In Nina’s Power’s book One Dimensional Woman (Zero Books, 2010), she begins her penultimate chapter by asking “Whatever did happen to all those dreams of living differently?… Alternative living these days is more likely to refer to the fact that you’ve bolted a solar panel to your roof rather than undertaken any practical critique of the nuclear family” (2010, 57-58).
When I was in high school, my shrewd and rather prickly English teacher, Ms Schlosser, would often refer to examples from her kibbutz life in Israel in the seventies to make whatever point it was she was trying to make. Aside from giving me the occasional insight into this seemingly uptight women, her stories were also responsible for sowing the seeds of alternative living and socialist inclinations in my mind. When I was finally released from the strictures of school, I hurtled toward university in the belief that I would find a home amongst other, alternative-minded idealists. But because I had no real sense of what it was I was looking for, and the articulate, highly political folk on the student union intimidated the crap out of me, I ended up simply experimenting with sex, which ultimately seemed rather vapid. As a social anthropology major, I spent considerable time examining and critiquing the concept of the nuclear family, but found myself living no differently.
Ten years on, I’m the epitome of nuclear. I live with my partner and two children. We pay our rent, obsess about housing prices, school places for our children, our stymied career trajectories, and everything we do is with a view to accumulating more ‘things’ for ourselves and our kids.
So what did happen to my dreams of living alternatively? Were my values simply lost somewhere along the way, or did I never really have them to begin with? Or perhaps it’s just a case of not living as imaginatively or bravely as one could.
Like many parents, I have a looming childcare issue. My work, often sporadic and not especially well paid, provides little remuneration once the necessary cost of having my son spend the day with a childminder is attended to. And yet, as a household, we cannot afford to have me not work. The conundrum led me to fantasise about a kibbutz-style set up where a collection of parents would reciprocate caring for one another’s children. No exchange of money, no gruelling ofsted paperwork, just a collection of people caring for one another in a non-transactional way. In my little idealist’s mind, not only would this resolve an immediate economic problem, it would also enable the beginning of my alternative dream. I’m still not entirely sure what that dream is of course; what I do know is that I want to lead a less atomised life. And, more broadly, I want to be part of a less atomised society.
It was with these motivations at the back of my mind that I decided to attend a co-operative childcare workshop through the local Open Works. It wasn’t the most progressive of get togethers, as there seemed a number of different agendas and slightly disparate visions of how a co-operative childcare project might look. It did however get me thinking beyond the realm of fantasy, and into examining the material viability of my ‘vision’.
Research is obviously key to any new endeavour and in this instance, there is a considerable pool of examples to draw inspiration from. Plenty of people are embarking on alternative projects, both out of necessity as well as a desire for social and economic change—some more radical than others.
The Library Lab in Willesden provides a space for people to work and includes a crèche. This is a brilliant example of an enterprise that not only meets a very obvious and immediate demand, but essentially utilises resources that are already on hand. As someone who works freelance but is also a full-time mother, having a space outside the home where I could take my laptop and bash out a couple of hours work, safe in the comfort that my child is only a few metres away from me happily playing with others, would be a tremendous coup. What is striking about this example is there’s nothing especially groundbreaking about it and yet, despite its clear benefits and nominal set-up requirements, it’s surprisingly uncommon.
Nancy’s Pantry, while clearly a commercial enterprise, goes some way into providing a space that is both combined and demarcated into work and play, where adults can sit and attend to their own needs (whether work, personal, staring undistracted at a wall) while their children are able to participate in a variety of activities, led by the cafe’s staff. It’s not the most work-conducive environment and parents are still completely and utterly responsible for their own children, but it demonstrate some of the inventive ways space (both physical and mental) can be negotiated.
De Krakeling in Holland and Ace Nursery in Cambridge are examples of co-operative childcare services that rely heavily on the input and labour of parents. In order to secure a place for one’s child for example, parents need to commit to volunteering for a certain amount of hours, taking responsibility for such tasks as helping out with the children, doing the shopping, or performing maintenance within the facility. The co-operative model is an innovative response to traditional childcare business models. With parents meeting the bulk of staffing needs voluntarily, conventional costs are largely circumvented; parents therefore benefit from greater engagement with their child’s care, lower childcare costs, as well as becoming more deeply embedded in a like-minded community.
The co-operative childcare model however, isn’t for everyone. One of the participants in my workshop explained that she had been part of a local co-operative nursery and found the arrangement very taxing. Conceding the benefit of greater engagement in her daughter’s care and watching her daughter’s interaction with other children, she found the cost difference in relation to other private nurseries nominal and the demand on her time in terms of volunteering considerable. Governed by exactly the same requirements from ofsted as any formal nursery, there are extensive administrative responsibilities that need to either be dealt with by a parent or necessitate a paid staff member. For her, the whole dynamic resembled a conventional service provider and lacked the ‘alternative’ elements she was hoping for.
This does raise an important point: if you want to participate in an enterprise that focuses more on say, reciprocity than it does the conventional transactions that we are accustomed to as a society, you need to be prepared to put in the work. This obviously isn’t going to fit easily with the lives many of us currently lead, particularly where our work and working hours remain largely static.
My own project, for what’s it’s worth, is beginning to take shape. I fear Nina Power would be disappointed with me however, as it presents no great departure nor discernible critique of the nuclear family. Yet the hope is that, as a starting point, it draws people together into more of a kinship structure, and that in its own tiny way, it contributes to the general shift that is occurring from traditional work and service structures toward a more civic economy—though not in a David Cameron ‘Big Society’ sort of way.
No enforced bigamy just yet.