Diy & Crafts

Living With Kids: Maria Rivera

You know that thing when you are sitting around with your college friends and you talk about living in a commune together and raising your families together? But then it never happens because how could that possibly work?

Well when Maria Rivera and her husband were looking for house near Stanford, and it all seemed too expensive, they made the bold decision to move in with their two best friends and share a house so their money could go further.

They really seem to have this communal living thing figured out — and it might just make you want to rethink that college best friend commune you’ve always dreamed about. Welcome, Maria!

An Arabic internist, a Latino Pediatrician, a Korean oral surgeon, and a Jewish general surgeon walk into a bar… err house. Our living situation sometimes sounds like a joke waiting to happen! 

My husband Ajlan and I met in Philly in 2008. He was a PhD student at Penn and I was a medical student, and we bonded over the fact that both of us had grown up abroad and come to the United States for college. I was born and raised in Honduras and moved to Philly when I was 17. Ajlan grew up in the United Arab Emirates and moved to Indiana when he was 18 to go to Purdue. That same year we met Rachel and Joe. Rachel was a med student with me and she and Joe were high school sweethearts. We bonded over our love for weird foods and travel and spent many weekends at Philly farmers markets. 

In 2013 after graduating from med school (Rachel) and dental school (Joe), they moved out to California. Ajlan and I stayed behind in Philly as I finished a Pediatrics residency and he finished his PhD in bioengineering. Ajlan then decided to go to medical school himself and we moved to DC. Fast forward 5 more years and in 2018 Ajlan and I had gotten married, were raising a one and a half year old, Zayn, a goldendoodle named Pita, and found out that we had matched at Stanford for his internal medicine residency.

We live in Belmont, California, in a neighborhood called Belmont Heights. It is about 20-30 minutes south of San Francisco. Not going to lie, we have a love hate relationship with the suburbs and our neighborhood. Having to drive anywhere has been a drastic change from our previous life in Philly and DC. I didn’t even get a driver’s license til I moved out to California! But it is not a secret that housing prices are astronomically high in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we would never be able to afford a house this size and with this much space in the city or even closer to a downtown. It is definitely a tradeoff.

Belmont is a wealthy town and most of our neighbors are much older. There are a couple of kids in the neighborhood that we have seen being strolled around, but for the most part when we go to our neighborhood park, Zayn and I are the only ones there. People are not as friendly in the Bay Area as we expected them to be! No one really talks to each other at our playground if there are any kids there.

We live close to a cross country running trail called Crystal Springs where we love to go on runs and walks and love that we can get on other smaller hiking trails just a couple of blocks from our house. We also have a huge back yard that is about half an acre big where Zayn and Pita our dog can run around.

We keep trying to look for homes this big (at least 4 bedrooms) at a decent price closer to “civilization” but keep striking out, so for now we are staying put in the suburbs.

We rent our home. It was on the market for a while for $2.5 million and we could never afford that. We found it on Craigslist and Rachel and Ajlan went to see it together and wanted to rent it on the spot. Joe was on a trip and Zayn and I were still across the country in D.C. We didn’t realize until we tried finding other homes how lucky we had been to find this place!

Ajlan and I had been wanting a change from the East Coast for a while. We really wanted our son to be able to spend time outdoors, and we wanted him to grow up in an environment where diversity was embraced. He is half Latino and half Arabic, and living in D.C. we were just constantly surrounded by horrible anti-immigrant rhetoric, ever since Trump became president.

We did not want him to grow up in that environment and wanted to be in a more liberal area. When we found out he had matched at Stanford we were so excited! We knew the area was expensive but figured the benefits outweighed the costs.

Stanford has subsidized housing for residents and fellows and we figured that’s what we would do. We would get a small two bedroom near the hospital and that would be that. We put out names on the list and we waited. And waited.

Eventually they ran out of apartments and we still didn’t have a place to live so we started searching on Craigslist. I was in D.C., still finishing out my public health training and Ajlan had already moved out to California to start residency.

It was a crazy stressful time as our lease in D.C. was ending, I had to move a toddler, a dog, and all our stuff across the country, and we had no place to live. Ajlan kept looking at two bedrooms and everything we could afford was just really dingy.

That’s when we started talking to Rachel and Joe about living together. They had just found out they were expecting their first baby and we had joked about living on a commune and raising our kids together for years.

