Childhood, Reimagined: Not Your Normal Upbringing
Meet four families who dared to be different. Each one took the plunge into uncharted territory, leaving behind friends, relatives, and security -- all in order to follow their dreams.
The Eco Warriors
Jennifer Lance's two life passions are her family and the environment. For 18 years, Jennifer, Mark, and more recently, their two kids, Marie, 9, and Daniel, 6, have lived an eco-friendly life in the mountains of Northern California -- meaning they are 100 percent self-sufficient when it comes to their electrical supply. (Jennifer asked that we change the names of her husband and kids for privacy.) The family has a micro-hydro-turbine, which they built themselves, in their creek. "Creating all our own power makes energy usage a real-life experience for our children, so it's not as easy for them to take it for granted every time they turn on a light switch," says Jennifer, who is a teacher and editor of a green-parenting website. The family also grows much of their own produce and mostly buys eco-friendly toys and organic food. "We try to live simply, sustainably, and self-sufficiently," Jennifer adds.
Don't assume that they're missing out on modern comforts. "Many people think we live in a little cabin with just a lightbulb. But we live like most people, in a home with a dishwasher, an electric refrigerator, a television, and a washing machine," she says.
For all the benefits of living off the grid, there are also some annoyances. The family's power goes out four to six times a year, when water levels in the creek fluctuate due to big storms or during arid summer months. They can only use the AC a few hours a day, and they can't do the laundry or use the dishwasher while it's running. "When my mom visits, I think she finds this challenging," says Jennifer. "She's used to getting all the chores done at one time -- which is what most families do, especially when they work full-time. I'm used to it, but I admit that it can be frustrating at times, when there's a lot of laundry or dishes to do after a trip or visitors and you can't tackle it all at once and get it over with."
The family also goes out of their way to choose products with minimal packaging. This consciousness has rubbed off on the kids. "They ask if food is organic when eating out, and they even ask for kale in their mac 'n' cheese," says Jennifer. For all their eco-awareness, the one thing about her family that surprises people most is how normal they are, she adds. "My daughter likes Star Trek; my son likes trains. We experience the same parenting challenges as other families." Jennifer tries not to be rigid. If one of the kids wants a plastic toy on a rare occasion, she'll buy it. "We don't always buy organic clothes or eat local food. Today, for example, I bought fair-trade bananas and felt a pang of guilt that they were grown so far away from our home," she says. "I think that our overall carbon footprint is so low it gives us a little wiggle room to indulge at times."
The Communal Clan
Julia King and her husband, Mike, share more than just a 5-acre property in rural Morgan Hill, California, with Mike's brother Jeff and his wife, Suzi. They share parenting duties over each other's kids (Wyatt, 6, and Ella, 3, are Julia and Mike's; Luke, 9, Trevor, 8, and Adam, 7, are Suzi and Jeff's).
These two families, who live 100 feet apart and also share three horses, one dog, five cats, 14 chickens, and six fish, operate as a compound family. "It's like a commune but without all the religion or cult stuff," says Julia. The brothers' clan often eats, vacations, and plans parties together. "We don't do everything as a unit, but there is definitely a flow between our two homes," says Julia. "I walk over and borrow a gallon of milk, Suzi comes over to get mayonnaise."
The two families have been living next door to each other for nine years. Sharing the child care was unplanned but evolved over time out of necessity. "Our agreement was founded upon seeing each others' kids doing bad stuff or having a tantrum. We decided that we'd give each other permission to step in and handle things." The parents don't just play the disciplinarian for one another; they do fun family things together as well. "Mike will take all the boys on bike rides, and Suzi's kids will come with me on hikes while I teach them all about plant life," says Julia, a biologist.
The arrangement is convenient. Most of us would imagine the constant flow of traffic between our home and a neighbor's to be chaos-inducing; for the Kings, the shared child-care duties make a less hectic lifestyle overall. "The younger ones who still nap can stay home during the older kids' school-pickup times and don't have to be dragged all over when they should be sleeping," says Julia. "Sometimes I have all the kids and Suzi gets a break, and vice versa."
