of the perfection of life, members of varying backgrounds, and the idea that fun is the goal, love is the way.
The best part was that shortly after we made the move, my sister came too - she and I fulfilled our childhood dream of being able to live together our whole lives while having our own families and careers.
Of course like everyone, we hit relationship snags along the way. I remember first moving in, a fairly starry-eyed newlywed, mesmerized by all these fun people with whom I was now living, all of whom seemed to have so much more experience in ways to enjoy life. I wondered if I had made the right choice (in having picked my husband) and considered perhaps jumping ship and starting a relationship with someone else. It was Marilyn (see article below) who talked to me, so many years ago. Seeing my husband through her eyes reminded me what I loved about him and why he was then and still is the right one for me.
In this milieu, knowing that I had the backing of my blood relations and of the whole group, I decided to have kids - yes, two, much to my own surprise. I was fortunate enough that at the time there were many other kids being born and the whole "herd" of them lived in their own house, where they could enjoy each other's company, color on the walls and do what kids like to do, with constant adult supervision by people who loved them just about as much as we did.
A couple of other times Jack & I got very close to splitting up. We even separated once for a few weeks. But the good part was that we still lived in the same community, just a building apart on common grounds and were able to share our friends, spend time with our kids and be together when we wanted to. Our friends were a close enough part of our lives that they could help us sort out our differences and eventually to reconcile. With the support of the group my relationship with my husband has flourished rather than diminished as is often the pattern with couples left to their own devices.
I attribute the great relationship we have had with our sons as they grew up and continue to have with them now as adults to having raised them in this group. Throughout their childhood we spent exactly as much time together as we wanted to and my husband and I did not have to sacrifice our relationship or private time together. As far as I can tell, happy parents make for happy children.
A Morehouse Divorce
Bill and I met in Morehouse, fell in love, got married and had a son. We had a lot of very happy times, but we had rough ones too. With the help of our friends we navigated the shoals pretty well whenever things got rocky between us but after ten years, we realized that being married to each other really didn't suit us. When people in our community realized that our relationship was in trouble, they came to our support. For example, one couple whom we loved and respected met with us for an hour or two every day for about six weeks to help facilitate our communication. Their goal was not to persuade us to either divorce or to stick together, but rather to make sure we made decisions about our future not out of anger but rather with love and compassion for ourselves and each other. We had seen other couples in our community divorce and continue to care for one another and that really helped us to see that we could end our union yet still keep all the parts of our relationship that we enjoyed and valued. Bill and I both felt strongly that we wanted to remain friends, continue to live in the community, and raise our son in a loving environment. Together we looked to how to make this situation as good as possible for us and for our young son, Ben.
With this level of support we got from our friends, Bill and I were able to end the marriage without bitterness and acrimony, but rather with keeping the best parts of our friendship. There were adjustments we had to make and they weren't always easy or comfortable but neither of us had to leave "home" to have things be the way we wanted. Our friends were able to go on being friends with us both and didn't have to join my camp or Bill's camp. There were no camps to join! There was no custody battle, no attempt to make Ben choose between us. He was able to grow up with total access to both of us without ever having to doubt our love of him or each other. We talked with Ben about how we were sad about divorcing but that the fundamental relationship between the three of us had been and would continue always to be, love. Bill and I continued our partnership parenting together.
Now, almost 30 years later, Bill and I both continue to live in the community with other partners that we are deeply committed to. Ben is grown and has a family of his own and Bill and I both get to freely enjoy our grandchildren together and separately. So although Bill and I divorced many years ago, our "family" flourishes.
When Your Parents Divorce
The only way for me to talk about being raised by divorce parents is to start by saying, "Really? I didn't notice." I couldn't say how old I was when my parents divorced, because as a child, it was never anything I had to think about. Either I was very naive and/or my parents did an outstanding job of making sure that I never knew what it could feel like being raised in a 'broken' home. Not a day goes by that I don't appreciate my parents and the way they raised me, however, I know things would have gone a much different direction if it wasn't for Morehouse.
Growing up in Morehouse, whether you were a child of a 'single parent', from a 'broken home' or any other variation from the societal norm, everyone looked after you, loved you and treated you like their own. I saw my parents when I wanted to see them and they saw me when they wanted to see me. My dad might make me breakfast or take me school, while someone else might pick me up and make me dinner. My mom might help me with English class or help me clean my room while my 'other' parents might help me with math or tuck me in at night. The reality is, I always had a community of people looking after me and making sure I was taken care of.
What is divorce? What our society has come to define it as, is not the same as when you live in Morehouse. Compared to a societal norm, I don't consider my parents divorced. Fighting? Lawyers? Custody? Abuse? Distrust? Separation? These words do not reflect the childhood I experienced - it was quite the opposite.
I consider my upbringing as extremely blessed. I had the best of everything and never considered life would be better under a traditional roof. My parents were happy - did they sleep in the same bed with one another? No, but what did I care? I was a kid. Did my parents ever fight or show signs of what a traditional divorce might look like? Surprisingly, no. To this day I have no memory of them ever fighting or showing dislike towards one another. As a child, I would selfishly only consider how something would affect me and I have only positive memories. My family loved me and I was happy.
To me, Morehouse has always been more about the extended family than the traditional family. As an only child with divorced parents, I had brothers and sisters and dozens of parents. I never had to go without, choose one parent over the next, witness fighting parents or feel like my happy home was being torn apart.
