Illustration by Andrew Gillespie
Living communally with kids is something that most Americans choose not to do. As I take inventory of my communal life, I think it’s probably because of the drop-in.
I’ll define ‘drop-in’ as: The random entrance of a housemate, friend, or neighbor who may or may not have a need, deliver a gift, or require some communication.
Managing the drop-in is a pretty serious deal. After living communally for 20 years, and communally-with-kids for 9 (which is a whole different ballgame) I’m only now realizing how much of a presence the drop-in plays in my life.
This is my goal:
To live in an environment that is not entirely in my control, while still maintaining control over my emotions, my reactions, and my priorities for my children.
It’s a practice that requires me to be open and flexible but also maintain solid boundaries and communicate clearly. Communication is always the most important thing.
I am most emotionally vulnerable to the drop-in during the hours immediately after school until dinner. Lately, with these extravagant daylight hours, we haven’t been eating until almost 8:00. This creates a vast, gaping danger-zone that spans from 4:00 all the way to 8:00.
During this time the kids are expected to wash their lunch dishes, do their jobs, study their spelling words, complete work they didn’t complete at school, and read for 15 minutes. After that they have free-play until dinner.
Getting the kids to practice appropriate work ethic while doing their jobs and homework requires a lot of feedback and concentration from me. Truthfully, I don’t ever manage to give individual feedback to each of the four kids during this time. One kid will inevitably push everything under a bed or a couch, and I will ignore it because I just spent the last 30 minutes teaching someone else how to effectively sweep under the table.
Grant might spend the entire homework period carving a cardboard box into a cat house, and I won’t do anything about it because Ash has a spelling test the next day and that’s my priority.
Sometimes I want to sit next to Maggie while she reads Green Eggs and Ham, but I won’t be able to focus because Aubree is telling me that I need to email Andrew 14 different photographs of Narwhals off the internet NOW. She wants him to print the pictures BEFORE he leaves work so she can present her project to the house TODAY.
She also wants help finding cardboard for her trifold poster, and we’re out of glue sticks. Can I call Kate and see if she’ll run by Target on her way home?
I suggest breaking down Grant’s kitty house for the tri-fold, but I’m met with an enthusiastic “NO!”
My brain says: “Your crisis is not my crisis, child. Chill the Hell out!”
My mouth says: “I’m glad you’re so excited about Narwhals, but let’s slow your roll a tiny bit so that this doesn’t have to feel like an emergency.”
My gut is creaming: “CRISIS! EMERGENCY! NARWHALS! READING! SPELLING TEST! DINNER!”
And this is when the other humans walk in.
Usually when they first start talking I can’t even register what they’re saying because I’m still in the part of my brain that really wants to tell an intellectually stimulated 6-year-old that she isn’t allowed to study Narwhals until mid-July.
The housemate might say something like, “I really need to talk to you about the community food budget right now. My dietary needs are completely changing and I’m wondering if I can work out an exception to the food share.”
Or else they could saunter in to the midst of this and begin the narrative of last night’s Tinder date followed by a request for advice. I actually enjoy conversations about people’s Tinder dates. And I love giving advice. I just can’t process the story around Narwhals, cat-houses, spelling tests, and Green Eggs and Ham.
I have housemates who would take one look, offer me a beer, and start cleaning the kitchen.
And, truthfully, each of these scenarios could involve the same housemate, depending on the day and their level of communal awareness. It can be hard to know the vibe of a room before you walk into it. I’ve certainly committed some memorable social faux pas in that way.
We also have plenty of friends and neighbors who do the drop-in.
I have a neighbor who could show up at any moment and, without solicitation, break into an academic-style lecture on how to grow better tomatoes. Though he could just as easily hand me several bags of homegrown tomatoes, and wordlessly walk away.
I have a neighbor who will bust right into my homework scene and ask if her 3 kids can come over for an hour while she rearranges her furniture.
I have friends who will show up to borrow some fish emulsion and end up staying for dinner. Or they might bring an offering of cabbage starts.
I have friends who will walk in and beg me to listen to this totally raunchy R&B song that they’ve had in their head all day and we’ll end up analyzing the lyrics together. I’ll decide that it’s a great song. Or maybe it was just a great moment? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. By the time I re-emerge, giggling, to the designated homework arena the kids are long gone.
I have a friend who will hear one of my kids making an entitled-white-kid-statement, and he will pause to have a gentle conversation about different perspectives which will take about 15 minutes and completely derail the flow of academic time. Does that matter now?
I also have a housemate who might suddenly decide to dissect the opossum he just killed because it was eating all the chicken’s eggs. This is just the perfect combo of gross, dramatic, and educational to keep the kids entertained for a long time while I start dinner. Besides, what would I even say?
“Ignore Cypress slicing into that rodent and get yer butt in the house to study spelling!”
Yeah, right. So much for tomorrow’s spelling test.
I have friends who will come over to cry about the totally unfair situation that happened that day at work and then decide to do a complete purge and reorganization of our Tupperware shelf. This is therapeutic for everyone, although it requires me to answer an ongoing deluge of questions like, “How recently did you see that lid to the 70’s-style-rectangular-container that’s good for watermelon in the summer?”
It’s hard to keep Maggie on track with all-those-places-that-dude-won’t-eat-green-eggs-and-ham when I have to keep shouting things like, “I haven’t seen that since we took 6 dozen brownies to the school!”
And we have friends who will walk in, take inventory of the scene, and then silently and weirdly disappear.
How could I ever say “no” to this life?
When you live in a single-family home with friends who schedule their visits, this is not an intensity that you have to navigate. That’s probably a sigh of relief for you. Sometimes I feel jealous of that. Just like you might sometimes wish that someone brilliant and hilarious would just walk in your door – with no effort toward planning - and put on some good music and help you make dinner. Or talk to you while you fold the laundry.
I try to remember that there’s always a nugget of calm in the chaos. And if you don’t let the chaos toss you around, you can find it. It’s a hard, hard skill to learn. But it’s the lesson I work the hardest on, and one I’d like to teach my kids.