The two couples admit to experiencing some rough patches when first starting their compound family. In the early years, Julia was more of a disciplinarian and Suzi let things slide. But since the kids have gotten older, the large family unit has hit its stride. Sometimes, the kids respond best to discipline when it doesn't come from their own parents. "Suzi and I laugh because nothing she does can stop her son Luke's tantrums, but I just tell him to suck it up and stop the theatrics and he knocks it off right away," says Julie. Mike and Jeff are often away on business (Mike owns a trucking company and Jeff owns a construction firm), and Julia and Suzi pride themselves on providing stability in the kids' lives. "We love that our children have at least two parents there for them at all times," says Julia. But most important are the enormous benefits the children are receiving by being part of an extended family. "I truly believe our kids will grow up to work together and help each other throughout their entire lives," she says.
Three years ago, Leigh Shulman and Noah Edelblum were a typical Brooklyn, New York, family with a young child. Leigh, a former Web designer and literature teacher, stayed home with their daughter, Lila, while Noah worked a 9-to-5 job at a financial-services company. But the couple wasn't loving the fast-paced city life. So three years ago, they sold their apartment and most of their possessions, packed up their daughter, and took off in search of adventure. "We wanted to see the world -- and ultimately, find a more laid-back place to live and raise Lila, who's now 6 years old," says Leigh.
Since then, the family has traveled to 11 countries -- living off savings and odd jobs. Without a mortgage, car payments, and other monthly expenses, their financial outlay has been small. They've stayed in hostels in European cities, lived on a small island off the coast of Panama, and couch-surfed with friends in Buenos Aires. Now, they've found a place they're going to call home -- for a while at least -- in Castellanos, a tiny town on the outskirts of the small city of Salta, in Argentina. "The people here are lovely, the place is laid-back, and it's much more affordable to live long-term," says Leigh.
Currently Noah and Leigh run a community center for students, artists, travelers, educators, and writers. Lila attends a local school in the morning, comes home for a family lunch, and returns for an afternoon program of drama and art classes and has even started belly-dancing lessons.
Though it's almost as idyllic as it sounds, Leigh says that it can be isolating to live in a place where the culture is so different. "Many people tend to hang out only with those they've known for years, so it can be hard to break into their circle and form strong friendships," she says. Different expectations can also lead to challenges. For example, when Lila needed a costume decorated for her dance class, the moms were expected to do the beading. "It was no problem for the other moms, who knew where to buy beads, what they were called, and how to sew," says Leigh. "But I didn't even know the Spanish words for needle, thread, or the hundreds of different types of beads that exist."
Leigh and Noah plan to stay for at least another year. Then they may go to Israel -- where Leigh has family -- though Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia are possible.
As for Lila, she is learning some important lessons from her nomadic life. "She has friends all over the world, and she can confidently walk up to a group of children, whether they speak her language or not, and forge friendships," says Leigh.
Since August of 2006, Laureen and Jason Hudson, along with their kids, Rowan, 8, Kestrel, 5, and Aurora, 2, have called a 47-foot, three bedroom catamaran home. "Our goal is to teach them that the world is a fascinating place," says Laureen, a freelance editor and scuba instructor. "We work to pay the bills, but that's it," she says.
Starting in March, the Hudsons are embarking on a world tour, beginning with Mexico. A friend runs a school there, and they've enrolled their presently homeschooled kids for three months of Spanish immersion. "We'll spend a few seasons there, sail to Costa Rica, then across to the Marquesas, and finish by island-hopping in the South Pacific," says Laureen. "It's impossible to plan a rigorous schedule when you're dealing with factors like the ocean, unpredictable weather, and three kids, so we're keeping it casual." During the tour, Laureen says her kids will be learning geography, navigation, meteorology, sailing, boat repair, and sociology in a hands-on way. As for making friends, the seafaring community is a tight-knit, kid-friendly group. "We arrange to meet up around the world," says Laureen.
The family has no TV on the boat; they do have computers and Internet, as well as surfing and scuba gear. Most important, they enjoy hanging with each other. "Even when we had a land house, we all ended up in the same room," says Laureen. The biggest plus for a life at sea? "Boat kids have to be responsible." says Laureen. "It's not 'us' telling 'them' to do their chores; it's all of us pulling together to get things done."
Originally published in the April 2011 issue of Parents magazine.