Single moms find roommates
Danielle McWilliams was eager to begin a new life in Washington with her 5-year-old son. The single mother had landed a dream job there and was thrilled to be living in a vibrant metropolitan area, a stark contrast to the more laid-back town they'd left in Kansas. But she hadn't realized the equally stark contrast in cost of living.
She had arranged to live with her parents for a month, tops. But as the weeks went by, and she couldn't find an affordable home, she grew more anxious. And she felt a great need to talk with someone in a similar situation, who would understand what she was going through.
But Ms. McWilliams isn't one to wallow in self-pity. She was determined to stick it out in Washington, and when she read about a website that matches up single mothers for housing, she felt a burst of hope. For several nights, she stayed up late reading profiles of other single moms in her area, posted on Co-Abode.com. That was last July. By October, after meeting many single mothers via Co-Abode, McWilliams decided to share a three-level town house with the single mom with whom she felt most compatible. It helped that her son, and the other woman's son, also 5, had hit it off.
Since then, McWilliams says, it's been an ideal situation. The moms split household bills, divvy up chores, cover for each other when they want to dash to the store or go to the movies - and chat daily. Their boys, who share a bedroom, have grown as close as brothers.
"Having an only child," she says, "I always wondered what he's missing out on, what he's not learning about sharing, what social skills he's not developing. There's a lot of guilt. But now he's got a live-in buddy, and I'm a far better mother because I'm less stressed."
While McWilliams's living situation might be unique, her single-parent status is not. According to the Census Bureau, the number of American households headed by single mothers increased 25 percent during the 1990s.
Single moms currently number about 13 million, and they are raising 20 million children. The average household income for a single mother is $24,000 annually.
Many of these women are barely scraping by, especially in today's shaky economy. (Forty-one percent of single-parent households live at or below the poverty level.)
They or their ex-husbands might be newly jobless. Child support may be dwindling. Affordable child care is hard to find. Credit-card bills are piling up. And paying a hefty mortgage by themselves can be daunting.
To make matters worse, they are living alone with a child - or two or more - and they are craving the company of adults.
They might be reluctant to ask family to bail them out - with cash or by offering a couple of spare bedrooms.
For these women, both stay-at-home parents and those who work outside the home, a single-parent resource such as Co-Abode can provide a valuable economic and emotional safety net.
Co-Abode works much like those online matchmaking sites that have revolutionized the dating scene in the past few years. But the goal is to ease economic strain and a sense of isolation.
Single mothers pay $29 and fill out a lengthy questionnaire about their parenting philosophy, religious beliefs, and approach to discipline, as well as about their work, interests, and diet. (Those who can't afford the fee are not turned away.)
Moms correspond anonymously at first and then are urged to move slowly, talking by telephone before meeting face-to-face.
Guidelines on the site urge that potential roommates talk openly, ask the right questions, and take enough time to cultivate a friendship between themselves and their children before signing a lease. This could help them detect potential clashes of parenting and discipline styles, neatness standards, or personal quirks they couldn't live with.
The website also posts sample roommate contracts for women to make use of before they move in together.
For McWilliams and her housemate, a discussion of "deal breakers" was helpful. They each created a list separately and were pleased to find that they were essentially the same: drug use, hitting each other's child, or hosting a string of overnight guests.
While most of the 6,000 mothers who have joined Co-Abode want the same things - lower expenses and someone who shares their experience - motivating factors vary somewhat by geographical region.
A mother in a remote town in Montana recently contacted the website with the urgent plea: "Help! I am talking to the walls. I need another single mom who understands what I'm going through."
In a town outside of Minneapolis, Jennifer and Simone came to each other's economic rescue. The single mothers, who asked that their last names not be used, were desperate. Jennifer had two children, ages 4 and 3 months; a house; and a mortgage way beyond her means.
Simone, also newly single, was struggling to pay child care for her infant son. Now Jennifer takes care of him at home while Simone is at work.
Co-Abode was founded by Carmel Sullivan. Two years ago, Ms. Sullivan, a single mother with an 11-year-old son, was looking for a friend and housemate, preferably one with a child who could be a pal to hers.
An artist and educator from a family of seven children, she has always been a firm believer in the idea of community support for families. So after advertising in the local newspaper for a single-mother housemate and receiving 18 responses, she wondered: Why not put all these women in touch with one another?
"They were all so grateful," she recalls. Buoyed by this response, she founded Co-Abode. "Single moms stagger under the burden of providing for young children without proper financial support from family or social services," she says. "Out of my own need came my sense of mission."
Sullivan encourages her clients to hang out as friends for a while before broaching the subject of shared housing. But she also reminds them that they aren't "marrying this woman, and it might make practical sense for only a year."
Most women who room together figure the arrangement will last about one to three years, until they are able to get back on their feet financially and regain a sense of equilibrium.
Of course, parting ways can be traumatic for the children, especially if they have bonded while living under the same roof. In this case, Sullivan urges mothers to stay close after the split.
McWilliams, the Washington mom, knows it's inevitable that she and her housemate will eventually move on, but she says they will make every effort to stay close.
"We'll still have fun together," says McWilliams, "doing things with our boys, like ice-skating at the Smithsonian sculpture garden on weekends in winter and picnicking there in the summertime."
They might also get to know other single moms through Co-Abodes's Circle of Friends program, which includes support groups in 22 states. Circle of Friends is just one of a handful of other resources Co-Abode offers.
These include an affordable-housing program that connects low-income moms with subsidized housing in safe neighborhoods and good school districts. A single mother's resource program is being developed to provide referrals for everything from dentists to lawyers and credit counselors. And an "outreach program" gives them access to other community-service programs.
But it's the housemate site that gets the most raves, from both clients and peer organizations.
"Co-Abode has pioneered something very timely for today's society," says Tere McDowell, executive director of Raise the Nation, an organization that advocates for single parents. "It is giving women another option on how to do family and creating a whole new dynamic that makes practical sense."