When her husband left her with three children, Janet Hoggarth did what no one expected: she moved in with her friends.
When my ex left in May 2008, Lilla was almost five, Teya was three and Danny was just one. I felt like he had died and that I would never feel ‘normal’ ever again. Initially, most days I survived on adrenaline and two hours’ sleep. I barely ate and lost so much weight that my clothes were hanging off. It was a dark time and it was quite a few months before I stopped feeling constantly sick. I stayed in our marital home so was constantly surrounded by memories and photographs of our wedding that I gradually took down when I realised he wasn’t coming back.
Vicki’s partner left when Daisy was four days old. Vicki and I had been friends for years; we lived round the corner from each other and used to go on holiday with my kids and her step-kids from her partner’s previous marriage. I had already been a single mum for six months when she was abandoned. At first, she stayed in the family home, but then they had to sell the house because of the split. In September 2009 I suggested she move in with me for three months while the house sale went ahead and she awaited equity from it. She had nowhere to go until the finances had been sorted. When she did eventually get some money back, I suggested she just stay and save her money to find somewhere else when Daisy was a bit older. It seemed the sensible thing to do, and the thought of her all alone in a flat with a baby, feeling rubbish, wasn’t very nice.
Nicola didn’t technically live with us; she lived up the road. I knew her from a music group when our eldest daughters had been babies. In January 2009 I bumped into her after not seeing her for about eight months, and we both realised we were single mums and that it had happened at the same time. We started meeting up for coffee, then started going out for drinks, and soon I introduced her to Vicki. By the time Vicki moved in with me, Nicola was always at the house with her two children and we were spending entire weekends together with and without the children. We would all sleep together—Nicola in my bed, Martha in with my girls, Eliot with Danny, and then Vicki and Daisy would be in the attic.
I had found the first year on my own a real challenge, and I did move on and pick myself up, but deep down I was broken. The forever-ness of being a single parent was so daunting that I kind of felt stuck. So when Vicki moved in, I suddenly had someone there to talk to when the kids were in bed. That’s when I knew living together would work long-term, because we’d been through so much on our own already that we didn’t sweat the small stuff, like falling out over the washing up—that all felt rather petty. Instead, we could chat about how rubbish we felt and understand completely how the other person was feeling. The same with Nicola—she would pop in all the time, and it gave her a relief from being on her own with the two children. It was so amazing to feel like there was someone there supporting you. I stopped feeling stuck and alone and started living properly again and really enjoying things and having proper fun—not just surface feelings, but proper deep-down belly laughing.
I would say we weren’t all massively different. Out of all three of us, Vicki was definitely the most laid-back about parenting. She would be the one to let the kids off if they had been naughty or give in and let them have sweets. I was already into the swing of routine with my kids, even though Danny at aged two refused to sleep through the night, but I still managed to get him to bed on time. I helped Vicki get Daisy into a routine because she didn’t have one when she moved in—she’d been on her own from day one and had no real help, so Daisy just slept as and when and wouldn’t let anyone else settle her for bed. So I sleep-trained Daisy with Vicki and got her to sleep on her own, freeing Vicki up in the evenings so we could hang out and watch a film.
The rules were: there were no rules! None of this was an organised project that I set out to create in an orderly manner, so we just lived each day as it came and our partnership came about organically. All three of us had been through the mill; we were adults with a past and experience to match, so the thought of sitting down and saying “please abide by this set of rules” never occurred to us. We treated each other in a way we would like to be treated and made sure we took nothing too seriously. I guess common courtesy and a sense of humour were the unspoken ethics at work in the commune. So in a way, if there were no rules in the first place, nothing could be broken.
We lived in the commune for just over two years, and during that time there were no arguments. Even looking back with rose-tinted glasses on, I can’t recall anything major at all. We were all pretty non-judgemental and laid-back.
Our favourite party moment among the many that were held in the commune was when we celebrated the Royal Wedding between Kate and Prince William in 2011. I wore my wedding dress, which got trashed by red wine; Nicola wore a red dress, because she had dumped her wedding dress in a charity shop. Vicki never made it up the aisle so she had to buy a dress from Topshop. The children wore bridesmaids’ dresses and page-boy outfits. We pretended Vicki and I were getting married and we sent a proper wedding invitation to all our friends. Vicki made a wedding cake and we had a tea party in the garden after we had all watched the wedding, drinking champagne and eating cucumber sandwiches. The party went on from midday till two in the morning and there were several casualties, with one dad being pushed home in a buggy because he couldn’t stand up. I DJ’ed at the disco afterwards and all the kids had a ball. Vicki still has me as ‘Wife’ in her phone.
Christmases were equally fun and we all celebrated together—three mums and six children—making it such a special time. Instead of all feeling sad that the dads weren’t there, we all had one another and so did the children. We bought the tree together, decorated it together, made all the food together like a ‘conventional’ family. The children still talk about the Santa Mummies’ Christmases even now. I still put up Christmas decorations that Danny and Daisy made at nursery together as a reminder of our time together. I think it’s important for the children to remember.
