Carmel Sullivan with son Cooper

(WOMENSENEWS)–Following her divorce a few years ago, Carmel Sullivan was living in Denver with her young son Cooper. Although the oil painter was financially stable, Sullivan felt isolated as a newly single parent. She thought another single mother with a child would make ideal housemates, but wondered how she could find the right match.

It was then September 2000. Shortly afterthat, she moved to Los Angeles and placed an advertisement in a local newspaper looking for such a house-sharing arrangement. She was stunned to receive 18 responses from other single mothers who wanted companionship for themselves and their children, partnerships in child rearing or a chance to pool financial resources. Many of the respondents lived in one-room apartments. One lived in a garage with her three children.

“It made me very aware of what was going on with single moms,” Sullivan said.

Pairing by School Districts, Children’s Age

After speaking with the women on the telephone and meeting some in person, Sullivan found a match for herself, and then went to work matching up the others based on school districts and their children’s ages. From that first makeshift matchmaking arrangement, Co-abode was created. Now in its second year of connecting single mothers for house-sharing opportunities, this nonprofit organization based in Santa Monica, Calif., has reached thousands of single mothers across the country. So far, 6,000 have registered in the Co-abode database, 565 are actively seeking matches and at least 112 moms have been successful matched.

“At first, I thought I could just create a Web site and maintain it,” said Sullivan, Co-abode founder. “But it became apparent pretty early on that this was a missing social service.”

According to Co-abode, 33 percent of all American households are headed by single parents raising more than 25 million children. Earning $24,000, the average single mother’s day includes rushing from work to daycare to home, as well as serving as cook, driver, playmate and nurse to her children. Though many women accomplish all these tasks without a partner, sharing the duties with another responsible adult can help mothers and children live more fulfilling lives with less hectic schedules.

Initially, Sullivan and Co-abode operations manager and program coordinator Audrey Arkins placed advertisements in parenting publications across the country with high single mother populations, based on U.S. Census data. To date, the most interest has been found in New York, Minnesota and Florida.

“We know there are 13 million single moms out there and that goes up by 25 percent every year,” said Arkins. “It’s an endless market and we didn’t realize that so many women would be so motivated to do this.”

E-Mail Probes, House Parties

Interested single mothers fill out an online profile and can view the profiles of others in their geographic area. After searching the profiles of women registered in their desired zip codes, mothers interested in house sharing can contact another who seems compatible through a private and anonymous e-mail system.

In addition to house sharing, Co-abode has also helped women organize other groups. These include Circle of Friends, which helps organize single mother support groups in 22 states; the Affordable Housing Access program, which connects currently low-income mothers with subsidized housing in safe neighborhoods; the Single Mother’s Resource program, which provides referral services on subsidized child care, medical-, dental- and mental-health care and advice on money management; and the Outreach program, a collaboration with other community service programs.

Danielle McWilliams, 36, of Virginia, was so motivated to find a match after discovering Co-abode that she contacted Sullivan and asked if she could host a party for members, rather than surf online profiles. Held last summer for interested mothers in the Washington, Maryland, and Virginia area, McWilliams hoped attendees could form a support network, and ideally, some of them might even find a house sharing match. “I really wanted support and help in my house,” McWilliams said. “And my son is an only child, so I wanted him to learn sharing and cooperation, even though I couldn’t give him a sibling.”

In what now seems like kismet, McWilliams, assistant director of summer housing at American University, found her match in another single mother, with a son the same age as her own. After moving in together in November, the newly formed foursome is adjusting well. “I’ve been astounded at how smoothly it has gone,” McWilliams said. “The boys spend so much time playing with each other that it makes our lives easier and their lives so much better.”

Home sharing provides myriad benefits for both single mothers and their children. According to Co-abode, it enables participants to afford better housing within a safer school district, an opportunity to halve the cost of rent and overhead expenses, and lighten the burden of cooking, grocery shopping, laundry, homework and carpooling. These women may even have a chance to go out on a date or to a yoga class, or free up a little cash to take the kids to a Saturday matinee with an extra adult around to run the household. For McWilliams, cleaning the house used to take all day. Now, with the boys playing together, and an extra set of hands, the chores are done in two hours. And each woman gets some time for herself as well.

“We get more done in half the time,” McWilliams said. “And my social life has improved. I feel like I have time for myself now, too.”

Living together, however, can be difficult for anyone. According to Co-abode, many lifestyle conflicts can be avoided when potential matches spend ample time getting to know each other and becoming friends before joining households. Sullivan said it may take a year before two women are ready to share a household and raise their children together.

An extended questionnaire involves questions pertaining to religion, extended family, dating and alcohol. The questionnaire prompts potential matches to talk about many issues that could make or break a house sharing arrangement. “The questions cover things that matches really need to spend a few hours talking about,” Sullivan said. “One woman joked that if she had potential dates fill out this form, she could have avoided a lot of problems.”

Sullivan and Arkins,the sole staffers at Co-abode, find more of their time is spent writing grant applications and seeking donations than in its first two years of operation. This is due in part to their significant popularity and success. Since they don’t want their Web site riddled with “pop-up” advertisements, they have shied away from corporate sponsorship. “Our major goal is funding ourselves for the rest of the year,” Arkins said. “And we know we will.”

In the meantime, mothers such as McWilliams and their children are finding companionship, financial stability and happiness with their new housemates.

“The quality of our lives has changed so significantly. I knew it this would be good, but I had no idea how good,” McWilliams said. “I feel so blessed that I found out about Co-abode.”

Meanwhile, Sullivan’s original match has since moved out of the United States. Now, in addition to running Co-abode, she is keeping watch for another match for herself, as well.

Victoria Groves is a freelance writer specializing in women’s issues, public policy and economic development. She can be reached at [email protected]

For more information:

Single Mothers House Sharing:

Insanity House
Empowering single parent and non-traditional families:

American Association for Single People: