Single-Family Housing Upholds the Patriarchy and Hurts Moms


There’s one problem with the old saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”: in modern America, there’s no “village” anymore.

Read almost any current post across the mommy blogosphere and you’ll hear tales of moms who are raising kids isolated from friends and family — and always needing a car to find any community.

Few women specifically cite sprawl and single-family housing in their writing, and there are obviously many culprits for the lack of support modern mothers feel. But the strain of physical separation is often apparent just the same.

Mommy blogger Sara Burrows wrote on her blog Return to Now that she surveyed her stay-at-home mom friends and readers. One in four of them reported having zero interaction with other adults in the typical week. In her essay, notes that “having our closest friends within walking distance would make a huge difference.”

Then, she proposes a radically different living arrangement:

Our dream is to buy land with friends and have a dozen or so tiny houses, yurts, etc. along with a community garden and community kitchen, so our children have someone to play with every time they step outside and we adults have each other to talk to while we work, along with more time to play.

What type of housing is actually best for mothers? Not for children, but for their primary caregivers? For sexist reasons, we never seem to ask.

But in her book, The Design of Childhood, writer Alexandra Lange contemplates what type of living arrangements make raising children easiest. Lange says Burrows’  has stumbled onto something important, in her yurt community ideal.

“Both suburbs and cities needed to be replanned around the idea of connected space,” she told Streetsblog, “for there to be more communal facilities so socialization is built in.”

While it’s not tiny houses or yurts, Radburn, N.J., exemplifies a more mom-friendly model, much like what Burrows describes Lange says. A master-planned community built in 1928, Radburn is a lot like a traditional suburban cul-de-sac turned inside out. Rather than have houses front the street, they front a system of pedestrian paths and parks, with the cars parked along the outside.

In Radburn, New Jersey, houses front parks and paths, not streets. Photo: Themikebot/Flickr/CC
In Radburn, New Jersey, houses front parks and paths, not streets. Photo: Themikebot/Flickr/CC

That arrangement gives children much more independence.

“Kids can walk to access everything they need without crossing the street,” Lange said. “The focus of the community is not this blacktop space, but this green lawn.”

Burrows also envisioned a community kitchen, where families could cook together and share meals. Early feminists during the last century pushed for just such a thing, in order to ease the burden for women being solely responsible for meal prep.

The book, The Grand Domestic Revolution, published in 1981, explored feminist challenges to the American domestic sphere. Author Delores Hayden writes that feminists for more than a century have railed against “the physical separation of the household space from public space,” and argued for the “feminist transformation of the home.”

Early feminists like Jane Addams in 1910, for example, helped establish cooperative houses, like the Hull House, which had a public kitchen where women could cook together and their families could share meals. Hayden wrote “a new approach to collective domestic life seemed to be merging” aimed at reducing the burden of domestic work on women by making it a shared activity.

But feminists failed at transforming houses for the benefit of women. And the prevailing form, single family houses — and even apartments each with their own kitchen — help make domestic labor which overwhelmingly falls on women, like cooking, isolating.

But in the 1925 book The Suburban Trend, author Paul Douglas pointed out the way yards and houses multiply private, unpaid domestic duties for families:

More domestic work takes place in the residential suburb than in the city. It moves the woman from the apartment house with its centralized heating plant, its elevator, laundry, incinerator, and janitor service, and with no premises outside of the house, to the single or double house with its independent equipment for each family and its grounds to look after. More work is necessary to make the process of consumption efficient and agreeable and to maintain esthetic standards under these circumstances.

Common spaces like the ones Douglas described in apartment buildings could provide an opportunity for stay-at-home moms to interact and share child supervision responsibilities.

So why don’t we see more communities like Radburn? More shared kitchens like the early feminists hoped?

Lange says, for one, it flies against the capitalist housing model. Building a community like Radburn requires a group of buyers that is committed to a more the cooperative model.

“It means you are giving up some of your private suburban space to the public good,” Lange said. “That hasn’t been the narrative of American family life. The idea has been that you get more of your own space for your money.”

Lange thinks that cultural notion can be hurtful.

“Actually more private space doesn’t make a better life-style,” she said. “Think about what you really want access to and how you want to spend your time.

“It’s more fun for kids to play together on a big lawn than alone on a little lawn.”

A more common version of the Radburn model you might see is a Californian Bungalow Court, where houses are situated around a central communal yard.

California's Bungalow Courts — that put communal space at the center rather than streets — are a different more family friendly model, some experts say. Photo:
California’s Bungalow Courts — that put communal space at the center rather than streets — are a different more family friendly model, some experts say. Photo:
Unfortunately, modern zoning rules make this type of housing illegal practically everywhere in the United States. Many cities outlaw multi-family housing in all but very limited areas. Even in cosmopolitan Seattle, just 31 percent of land is zoned to allow any multi-family housing — apartments or row houses — at all.

Suburbs often have minimum lot sizes and rules about setbacks from the street. All sorts of ideas about the heteronormative ideal family life — and the role of women — have been codified in zoning laws. When they are challenged they are often met with intense resistance. For example, in cities like Portland and Seattle, movements to allow secondary dwelling units — “granny flats” — in single family neighborhoods have heated up in recent years, but they are often bitterly opposed by property owners in single-family neighborhoods.

As the name Granny Flats implies, however, this type of housing could allow for multi-generational family living — which might benefit mothers with young children the most.

Hat tip: Kate Matchett

45 thoughts on Single-Family Housing Upholds the Patriarchy and Hurts Moms

  1. “All sorts of ideas about the heteronormative ideal family life — and the role of women — have been codified in zoning laws. ”

    Citation missing. Conclusion unsupported. BTW, children have Dads…

  2. Dad’s who still are largely NOT equally responsible for child rearing or domestic chores. Get out of your feelings. LOL

  3. How would you create a zoning designation for, say, greenspace-centered 50-unit 2-4 storey housing with porches or some other ‘soft’ interface between home and common areas? Could a prefab builder like Factory_OS, or a forward-looking builder like Panoramic Interests, design & make available a canonical form along such lines?

    Let’s have a “21st century bungalow court” design x-prize.

  4. While there are advantages to shared communal space over private recreational space, there are drawbacks as well. Chiefly, you give up some control over who has access to “your” backyard. These arrangements sound nice if you and your kids have positive interactions with your yard-mates; but that’s not always the case. The appeal of private space is that you can control access to your yard and your kids – and “more” kids isn’t always better if you lose control over who your kid plays with and who has access to your kid.

  5. Uh, okay? She’s not making the argument that everyone should have shared courtyards, she’s making the case for having the option to have one. Right now, everyone’s forced to live in (if they can afford it, it’s expensive) single family homes, or multi-family homes next to highways with little-to-no open space. Cohousing and other shared-courtyard setups are very rare. Backyard cottages are often illegal or highly restricted, so you’re stuck with older grandfathered-in housing stock chock full of lead and asbestos.

  6. You say that, sir, but the thing is, I knew exactly what she meant… because like millions of others, I LIVED it. We didn’t read it in a book, we’ve all had to actually LIVE that. (A with all due respect, I am inferring from the tone of your words that you think it would be a very unpleasant way to live. And I agree.)

  7. It’s a depressing state of affairs where you’re only comfortable letting your kids play in spaces that your neighbors are not allowed to access. Something something modern life, I guess…

  8. Family student housing at Stanford is like that, and it worked great. We didn’t live there, but friends did. Kids were safe in a great big common space, there were always a few parents around to keep an eye on them.

    But it looks like that might be going away, because they need more dense housing to accommodate all the graduate students who can’t afford Silicon Valley rents.

    Here’s an example, at least today. There used to be more of it but now it looks like construction.

  9. There are many options for living in smaller spaces with plenty of opportunities to interact with other people at parks, stores, and restaurants all within walking distance – they’re called real cities, and have multi-unit apartments and condos, row houses, and small SFHs on small lots.

    The blogger at the beginning of the piece sums up why most people don’t choose those options when she says “Our dream is to buy land with friends” – it needs to be exclusive, just her and her friends. It’s not a coincidence that Radburn NJ excluded anyone who wasn’t a white protestant for decades. Fear of others is what drives people to the suburbs, and no amount of urban planning will help until people get over that fear.

  10. Statistically? His neighbors first, state last ideology makes your complex the safest one.

    Until of course you start treading on each other, so he leaves and you guys are left exactly the same as every other communal space; run down, and filled with crime.

    The authors examples are the exception, as they are race and class exclusive zones…but I’m sure that’s men’s fault too, and ultimately the solution is to implement another one way street to shitsville.

  11. I grew up in a residential neighborhood in San Francisco filled with single family homes. Instead of sharing a large lawn, we shared a neighborhood park where all the kids would go play all day without any parents around until we went home for dinner. It was safe in the 1980s and it is statistically safer in the US today, so parents need to chill out and let their kids roam free. And we all need to drive slowly and carefully so kids are safe to walk and ride their bikes.

  12. YES to everything here. I’m pregnant and isolated in a very suburban SF setting, very lonely and wish I had friends I could walk over to to see/share in child rearing/domestic work. Desparate for a more European streetscape and living accommodations in my life.

  13. I think the major problem is the “stay at home parent” figure, which is still overwhelmingly a female. Anything but shared-duties households where both parents split childcare more or less evenly should be socially rejected as outdated.

  14. That’s all true in theory, but are you a parent? I am, and I can tell you that in my ‘real city’ of San Francisco almost no one feels safe letting their kids roam around from house to house and they justify (at least) one-car-per-adult ownership as a result, despite the fact that there simply is not enough room here for on-street parking of that many vehicles.

    This isn’t about access to services. This is about access to people. This is about kids’ access to **non-chaperoned** playgroup opportunities. I am sensing that you do not understand this because you are not yourself a parent.

