Insider Perspective: Interview with a Cohousing Family
Julia and Yonas Jongkind have lived in cohousing over the last 16 years, in suburban, rural and city environments in BC. They joined their first community when their first child was 9 months old. In between cohousing communities the Jongkinds have also spent time travelling and living on their sailboat as a family.
Julia and Yonas Jongkind, when & how did you first hear of cohousing? In 2000. We were invited to a party at Windsong which was also a fundraising event for Percy Schmeiser (a local farmer who was in a legal battle with Monsanto over seed that he had saved and used to grow a new crop. Mr. Schmeiser became a prominent figure in the national and international movement against genetically modified food).
What attracted you to cohousing? Yonas: I immediately liked the environment - it was lively, dynamic, different and interesting. We started to investigate cohousing and joined several waiting lists. Julia: I wasn’t interested initially, but Yonas was. Then, when our firstborn was 9 month old, we got a call that a unit had become available at Windsong. I hesitated, but we realized that we would never know unless we tried it, so we decided to try it for a year. And that’s 16 years ago now... Tell us about your experience of Windsong - what lasting memory comes to mind? Yonas: Hanging out with the kids - not just ours, but also the older ones, ranging from very young to teenagers. There was a Talent Show there where all ages came together to perform with and for each other - my 2-year-old and I did the Oompa Loompa dance from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory together. Meeting different people, a different cross-section of ages and backgrounds - we still have contact with, and care deeply about, some of our Windsong neighbours.
Julia: Two of our four children were born there, at home. Our two midwives lived in the building too; it all felt organic. At the second birth, our two-year old woke up and Yonas brought him to a neighbour who looked after him - all our neighbours knew that the baby was coming. Yonas later went, with the new arrival, to pick up our older child again - he wasn’t pleased at all to see a new baby in his household (but they soon became great friends).
Tell us about your experience of Yarrow Ecovillage? Julia: There was much more outdoor space than at Windsong, where some of our older neighbours preferred us to supervise the children at all times. It was sometimes challenging to have three children of different ages needing different things (a nap, outdoor time, play with friends). At Yarrow it was easier to keep an eye on them while they were doing different things. I loved the chicken co-op we created with three families. We reared the chickens from eggs and cared for them through all stages - chicks, adulthood and end of life/harvest. Also the experiential learning - at that time we were homeschooling our children - we were outside looking at everything a lot. The CSA farmers would invite the children of the community from time to time to help, for instance with the potato harvest, and learn about other aspects of food growing, which was a great experience for them.
Yonas: Yarrow was still in development, which was exciting for me because I like building something new. It was great for the children at that (young) stage of their lives. I loved the CSA fresh food box every week, the chickens, the contact with foodies living in the community, the parties, there was a great energy there.
Tell us about your experience of Pacific Gardens? Yonas: We always knew that Yarrow would be a temporary (in our case 5-year) stage for us, as that community was quite far from a town and did not offer enough opportunities for our children as they grew into their teenage years. In Pacific Gardens, it’s a perfect blend of country and town. It has an older demographic than Yarrow, and a different culture but some things are similar: here too we have an “(Un:-)Talent Show” where people of all ages come together to perform for and with each other. Julia: we have the advantage of being in the city, but in an environment where you can step outside and think you are in the country. Access to town is easy; I can walk to the shops in a few minutes. Also there is more to do for teenagers outside of the cohousing community.
Were there things you found difficult to adjust to? Julia: At Windsong, our first cohousing experience, our unit was sandwiched between the parking and the Common House, which made it pretty busy. I initially found it hard to find a personal sense of privacy, but a lot of that was in my mind - after I realized that it got easier. Yonas: Our general culture doesn’t prepare us for connection with other people - we grow up with similar peers in similar environments, having similar education experiences and knowing people with similar careers. Living with a community of people with varying backgrounds of varying ages is an adjustment, but worth it.
What do you find takes most time in cohousing? Yonas: Depending on the culture (there were different cultures in the different environments) meetings can feel like they drag on if people don’t listen to each other. Julia: When I was part of a facilitation team, I would visit different families/members to hear their take on things. It would take a lot of time but with good preparation items could be more effectively discussed and decided in meetings. Can you give me some examples of how living in cohousing can save you time / effort? Yonas: House and garden maintenance! Borrowing - if you unexpectedly run short of something or need something for just an occasion. Julia: Community meals, and yes, borrowing; when we came back from sailing and I had no job interview clothes at all I could borrow some, and when we were living at Yarrow one of our neighbours lent me her Little Black Dress for a (rare) formal party. Also, a lot of things are right there; with children of various ages around you don’t have to drive them everywhere, they know each other and to some extent look after each other; then there is something I call “check-in parents”: a friendly neighbour and parent who, if your 2-year old is cranky and doesn’t want to walk to the shop with you, will take them under a wing and look after them for the short time it takes you to get to the shop and back.
Children in cohousing - what’s in it for them? Julia: What I call “cohousing cousins” - a group of children around who are not quite as familiar as family, but close. Contact with other people, including other generations. Yonas: Relationship building: Recently, our son who plays the piano well helped one of the older residents perform a piece of opera during the “(No:-)Talent Show. Children in cohousing - what’s in it for the parents? Yonas: In this time when we all (have to) spend so much time facing our screens we collaborate with neighbours to coordinate screen time for the children. Also, some of the older residents without children will sometimes assume the traditional or messy jobs of organizing the setting up of seasonal decorations or organizing art/painting sessions in the Common House.
What do you find the most rewarding part of cohousing? Why? Yonas: the connections; the sense of being part of a tribe. Julia: the connections; they are right here around you. Not everyone has to be your best friend! It is a nice foundation for a social context. It is important to have a regular social life outside of the community, though, and it is important to maintain that.
What do you find the most challenging part of cohousing? Why? Yonas: When I can’t get what I want, when committee meetings chew through the rounds without getting to a conclusion I can get impatient. Julia: those situations where you think: If I had my own house i could just do this (or that) - it’s good practice to let go.
What do you think works best as an ongoing community-building routine/activity? Why? Julia: Eating together - preferably multiple times per week. It is important to ensure that the common space has proper soundproofing and doesn’t echo. Eating together is a great way to spend time in a relaxed environment and meet neighbours casually. The communities who eat together a lot do best in the long run. Yonas: Frequent casual encounters with other residents - these encounters can be very short. For this, good physical architecture is really important: good connectivity of footpaths between the houses, the common garden areas and the common house, good soundproofing, good lines-of-sight. Good design can make the difference between a high comfort level, promoting trust and easy decisions, and an environment where constant unresolved issues (e.g. noise, traffic, systemic conflict) become daily irritants, which negatively impact neighbour relations, trust, communication and decision making.
What would you suggest to someone who has not lived in a co-op or cohousing before and is thinking of joining a cohousing community? Julia: Cohousing is not utopia - keep that in mind, but it is worth trying. Yonas: Try it for a few years!