As an adult looking back on my life and thinking about my childhood, the truth is, I couldn't have asked for better. My parents are still in each other's life and love one another. I can come home and see both of them at the same time all the while knowing there isn't animosity in the room. Yes, my parents are divorced, but they are happy and that is all I could ever ask for. While society would define my childhood as one from a "broken" home, thanks to Morehouse, mine was "fixed" and I never knew there was anything wrong.
Today, I'm married with a family of my own. My wife and I are more in love and happier than ever. We live in a traditional family environment and I get great gratification on the life I've provided for my wife and children. I learned so much living at Morehouse that I use today in my family, my group. Life is good.
Living With Elderly Family
Sylvia is my 93 year old mother. She and I have always been close even though we lived thousands of miles apart ever since I graduated from college. My mother and father came from very traditional backgrounds and they and my older brothers were initially somewhat challenged by my decision to live in a group. However, over the years they all visited our community many times and fell in love with the people. My undeniable happiness and the way my son was thriving thoroughly won them over.
When my dad died eight years ago, after being married to my mom for 65 years, she was bereft. She still had a wide circle of friends, yet I knew faced spending most of her days alone in her apartment. With the support of my community, I encouraged her to come live with us. It took quite a bit of reassurance before she said yes. It was a brave move for her. Many of us have invited our parents to live with us but over the years only a few have accepted.
We, as a group, had to make some adjustments to accommodate having Sylvia here. Drawing on our experience of having had a few elderly people live with us and knowing how devastating isolation and boredom can be for old folks, we gave her a room in the center of our busiest house, making contact easily available. We refurbished her bathroom to include safety rails and also added rails to the hallways she uses. As time has gone on and Sylvia has transitioned from cane to walker, we have had to alter access to the house she lives in so she can more comfortably move about. The old-age-friendly changes we have made and continue to make will be needed by us eventually (we hope to be 93 someday too,) so it's been great to have a reason to begin them now.
Sylvia's life here at Morehouse is rich, filled with relating with people of all ages and interests. Each morning, she and I begin our day together having coffee in the group dining room with the "girls," catching up on all the gossip, planning the day's activities and greeting other friends as they arrive or pass by. The excitement and social drama, inherent in close group living sometimes reduces Sylvia to shaking her head, mystified, saying, "This place is not to be believed!" - but she loves being where things are happening. If there is a meeting, party or event, Sylvia is usually the first one there. Some days she can be found at the hairdresser and out to lunch with other women from the community or attending the Greek Orthodox cathedral in Oakland. Her daily exercise includes doing laps around the large dining room and long hallways, laughing and chatting with people along the way. On a typical day at least a dozen community members stop by her room to say hi, show off a new outfit, bring her a treat, or to confide in her and ask her advice. We tease her about being a party animal. She often says with a laugh, "I'm spoiled - and I love it!"
For me, having my mother's life be so rich and full is an indescribable blessing. My brothers, who live on the East Coast, are grateful for the good time my mom is having living with us and they enjoy visiting us as often as they can. While I am my mother's primary caregiver, I am not burdened by that responsibility in the way that I would inevitably be if we didn't live in this group. Since we are on a 24 hour clock around here, there is always somebody up in case Sylvia needs anything. Within the community various people help with her physical care and her daily needs. It's enjoyable and rewarding for them and fun for Sylvia. With so many others actively involved in my mother's life, I am free to spend time with her in ways that pleasure us both. I get to cherish her with love, rather than obligation. My Morehouse "family" has helped me take the best care I could possibly imagine of my mother and provide her with an enviable, vibrant and rewarding old age.
Moving Into Community as a Senior
I was 67 when I moved into Lafayette Morehouse. I'm 79 now. My daughter Diana had lived there for over 35 years, and my granddaughter Sugar, 9 at the time, was born there. My original goal in moving from Indiana where I owned my own home was to find a low-cost apartment and live near the children. Because low-cost housing is basically non-existent in the area, as a last resort I asked if I could join the Morehouse community. I had visited my daughter here for short periods over the years, but no one really knew me, nor I them.
The life I left behind in Indiana could not have been more different. I was a leader in a close-knit ultraconservative Christian church where I was involved in all activities and I had close relationships with many people as friend and counselor. I was often asked for advice in church and interpersonal relationships. I had lived alone in my own house for over twenty years.
I was shocked to observe what by my standards was parenting that was beyond permissive. What Sugar wanted, Sugar got. No argument, no exceptions. Example: Sugar's grandfather came to visit, and the four of us went out to eat. After Sugar (then 10) decided that none of the five places we chose were where she wanted to go, we ended up going home and she and Diana fixed their own meal. I was sure she would grow up to become the most selfish, self-centered person ever. I eventually was able to come to terms with the fact that this method was Diana's choice.
Diana and Sugar enjoyed (and still do) an extraordinarily close relationship of which I was not a part. My initial response was to feel sorry for myself while at the same time acknowledging that realistically this was bound to be so for whatever period of time. Gradually, Diana and Sugar and I also began to communicate some of our feelings. I expressed my sense of isolation, and we began to do more things together.
Today, Sugar, now 21, has become a thoughtful, caring, charming young lady, responsible and willing to take responsibility in every way. She has chosen this way of life as an adult and plans to stay in the group for now. The three of us (affectionately dubbed "the Goens Girls" by the community) have fun going out together or sharing whatever we choose to do, enjoying a mutually loving, caring, delightful relationship. For the first time in my life, I am truly happy.