  15. Absolutely 100% true. I just wish I knew how to convince fellow parents to fight against the culture of fear. I just read ‘Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear’ by Kim Brooks. And there’s the Free Range Parenting blog. And so forth.

  16. I am a parent – a work at home dad (freelance database programmer) who picks his daughter up from school almost every day. My 12 YO daughter also walked home from a volunteer job where we live in Chicago every day this summer. Was I worried? Hell yeah! Did I teach her how to be safe, how to defend herself? Yes!

    Our neighborhood is safe, I am not afraid of it. The main thing for me is that we have LOADS of friends nearby. She walked 3 block tonight for a D&D game with friends by herself, got home around 9PM. All good, it’s how I grew up in NYC/Boston/London in the 70’s, which was actually much more dangerous.

  17. “put communal space at the center rather than streets”

    But streets can be communal spaces. Look at the woonerfs in the Netherlands. Then read Jane Jacobs on how streets can encourage community interactions, which do not happen in housing projects where internal pathways are separate from the streets.

    What is needed is to build walkable neighborhoods with shopping and services near homes and to reduce the amount of car traffic and slow the remaining traffic so streets can work better as communal spaces.

    What is not needed is suburban designs like Radburn. Jacobs shows that you get public life on streets that are used for both commercial activity and pedestrian paths. That is lost in suburban designs that separate the pedestrian paths from the commercial activity.

  18. This article makes some really good points, but why is the author so angry at inanimate buildings and any person (including women) that might just prefer more space? I agree with the general premise of sprawl and suburban lifestyles making it more difficult for adults to have social time, but now you’re SEXIST if you don’t ask what kind of housing is best for MOTHERS??? Huh…? P.S. plenty of suburbanites have very fulfilling social lives.

  19. I appreciate many of the points, but struggle to see these ideas reflected in real life. Of all the places I’ve seen, I’ve never been in a more social or family-focused area as my suburban neighborhood. The entire neighborhood revolves around kids and their parents.

    Maybe the isolation some women feel has more to do with the fact that people move alot today rather than who their neighbors are or aren’t.

  20. Look for a new home or job now, maybe in another metro area if you can’t afford what you *need* near SF. I speak from experience when I say that your loneliness will not only get worse, but will probably also come out as resentment against your husband and child. Deprived mommy = miserable family. That’s just how mental health works.

  21. Suburbs in general may have gotten safer since the 80s, but San Francisco may be an exception to that. It’s kind of a dirty clusterbunch lately.

  22. Thank you very much for your response Elizabeth. I am worried about my mental health and the baby isn’t here yet.

  23. Your concern is legitimate and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. That said, you can improve your social life from where you are now. Read “Friendships Don’t Just Happen” by Shasta Nelson; it’s all about how to make friends as an adult, once you no longer have the social crutch of college or a hometown.

  24. If you have persistent problems with tweakers next door, you’re definitely in a bad neighborhood. But building houses on larger lots with private yards isn’t going to make people stop using drugs. It might help ameliorate some of the negative effects, but it creates others, and you’re still left with the tweakers.

  25. But that’s not it at all. I frequently go to the park with my kids. But when I do, if something’s going on that I’m not comfortable with, I can just leave. It’s not “tweakers,” BTW. Sometimes there’s a kid who’s being a bully, or playing with toy guns (which my wife and I don’t want our son playing with), or a pit bull not properly leashed.

    If your backyard is shared space with several other homes, you lose that control. If one of your neighbors is just fine with toy guns or a pit bull (for example), then you’re going to have toy guns or a pit bull in your backyard. If you get along well with all your neighbors, it will be lovely – if you have a serious problem with one of your neighbors, those problems are now in your shared backyard.

  26. And I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t be allowable – just pointing out that while there are some *advantages* to those shared recreational spaces, there are also *disadvantages* that the discussion doesn’t acknowledge. These types of shared arrangements seem nice in principle….but if they end up offering a “worst of both worlds” (the expense of SFD homes, with the administrative expense and loss of privacy of shared recreational space in MF housing), you’re not going to see them in the market much *even if* they are permitted.

  27. Dozens is nice, but it’s a pretty small number compared to the number of places where it’s illegal to build cohousing.

  28. The article also seems to focus on stay at home moms. So the stay at home moms have the luxury and privilege to be able not work but then complain about the Patriarchy? Talk about entitlement!

  29. Perhaps one area should be zoned to tolerate this, since everyone needs to live somewhere. I’m not sure how to do it though.

  30. This is a great post and a persuasive argument. One small point: “Granny Flats” have been controversial in Seattle among a small minority of homeowners, but in Portland basically no one objects to them except those who mistakenly (and/or falsely) claim they’re only ever used as Airbnbs.

    Politically, it’s been a *little* bit like a different legalization of an already-common domestic situation — gay marriage. Once ADUs became common, everybody realized that nobody cared.

  31. Similar story in Vancouver BC, the motherland of ADUs BTW: they’ve become the infill option that even conservatives embrace as a way to prove they’re not against all infill.

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