Punk has always been part music, part fashion, and part subculture, which is something that I love about it. I was a slow convert to the culture of punk, but I fell into it more and more in my early 20s. I liked the music and I liked the idea of people making things up as they went along. I don’t always know if I completely qualify as “a punk,” but it's definitely a world that I am part of, or one that I at least have one foot in. My wife makes zines. Our friends are in bands. We sew patches to our clothes (and our kid’s clothes), and we go to shows. It might seem strange to some, but for us it’s just life. Homemade haircuts, potlucks with weird mush, dirty traveler kids, and DIY values — we live it all. But it was never completely my life. I'd never lived in a punk house. I always had somewhere else to go home to … until this year.
It was nothing that we planned, but some time after our son was born, my wife and I found ourselves looking for temporary housing in a hurry. That's maybe another story to tell, but a difficult pregnancy followed by a postpartum period full of complications left me unable to work, and us with a financial deficit right as our lease was running out. On top of that, several places turned us away for having cats, or for having a baby. (Really.) We needed a place to be while we regrouped and found something long-term.
A local housing collective, complete with a live music venue, took us in. This is a space we’ve both had a relationship with, together and separately, for years. It’s a crumbling Victorian mansion that’s been owned and operated collectively for decades, and most of its previous residents have left their mark on the space (in the form of graffiti, DIY repairs, and various oddities). Decisions are made by consensus, repairs are made by whoever best knows how to do them, and there are three bathrooms (but only one is functional). We moved in as long-term guests, meaning we would be there for a month or so, but we wouldn’t become full collective members and therefore wouldn’t take part in decision making.
Here’s how it went down.
Week One: Transitions
We arrived in a flurry of activity, and during a meeting. To make collective spaces work, typically a great number of meetings are required. We tried to be as respectful as possible while we, two adults, three cats, and one infant, moved all the things we could fit into the guest room. In a week, another room would become available, where we might be more comfortable, but for that first week this was home.
Unlike in a lot of other kinds of homes, punk houses often don’t want their guest rooms to be too comfortable. The reason is that they often host people who are just passing through, and while they want to be hospitable, they also don’t want houseguests who aren’t paying rent or contributing to the community to stay indefinitely. This was a room with stained blue walls, graffiti from previous guests on the walls, old blankets for curtains, and tons of storage and spiders. It also smelled like a dead rat. I’ve lived in some less-than-ideal places, but for just a second, I wanted to sit down and cry. Then I pulled myself together, and told myself we were on an adventure. There was a note on the wall that just said “welcome home.”
There wasn’t room for our crib, so we figured we would temporarily let our baby sleep in our bed. It would only be a week and then we'd move upstairs and put the crib back together.
That first week there were three shows and two bank practices. Our kid made a short appearance at two shows and one band practice, after we found a pair of suitable headphones to protect his little ears. He absolutely loved it, and he slept great.
Week Two: The Honeymoon
We moved up into our new room, recently vacated by a good friend. It was better in almost every possible way; more space, more light, more storage, and prettier colors on the walls.
The one downside was that it was right next to the roof of the music venue, which means it was essentially like having punk shows in our bedroom. With a 4 month old. Every few nights.
We excitedly set up the crib, thrilled about the prospect of having our bed to ourselves again. He slept in it exactly twice. A growth spurt, the increased noise, and four-month sleep regression all added up to our excellent sleeper suddenly waking up multiple times a night to nurse. Suddenly the only way we got any sleep is if I could just roll over and feed him and then pass back out. Eventually I even figured out how to do this without waking my wife.
She would make coffee and toast in the morning while I fed our kid, and then she'd leave for work. After a short play session with the baby, I would get him down for his first nap of the day and then go downstairs. I loved the house in the morning, it was oddly quiet, light and airy, and everything felt crisp and lovely. Sometimes I would find myself daydreaming about making it our home.
When I lamented how much I missed painting, and that my watercolors were in storage, a housemate quickly lent me hers. After that, I could sit at the dining room table painting while another housemate played the guitar. We would talk about politics or our families. He would tell me stories about the places he had been, back when he was hopping trains around the country. It was so nice; I had known him for years but we’d never been terribly close, but he never failed to treat me like family.
When my baby woke up, I’d get him dressed and take him out onto the wide front porch. Together we’d watch the cars and people go by. I felt welcome and at home in a way that I hadn’t expected. Even though we were “guests,” no one really treated us that way. The kitchen felt like it might be my kitchen, the front porch felt like my front porch.
I also started to loosen up as a parent a little bit, too. It wasn’t a complete transformation by any means, but I found myself becoming necessarily more flexible. I stopped worrying that we were destroying our kid by not having a super consistent bedtime routine (it was impossible there) or that he was being properly acclimated to every single thing. When the bathtub was dirty, I learned how to shower with a baby in my arms. We were all getting by just fine.
