Femini Magazine: On Living With Other Women
Originally published on Femini online
I want to talk about living with other women. Even when your job pays well, even when you're good with money, chances are you're going to be in a shared house for most of your twenties. Couples have better chances of finding their own home, but I know people who have to continue to live in shared accommodation until they have absolutely no choice but to move out of London, because something happens, like there's a baby coming or they're nearly forty. Lucky escapes include trust funds, relatives with more than one property, and a life of crime. Unlucky majorities include the recession, rising house prices, poor choice of career or money handling, and chronic avocado dependency. Anomalies who saved since they were 16 for a deposit for a flat do exist, but I believe they are super human, with powers or no imagination.
I've been living in shared accommodation for ten years. I moved out when I was 18 to do an internship at a magazine in Brighton, and was passed around from house to house until in 2012 when I found my tribe. The journey was unpredictable, at one point I was living in a house with no fridge and a washing machine that leaked, only to end up two months later in an almost penthouse on the nicest shopping street in Brighton. I also lived as a lodger with my friend and his parents, in a house that I sort of just ‘arrived in’ at the age of 16 and didn’t vacate until I was 18. If I ever win an award where I get to make a speech, they’ll be amongst the first to get a sincere and heart felt thanks.
There is a time in every person’s life when we learn how to keep a house. In my first year of university in London, a housemate once put dirty crockery in the outside bin, instead of facing having to wash it up. This got so bad that at one point not one kitchen utensil, piece of cutlery, plate or bowl was clean. At this point, when we were all out, our housemate Rosie left all the washing up on the kitchen table in an act of monumentally well placed passive aggressiveness that left the rest of us in shame and anguish. There were fights, divides and lost souls during that first year of study, and that was just at home. In the end, against the odds and years later, we all met again as fully formed adults, with enough wisdom and self-esteem to blame the entire experience of 36 Broomsleigh Street on drama school.
The next house I had in London was the start of a journey. Then 23, I lived with girls I’d met over the summer, aged from 21 - 28. During that first year we grew and supported each other in an array of sagas from the dramatic to the hilarious. We were all so diverse in background and cultural experiences that our encountering of one another spurted growth of momentous proportions, especially as during this time there were so many changes in the world of mainstream feminist thought, interracial feminism and representation in the arts (the sector in which we were all working). We learned about mental health, female empowerment, the patriarchy and politics, and challenged our own preconceptions of female friendship.
It was named ‘Castle Anthrax’ (of Monty Python’s Holy Grail) due to the sheer volume of ridiculous sexual encounters that happened there: stories and anecdotes of a period of sexual liberation for some, and an exercise in trust and relationships for others. It was an intense, difficult and well lived time that one can only account to one's early 20s. We were the epitome of Taylor Swift's 22, except that we listened to that song we laughed, and said things like 'Oh when I was 22…’, not realising that we were still very much ‘in it’: crying about boys, staying up all night and eating chocolate digestives for breakfast. This was also a time where many of us experienced great loss of loved ones, friends and family, and of circumstances that had shaped our entire lives up until that point. Throughout this period of three years we learned a huge amount through each other, and though we've mostly moved on, we all mainly remain good friends. The main lesson that I will take away from those times is that you can’t please everyone, and that respect needs to come from both sides, but I will never judge another woman without applying the utmost empathy and compassion in want of not being able to walk in her shoes.
I then moved with one of my housemates into a new home, very nearby in North London. This is the house that we made into a real home. It was a beautiful old build with stained glass windows on the front door, a stage in the back garden and a roof garden as well as a balcony. There were three bathrooms and seven bedrooms. We furnished the entire thing ourselves. We all pitched in to keep the house lovely, decorated, grew plants, and bought a goldfish called Sharon (may she rest in peace). We had long summers of BBQs, with tea lights and VIP nos parties on the roof garden. One time there was a thunder storm, and about 30 of us went up to the roof to watch, as if we'd organised the performance especially to round off the evening. Because we were from all walks of life, the people attending the parties were too - adults, their children, chefs, actors, neuroscientists, doctors, rappers, investment bankers, different nationalities, classes, creeds and hairstyles.
Our house Christmas dinners were known to last all weekend. Drunk cooks, decorators and DJs filled the kitchen all day, cooking the dinner, hanging an eclectic mix of decorations throughout the communal spaces (one time we made an entire collection of paper chains using the ruder pages from VICE magazine), and listening to Michael Buble and Fairytale of New York on repeat. One year we ran out of Prosecco to drink, and took money out of the house kitty to buy more. Everyone was too drunk to finish their meals, but we ate like kings on leftovers for a week.
In those four years we supported each other with compassion, patience and zero judgement, as we experienced trauma in all forms, openly undertook various forms of therapy to cure the inevitable damage from our varied upbringings, and made really bad decisions in life and love over and over again. We celebrated each other’s successes and drank through the failures. One time we were burgled, and we spent the evening together curled up on the sofa watching Shrek, reclaiming our space for our own.
Some people don’t like the idea of living with a lot of people of their own sex. Lots of women have said to me over the years that they don’t have close female relationships, I find this saddening, and yet the women I've lived with who originally say this to me seem to have always changed their minds post moving in. It’s about understanding that those women you choose to invite into your life in such an intimate way become your family, and are there for you no matter what. It’s about knowing that a home with other women can provide you with a supportive environment, and the solidarity that only people who understand you get. Women go through a lot in society that is tough to talk about, so having a safe space to be in where the people around you understand is deeply healing whether you asked for it or not.
People that use words like 'catty' and 'bitchy' are seriously misunderstanding female friendships. I find it deeply troubling when women don’t like other women. My long term housemate Mei puts it best: why are female friendships often stronger and deeper than male friendships? It might be a sweeping statement but it seems like men don't connect with men as well as women connect with... anyone. Is this possibly true because the bond between mother and child is arguably stronger than father and child due to you physically carrying and feeding them? It's a fair point. Women communicate and connect better to men and women, but men have no need to connect with each other deeply, so they fall back on this male bravado, full of in jokes and banter: it’s a character they play, so they never need to be vulnerable with each other.
When we are vulnerable with each other it means potential heartbreak and drama round every corner, and not everyone likes that. The thing is, when the people are worth it, we take those risks, we brave the drama, and we even sometimes lock horns - because we know that whatever is going on, the ultimate goal is connect, be our authentic selves and keep growing together.
Sharing a house with people of your own age during your twenties is a right of passage. The people we live with when we are young become our second family, a family with different life paths and experiences that enrich our own with awareness, and through them we challenge each other, see the world through new perspectives, and discover who we want to be.
I write this as three of the friends I have lived with over the last 7 years prepare to leave the house, in search of new adventures. It is truly the end of an era, an era that has made us all face up to some really annoyingly difficult learning, each person being proved wrong again and again, each person dealing with their own limitations differently. The one thing we can all walk away knowing, is that through these interactions we have all learned to be better: unassuming, un-shaming, supportive and full of love. We have learned to champion each and every woman we come across to be the best she can be: making her own choices, embracing successes and failures without fear of judgement, and with absolute self-belief. And if that self belief ever falters, we know we will be built back up again by the women around us.