We talked about it and thought: let’s look at the options and if we find a cool place this might be worth doing. Rachel started stalking Craigslist and she and Ajlan went to look at a couple of houses. When they found our current house they called me super excited. “Maria, this house is amazing. It has an incredible view, a ton of space and a huge yard. It’s priced at $6,100 a month which is kind of a steal in this area. We have to live here.”

I was a bit skeptical at first. I had not had a roommate since sophomore year of college, and our then 1 year old was a terrible sleeper (to the point where neighbors had complained about his crying at night to our landlord in our DC apartment building). I was worried about his behavior and having him wake everyone in the house. Rachel and Joe reassured us they were the deepest sleepers ever and we would get sound machines and we had to do this.

So we signed a lease. Two days later I get a call from Rachel in a panic that she does not want to move anymore. She is pregnant and freaked out about a big move and about living with a toddler. We talk to the landlord and try to get out of the lease and she shows no sympathy and tells us we would lose our deposit and first month’s rent ($12,200 total). Joe talks Rachel down and we all move in together — with trepidation — about three weeks later.

The actual move was shockingly pretty seamless. Even before deciding to move in together Ajlan and I had decided we would not move most of our stuff across the country. It was expensive to do that so we just picked our most unique vintage pieces and our nice bed, some baby stuff and not any part of our living room. Rachel and Joe had some living room and dining room furniture.

We mainly just looked at the space and bought some stuff when we got here. Rachel and I took charge of the décor of the house and we have similar styles so it all just worked. We both love vintage and bohemian mixed in with mid-century modern.

Combining our kitchen stuff was hilarious. We all love to cook and we had the most ridiculous selection of appliances and kitchen gear. We joke that we will now have to live together forever because splitting our stuff back up will be so hard. 

Figuring out the finances has been crucial and I think one of the biggest pieces for our communal arrangement to work. The key is that all four of us are generous people and love to share all of our stuff. We also never nickle and dime each other and if anything are over-gifters.

We opened up a communal bank account that we use to buy our groceries and pay our housecleaners any other combined expenses. We split everything in the house 50/50 — rent, groceries, cleaning, even pet care. If we want specialized things, we buy them ourselves, but we all are happy to share it.

The only thing we pay for separately is childcare because Rachel and Joe’s kid is 3 months old and has a nanny, Zayn is spirited and two and needs more stimulation and is in daycare.

We all talk about communal living as the best decision we have ever made. You know how when you are a teenager you joke with your friends that you will all live close by and raise your families together and go on vacations.. but then no one does? We are actually doing that and it’s amazing. All four of us are physicians and work crazy hours and it is so nice to have people around. 

The most challenging part is navigating the dynamics of two relationships and parenting styles. Even though we are all very similar it’s easy to compare yourself to others and how they are doing certain things. We try to talk about this a lot. Ajlan and I are also not the most forthcoming when things are upsetting to us and we are learning to be more direct. Figuring out chores was a challenge at first, but we are in a good routine now. 

Privacy and personal space is not an issue. Each couple has their own room and each child has their own room. We have a living room, a den, a dining room, a playroom and a kitchen so there is plenty of space. All four bedrooms are on the same floor.

The funny thing is we still spend most of our time together in the den. We take turns making meals every night and eat most dinners together and then hang out after. We tend to put our kids to bed at the same time. If anyone needs their own space we just go up to our rooms. We all have sound machines in our rooms so we can’t hear each other at night.

We have been living together for a year and just signed another year lease. It has worked out so well we talk about where we will be even a couple of years in the future. We do not have any family in the area, so we have become each other’s family.

I trained as a pediatrician and did extra training in preventive medicine and public health. I have been really disillusioned with medicine today and our focus on cures. I believe we need to go back to the basics and focus on lifestyle. I also truly believe everyone deserves access to healthcare and think it is a travesty that healthcare is not a right in this country. 

Last year I was introduced to a friend of a friend who had worked in global health nutrition for years. We clicked and talked about how we would love if parents had more support when feeding their kids. Guidelines change every day, having to think of meals is overwhelming, cooking healthy food is hard and expensive, dealing with a picky eater is exhausting. We think there needs to be a better way. That led us to start Foublie. Foublie is a coaching platform that connects parents to free feeding resources, and to nutrition and feeding experts for a fee.

Our vision is a world where kids grow up healthy and eating is seamless and fun. We are starting out as a telehealth platform but believe that increasing access to healthy foods, cooking, and nutrition education in general will be priorities.