Our child really started to blossom unexpectedly, and it was really a joy for us to watch. Part of that, I’m sure, was just the age he was at, but part of it was that he loved meeting new people, learning how to pet dogs, listening to many different kinds of music. I really wanted him to love pop punk, but he showed a strong preference for hardcore.
Week Three: No Sleep Till Brooklyn
The four-month sleep regression is no joke, apparently. Doing endless research on my phone in the middle of the night (thanks be to Google), I learned that his brain was completely changing the way its sleep cycles worked, which amounted to it being extremely difficult for him to both fall asleep and stay asleep. Anything could prevent sleep or wake him up, and our evenings were filled with constant noise. We were too tired to enjoy many of the things that had brought us so much happiness before. We stopped taking the baby to shows. I started napping whenever he managed to nap, rather than spending that time being creative or hanging out with my housemates.
We were all in a fog. When people asked how we were doing, we would just stare blankly ahead and shake our heads. No one complained about the baby crying (which was a very special kind of loud!), but some people definitely seemed to start avoiding us.
Some of the realities of living there were starting to wear on us as well. The neighborhood is notoriously filled with rats, and 100-year-old houses have plenty of ways for them to get in. Nothing in the pantry was safe, and the refrigerator (shared by seven people) was an overcrowded mess. It took twice as long to cook anything. I became more and more aware of the amount of drinking that was going on on a daily basis, and it wasn’t something I was thrilled about.
Living collectively meant that it took forever to get a decision on anything, so something as simple as “hey can we wash cloth diapers in the washer?” could take days, or even weeks, to get a straight answer on. As a full-time parent, small inefficiencies added up really quickly, and I felt overwhelmed, and kind of like I was failing as a mom.
All of those things may have been minor frustrations and worth it for the joys of a strong community and a creative environment had I been single and childfree and well rested. Instead, we were trying to navigate these difficult realities on three to five hours of sleep a night, all while caring for a growing baby and three cats. My stress level, originally greatly relieved by the move, went through the roof. Every day my wife made calls as part of our search for more permanent housing, and in the meantime, I tried to remind myself how lucky we were to have a place to stay and to be surrounded by people who cared about us.
Week Four: Cold Snap
The temperatures started to dip down at night, which we quickly realized was a huge problem for our family. It was only October, so there was no way the furnace would be turned on so early, as the outside temps would inevitably rise again. Once upon a time, I may have taken pride in dressing in 12 layers rather than burning fossil fuels. It turns out when you can’t keep your baby warm enough, you kind of stop caring. He had grown out of all of his hats (you guys, how does this happen so fast?), and we were always behind on laundry, so we struggled to mix and match weird layers to hold in the heat. He looked funny, but we made sure he was at least warm enough. I had to constantly remind myself that I was doing the best that I could, that we were doing what we had to.
A good friend gifted us with a space heater, but only after we lived through two literally freezing-cold nights. That kept our room toasty, but we still had to bundle up to run to the kitchen for a snack, or run to the bathroom to pee. Bundling up our baby took forever, so he started spending more and more time in our room, and some days I could tell that his growing brain was getting bored. The space heater also made the air in our little room so dry, that suddenly our whole family came down with colds and runny noses. I tried to stay positive, but I was terrified that he or I would get sick, and then where would we be?
While I was busy trying to get a humidifier, we found out that several collective members were really missing living in the kind of household they were accustomed to … that is, one without a little baby. On one hand, I could kind of see their point: many of them were child-free on purpose. But it was also really awkward, and I think I ended up holing up in our little room even more than before.
What I Learned And How I Changed
There are so many great things about DIY and punk culture, but for it to be truly compatible with small children adjustments are often necessary, and expecting them isn’t always realistic. If our baby had been crawling when we moved in, with weird odds and ends everywhere, with floors that were never clean, life would have been infinitely harder, if not downright impossible. A lot of people were excited about the idea of a kid in that kind of space — we heard a lot of excited “next generation of the movement” type talk — but far fewer people were ready and willing to make accommodations for an infant. I’m not implying that they should have changed everything for us, they were doing us a huge favor! But if people want families with children to be more involved in alternative spaces, we just can't blame parents for not bringing their kids around more.
Being there sharpened my values as a parent and also helped me to be a little bit less uptight. I discovered where my hard lines are. Yes, I definitely do want my child exposed to radical politics from a young age. No, I do not want him around excessive substance consumption. Music is great, but it’s less great when it starts right at his usual bedtime.
At the same time, I took real joy in the simplicity of parenting while there. A day of walking the baby around and showing him posters, dogs, and chickens, could be truly lovely. I stopped being afraid of co-sleeping, and I loosened up about other people having different styes of interacting with kids.