The saying goes, they don’t make ’em like they used to, but our house was built more than 100 years ago and I reckon I could have done a better job. In fact, I’d like to invite the builder of our house – or at least his living descendants – to come over and experience what it’s like to live with seven children and six adults. Because that’s how many roomies I feel like I have.
Four years ago we moved into a townhouse attached on both sides. Back then, our neighbors on one side had a small child the same age as ours; the other neighbor was pregnant. We all bonded quickly – it’s unusual in London to find yourself surrounded with like-minded people of a similar age. Since then, however, we’ve multiplied. When you factor in all the house guests, nannies and cleaners in and out of our three houses, it sometimes feels as if we live in a tenement.
In summertime, when the windows are thrown open, my husband and I jump up when we hear a baby cry, even though often it’s not our own. At night I’m sometimes awakened by a tantrum, but I’m too disoriented to know who’s letting it loose. Granted, more often than not, it seems to be coming from our own home.
Our quasi-communal living has started to affect my parenting – and not always in a good way. Sure, I try to control my volume when I reach boiling point, and that’s a good thing for everyone when it’s successful. But just as often I’m too quick to smother (figuratively, of course) the screams of my children when they really just need to let it out. Or banish them to a room at the core of the house where fewer people can hear. I’m just too self-conscious to be living within earshot of my closest neighbors.
I should be far too old to care much what other parents think about my parenting – or my kids, for that matter. But the aural exchange on my block has worn me down. Often we’ll run into the neighbors on our way out the door in the morning. We’ll exchange pleasantries and perhaps a joke about the kids’ imaginative get-ups, and then I’ll brace myself for the onslaught:
“So, I gather somebody didn’t get much shut-eye last night,” I’ll hear.
“What a surprise to see you this morning! I figured you’d still be in bed after a night like that.”
They’re harmless comments, to be sure, but I have a special talent for distorting an innocent remark. Occasionally I’ll come out with a preemptive line about one of the kids contracting chicken pox, or the other getting a tooth.
“Yes, we know,” they’ll respond. “We heard.”
I shouldn’t let it get to me, I know. But it’s hard for me not to detect a strain of judgment in those comments. Have I been cruel to let my children cry it out? Do I need to enroll myself in an anger management course? Am I letting my children walk all over me? Are we keeping up the neighborhood with our chaos?
Sometimes I think we’ve been installed at this address to make other parents feel smug about their children’s superlative sleep patterns or their own remarkable self-control. Other times I think of our paper-thin walls as a personal challenge: forget about keeping up – or keeping it down, as it were – with the Joneses. Just pretend they don’t exist.
Still others I contemplate investing in sound-proofing. Our neighbors are already as good as they come, but if it’s true what they say about good fences, it can only get better.