I am most passionate about trying to reach as many people as possible and help parents understand that the first couple of years of a child’s life are crucial in setting up good behaviors, and that how they handle it matters sooo much more than the actual foods they are giving. Learning about balance, moderation, and variety are so important early on.

The first feeling I feel when I come home is support. I know there are others there that I can talk to, unload on, or just have fun with.

We want our home to be a super welcoming space and so far we have had a ton of guests, celebrations, dinner parties and people stay with us. It is such a crazy time and so hard to be a minority in the United States right now, and we are incredibly lucky that we all embrace each other’s differences.

All four of us are different religions, and there are four languages being spoken in our home, and we love that. We want our kids to embrace diversity, and really feel like this is how it should be — living together in harmony and peace.

We really believe kids should be raised in a communal setting. Modern parenting is so isolating. Families used to live together, neighborhoods would help out, it truly was a village experience. Kids would play out in the streets and moms wouldn’t feel like they had to do everything by themselves.

This has changed so much over time and it makes it so hard on families, but especially on women. Dads are doing more than ever before but we know the majority of the mental load of the home still falls on women and we have a long way to go.

We hope that Zayn and Cole grow up like siblings and always know they have four parental figures who love them. We hope they feel the joy and love in the home even though we are not all related by blood. We hope they forget the times we lose our patience with them or with each other.

One of the best examples of why we love communal living is this: Last week Zayn had been sick with hand, foot, mouth disease and was miserable for a couple of nights. Ajlan and I took turns taking care of him during the day, but I was up with him at night for the most part since Ajlan had to go to the hospital and my schedule was more flexible.

However, by the time today came around I was exhausted. Zayn had been extra clingy and whiney, was crying a lot and Ajlan was working all weekend. As I went to put him down for a nap Rachel came up to me and said, “You go sleep. If Zayn wakes up, Joe and I will watch him.”

Five hours later I woke up and Zayn had been fed, was having a blast, and they were all on their way out. His diaper bag was packed, including a dinner for him, and I could have a little bit of time for myself. I trust them entirely with him and it was so nice to get a break.

We babysit for each other once a week and take turns going out, but we also try to go beyond that and really try to make parenting easier.

Being a parent is absolutely the hardest thing any of us have ever done. We have such demanding professions, have worked 30 hour shifts, have operated all night — but being a parent is harder than any of that.

There is something so unique about having a small being rely on you for everything. The snuggles, the laughs, the dance parties we have in our den, watching the boys interact with each other, and the family meals are the absolute best and make it all worthwhile. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier but it makes it worth it.

Zayn was not the easiest baby, but I already miss when he was small and would cuddle in my arms. I also miss breastfeeding him. We had an amazing breastfeeding relationship I did not take for granted. Luckily Cole is only 3 months old and so I can get baby snuggles with him!

I wish someone had told me that you can love your child to the point it hurts, while at the same time not like being a parent sometimes.

As women, I feel sometimes we are expected to just fully embrace motherhood and not complain about it. People don’t talk about the hard stuff enough — the guilt, the frustration, the effects of the sleep deprivation, and just how normal it can be to love your kid but find them really annoying sometimes.

As a pediatrician I really struggle with this because I put so much pressure on myself to be perfect, parent him the “right way” or do what the books say, and he has not followed the book at all. It has been a slow process and something I work on every day, but I am trying to learn to cut myself some slack and not be too hard on myself and just embrace all the feelings that come with motherhood.

Raising a toddler, starting your own business, and being many kids’ pediatrician is not a joke! Finding mom friends that are not scared to talk about their feelings and that won’t judge another mom has been crucial. I am lucky that Rachel and I have an open dialogue about this too.

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Wow. I mean, wow! Thank you, Maria!

I love when people make a decision that is right for their lives and go for it and succeed so hard. I am sure there were people that told all four of them that they were crazy to try and make this work, but they did what was right for their families and are thriving doing it.

It makes me think about taking risks. Sometimes I think when we make decisions we feel like they have to be forever. But it’s okay to try something new and if it doesn’t work out, do something different. And if it does work out, like it did for Maria and her family, then all the better!

Do you think you could ever live in a communal setting? Would it be easy or hard for you to combine finances, schedules, etc? Do you have friends you think you could make it all work with?

SOURCES

Rachel and Joe’s bed

Ajlan and Maria’s blue headboard

Cole’s bassinet


You can follow Maria on Instagram here or follow Foublie here. Download the Foublie app from the Google Play Store or the App Store. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram too.

Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at [email protected]

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