This is what living in a family compound is really like
I interviewed two friends who live next door to their parents and siblings
Ever since I started this newsletter, I’ve been having conversations with people about family compounds. Though not everyone wants to live next to their family, it is apparently a dream for many. I share that dream — and as I wrote last week proximity is key to creating a family-village — though it can be elusive for many reasons (more on that next week).
Luckily, I have two friends who actually do live in a family compound. Dane and Bridget Smith have been good friends of mine for around a decade and today live with their four kids (ages 10, 7, 5 and 2) in a house that’s literally next door to several members of Bridget’s family. Luckier still, they agreed to sit down for an interview recently to talk about how the compound works.
What follows is a version of that conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.
Jim Dalrymple II: So tell me how this family compound began. Bridget, it was your parents who set it up, right?
Bridget: So how it happened was my dad bought some land in a neighborhood that was just beginning to develop. He saved two acres for himself and then sold the other lots. That's how he paid for the land, by selling the lots.
Growing up, my parents home and yard was on about an acre and then there was a horse pasture on the other acre with a barn. There were cows before I was born and horses while I was growing up and it was just sort of horse property for a long time.
Then almost 20 years ago when my parents went on a mission, one of my older sisters approached my parents and said, ‘would you ever consider subdividing some of that land and letting us build there.’
There were two other pieces of land that were sort of, roughly, plotted out when my sister bought that piece. And then 10 years later two of my other sisters approached my parents almost at the same time and built homes on the other pieces.
But this would not work with every family. My parents are very respectful to their children as far as understanding that, yes, you’re my child but your number one family is your own little nucleus. That has been really important I think in facilitating this.
You said two sisters approached your parents and that led to two more houses. One of those houses is the one you live in now, right?
Bridget: Yeah, she built it and lived in it for a year and a half. But it was a toxic environment for them to be this close to family. And it got worse and worse the longer they were here. So they moved to Iowa and he went back to a job. He's a doctor, he did his residency out there.
They kind of recruited him to come back to Iowa, so they moved back there and we bought their house. We always kind of dreamed about maybe living out here. But we knew it wasn't really in the cards for us.
Why was it not in the cards for you?
Bridget: We weren't really financially there yet. We were still really young in our career. But when my sister moved we were like, ‘we need to get that house and we're just going to make that work.’ So we've been kind of house poor for a while. But it's been working out.
Talk to me about the support network you have in the compound. How often do you see the other family members, for example?
Bridget: It is incredible, actually. For my little boys especially. There was a period of time, it was last summer, when they'd wake up in the morning and say I'm going to grandma's for honey nuts. Which is what they call Honey Nut Cheerios. I told them they can't go over before 8 am. And they would just go over for breakfast. And grandpa always saves the funnies on Sunday for them and they would go over and get that.
My 7-year-old little boy, he's really good at avoiding things he doesn't want to do. We're doing homeschool, and when it's time to do maybe language arts or something he doesn't want to do, he takes advantage of me being distracted and will disappear to my mom's house. And he plays card games with her, or some kind of games, everyday.
Another thing they love about being by grandma is they're really into earning money right now. I can't always think of something off the top of my head that I'm willing to pay them to do. So they'll often go to grandma’s and say, ‘can I earn a dollar.’ It's awesome. They've vacuumed all of the cushions on her couches. Today my 7-year-old mopped her kitchen floor and vacuumed. Which, I’m sure is, you know, as good as a 7-year-old can do. But those kinds of experiences are totally priceless.
And then with my sister next door she has 7 children and her youngest four line up pretty closely with ours. And it's pretty fluid with some of their kids.
Dane: I'm an airline pilot. That's actually one of the main reasons I wanted to be here. When we found out the house was becoming available I had also just found out that I was going to become a captain and be commuting. Which means I was going to be making more money, but I was also going to be gone a lot more because I was based in Chicago. So I had to get to Chicago to start trips. And then get myself home from Chicago after my trip ends. Which can add an extra day per week. So that's a lot of extra time gone.
Bridget already had a good support system where we were. But they were 30 minutes away. Now they're 30 seconds away. There were actually a lot of times when I’d call and say, ‘hey how's it going.’ And Bridget would say, ‘actually it's been kind of rough with the kids but I was able to send them over to mom's house today.’ Or, ‘My sister was able to take care of the kids while I had the baby and I was sneaking in a nap or something like that.’
So that's exactly what I had in mind with wanting to be this close to family.
Here's a question for Dane. There's this idea that people dislike their in-laws. That’s not my experience, but it is a cliché that's out there. So tell me how you have managed to make this work. I know not everyone would want to live next to their in-laws.
