When Nicola’s 3-year-old daughter Saffie asked if her friend could come and play after nursery, she hesitated. At the time Nicola (then 27, now 32) was house-sharing with her sister Annabel and her friend Jo, an artist. “I nearly said yes but thought I better check it out with Annabel and Jo,” she says. “I’m kinda glad I did because when we came home, Jo was naked in our living room practising for a performance in which she pulls various items out of her vagina. Amazing art – but a bit messy...”
With rents and house prices eye-wateringly high, many of us are still living in house-shares when we hit our babymaking years. For some people this means delaying milestones that previous generations took for granted – not least having children. According to a recent study, 34% of people (43% in London) were putting off having kids because they were worried about financial insecurity. Hardly surprising given it’s now estimated that raising a kid until they’re 21 costs £230,000. The housing charity Shelter calls this 'generation pause'. But there are also a number of parents who, like Nicola, are raising young kids while living in rented accommodation.
Financially, it can make perfect sense. Dieter lives in a shared house with three friends – all aged 33 – including a couple with a 6-month-old baby. They knew each other before through mutual mates but have become close since living together. When the couple decided to have a baby they looked around for a place of their own but the options available in their budget were tiny studios. Nicola was living with her mum in the suburbs before she moved into her house-share – she and Saffie’s dad split up when Saffie was 6 months old. She’d just started a degree so cash was tight and she needed to be near to her university. Her sister offered to help her out with the rent and Jo offered to help with childcare. “Even without knowing her too well, it was evident that Jo loved children and was fantastic with Saffie. I felt she'd be a wonderful person for her to grow up with.”
That social factor is another bonus. Dieter is freelance and has a studio in the house so he’s around during the day. “I see the baby in the morning if they’re having breakfast and give him a cuddle, give him back to his mum or hold him so that she can go brush her teeth or something.” Being able to hand your baby to someone even for five minutes is indescribably helpful in the first few months. Plus maternity leave can be lonely – and isolation has been identified as a risk factor for postnatal depression. Having another friendly face around who isn’t making demands of you emotionally or physically can be a real boost. And your housemates get all the japes and joy of hanging out with a cute baby and watching it grow, with none of the terrifying responsibility. “It’s a really nice opportunity to share this moment with somebody,” Dieter points out.
I see the baby in the morning if they’re having breakfast and give him a cuddle, or hold him so his mum can go brush her teeth or something.
Of course, not everyone’s experience is positive. For 28-year-old Sasha it was a different story. When she and her boyfriend were looking for a flat together, he didn’t have the mountain of paperwork demanded by the lettings agent so they ended up living with strangers in a house-share that they’d seen advertised in an off-licence. A few months in, Sasha fell pregnant. They stayed – things were fine, and they didn’t have other options – but after a year the landlord asked everyone to leave so she could move in with her family. Sasha’s baby, Jake, was just 1 month old.
“Most people were OK with that but we didn’t have money for a deposit for somewhere else,” she remembers. “Everything turned to shit.” Instead of evicting them officially, which would have meant they could apply for a council flat, the landlord just made life really difficult, turning off the gas and electric. There was no hot water to sterilise bottles, it was cold and dark in the mornings. “When it’s two adults you can just do whatever but because I had Jake, I felt completely lost.” They moved out to another house-share but that fell through and, finding themselves homeless, the council housed them. “I can’t believe we’ve got our own place after so much stress.”
Despite Nicola’s initial enthusiasm, even she found the situation “incredibly difficult” in the end. “In theory, making a home together with people I loved and respected and very much shared a view of the world with seemed like a fantastic thing to be doing with my daughter. In practice, our ideals just didn't translate into reality.” The reality was house parties, grumpy girlfriends, stolen baby food, arguments about money and dog shit in the garden. Another issue was space. Nicola, Saffie and their housemates were crammed into a three-bed place, with the living room used as an extra bedroom. Dieter’s flat is laid out over three floors, with the couple and the baby on the first floor, the kitchen and Dieter’s studio on the next floor, and two bedrooms above that. No one feels like they have to tiptoe around each other and the baby can wail away.
“At times, living with the two of them was very meaningful and Saffie was surrounded by some amazing influences, but it just wasn't sustainable,” says Nicola. “I wouldn't do it again with people living such different lives to my own.”
“For me, it’s been wonderful,” Dieter offers. When his friends move on, he’ll be sad to say goodbye. “This experience has made me see the beauty of family but also what family can mean. I’ve always had the feeling that family is also about my friends and the people close to me.”
The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child. Today, when so many of us live in different cities or different countries from our extended families, we’ve lost that. Parenting has gone from being a communal effort to a two- or one-person job. When it works out, a house-share can be a village; a beautiful (rare) thing.
Some names have been changed.