Dane: I'll answer the question in two ways. The first way is for my wife's parents. They are like right on the same level as my parents. They have an uncanny way of just kind of staying out of your business but also being interested and connected. I feel like I am welcome over at their house any time. I can just walk in. And we can either just chat or I can ask a favor. Our relationship has always been that way, even before we lived by them.
Bridget: They're also really clear with boundaries. So they'll say, ‘yeah, we can't have your kids over,’ and they'll send them home.
Dane: It's just worked out so well for so long that there's never going to be any offense taken. They've been extremely helpful and generous and kind.
And then with her entire family it's a little bit different. Bridget's other two sisters who live here and their husbands operate on different general philosophies on how they raise their children. Sometimes you think that adults are going to parent the same way you do and they don't. And you kind of just have to make the decision that you're not going to let it cause a rift.
Bridget: You have to agree to disagree.
Dane: Sometimes Bridget has to be my sounding board, where I just say I can't stand this. We've had some issues. We've had family neighbor dogs kill two of our chickens. We've had damaged property. We've had our kids damage property.
It doesn't surprise me at all to hear that, and it makes me think of conflict generally. For a lot of families, you get together and you have, say, that one uncle who says offensive political things at Thanksgiving or whatever. So afterward, you just kind of fade away and maybe only see them at holidays. But you don't have a relationship. But you can’t do that when you have conflicts and live next door. How do you handle that?
Bridget: I have super open communication with my sister. She and I have a really unique relationship. And I am not the type of person who lets things fester. I just process them immediately.
So just being as honest as possible has helped the most. I think in order to be successful without open communication it would be really hard.
Dane: It helps that there is really a great foundation with everybody. The general nature of the relationship is that we all get along even though we're not exactly the same. That definitely makes it easier.
How has living where you do changed your relationships, if it has changed them?
Dane: I think where it's really so much stronger than what it would have been before is with our children, with their cousins and Bridget's parents. Their grandparents. They do not think twice about going over.
Bridget: I would say I’ve gotten closer to my nieces and nephews. It's interesting. When you’re that uncle who shows up and plays your role at Thanksgiving every year, you have your family members in these little categories, or these little containers, with how you expect them to behave. And they just sort of reinforce that, but you don't ever really get past that or get to know them. And for a while it was like that. But now that we're closer we have broken past that and with that comes good experiences and bad experiences.
So I've gotten after them and disciplined them in ways that, yeah, I think they're afraid of me now. I'm not just the cool arts-and-crafts aunt. It used to be, ‘Bridget was all about art projects with the kids.’ But now it's like, ‘you can't just come in here and expect an art project.’
But I think that's just what really makes relationships rich. Because you get these real life interchanges that are more than just the special occasions or the once-in-awhiles. Relationships take time, and that's the only way you can build them. That never would have happened if we didn't live close by and I think it's great.
I love that. I want to let you two go, but any parting thoughts before I do?
Bridget: This is amazing and I would never give it up, but it is so much harder than I anticipated.
Bridget: One thing that I was not anticipating is sometimes it’s kind of lonely. Human beings have a need to connect with other humans. And your circle of people that you connect with and interact with is only so big. There is something to be said about having neighbors that you can call to borrow some eggs or whatever. We came from a neighborhood where it was like 90% people in our same stage of life. So I had like 10 friends I could call to watch my baby if I had to go to the doctor. Their kids were all my kids’ ages. And when we moved here it, was like all my friends are a half hour away and all my neighbors are my family.
So it's been a lot more difficult to make friends.
Dane: We are slowly making friends.
Bridget: But of all the places we've lived, in our whole marriage, it has been the hardest to meet people here. Because my immediate go-to friends are my family.
Dane: Hands down. I think also part of it could be that people are just like, ‘they've got their family right there.’
Bridget: It's been harder to become integrated into the community. And I think people from the outside feel more intimidated coming in to, you know, breach the compound.
Dane: But for me it is a net positive.
Bridget: I’m so happy to hear that.
The thing about relationships with family is you’re just linked to your family forever. For your whole life they're going to be your family. So neighbors come and go, and you will have friends you stay connected to forever. But I think for my kids, to see the memories they're building and the relationships they're building with their grandparents and their cousins, it's just worth every single bit. All the hard, the messy. It's totally worth it.
Bridget’s parents went on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church. Missions involve members of the church traveling to different parts of the world to do various service and religious teaching tasks. Members of the church often do missions shortly after high school, and in many cases after retirement as well.