When each of our exes got remarried, we went out and partied hard at an event we named the Anti-Wedding. We dressed up in wedding clothes, dined out in posh restaurants in town, invited our friends and ended up dancing in a dodgy bar back in East Dulwich, as if it were the wedding disco! It was so fun, and we ignored the fact that a wedding was happening elsewhere.
The kids all got along really well, and because Nicola and her two didn’t live with us full-time, there wasn’t really time for massive fallouts or resentments. It felt more like an extended play date with cousins than kids thrown together without anything in common. The older girls found it very useful because they had someone they could immediately talk to about divorce, parents getting remarried and sad feelings, because the other children understood in a way their school friends didn’t.
If one of our kids behaved badly when we were all together, that child’s mum would deal with it. Because I looked after Daisy two days a week before she started nursery with Danny, I suppose I did parent her, but she was so little she just behaved herself with me. Danny, on the other hand, could be a handful, and when Vicki looked after him when I was writing, she would have to tell him off, which he was fine about. I didn’t mind at all—she had to do what she had to do on her watch!
Vicki had a boyfriend she met at a wedding just after she moved in. He was a TV newsreader, so he worked long, unsociable hours. However, he became a welcome part of the commune, as did someone I briefly dated. To be honest, they were at the bottom of the pecking order—we all came first! I realised I didn’t want to be in a relationship and finished it to be happily single, and Vicki’s relationship ended when her boyfriend moved to Hong King to read the news there. When we were all single again, about a year into the commune, the wheels came off and some serious partying happened! It was a time of hilarity and embarrassing antics as we relived our youth, out dancing when all our other mum friends were at home with their families. Looking in from the outside, our friends and family could see what a therapeutic effect our ‘mommune’ had on each of us. And there were a few people we knew in less joyful marriages who wanted to join in. I think they could see that by pooling resources and childcare, divorce didn’t have to be a lonely solitary experience.
The commune was transformative. I was coping when Vicki moved in, but I wasn’t totally engaged with the children at times because I was so tired and grumpy. Having someone else there made me a better parent because I wasn’t strung out all the time, living inside my head, feeling heartbroken. The heartbreak was probably the biggest hurdle all of us faced. The children were heartbroken too, and having Vicki there, with Daisy, made the children feel like they were part of a family again. When we were all together on days out or celebrating a birthday, the children felt like they were in one big happy family—it really did make a massive difference. The experiences we all shared—of having fun, supporting each other and listening—filled in around the heartbreak so that it wasn’t the main emotion anymore. We were all able to move on. It was also refreshing to be able to pop to the shop if we ran out of something and not have to drag three children along. It gave all of us freedom to run errands, go to the doctors, that kind of thing. Vicki and I would share all the shopping and childcare and plan meals together and take it in turns to cook. On Sundays, if we all had the kids, Nicola would stay and we’d have a Sunday roast, all of us mucking in.
I think I learnt that I am a lot stronger than I thought I was, and being supported by like-minded women bolstered me up so that I was able to finish the children’s book I was writing. I had wanted to give up so many times, but the others encouraged me and, in the end, I secured a book deal. We all worked as a team and, even though we were all heartbroken, we didn’t sit around slagging off men and being negative. We listened without judgement, and when someone needed help, we gave it.
While living with Vicki and Nicola, I knew that I would never settle for just anyone if I were to meet a life partner once I felt ready. I was having too much fun in the mommune; we had one another’s backs, cared for one another, laughed all the time, loved one another’s kids and could usually second-guess what the others were feeling. If I were to let someone else into my life properly, they would have a huge mountain to climb to match all of that. So when I met Neil on a night out with Vicki and Nicola in 2011, I wasn’t really prepared to compromise any of it! I took it so slowly. He didn’t meet the children for a few months, and even then it was as my ‘friend’. I kept him at arm’s length while I battled with my emotions. I was scared of letting anyone in, even though I could tell he was one of the good guys. But he remained calm, took it all in his stride, even when I got cold feet several times. Once Vicki moved out, we spent a lot more time together with him at the house, getting into family life, and eventually in 2012 he asked me to marry him! Nicola and Vicki were bridesmaids when we married. It would have been wrong to have anyone else.
Meeting Neil wasn’t really the reason the mommune came to an end; it was because Daisy needed her own room. When she moved in, she was a baby, but by the time she was three she had outgrown sharing a room with her mum, and Vicki wanted to meet a partner and felt she had a better chance if she found a flat and stood on her own two feet. I think if we’d had a bigger house, they would have stayed longer!
My children especially miss the commune. Daisy doesn’t really remember it, as she was little when she left. She has a very strong bond with my children, like a relative, and they still have sleepovers. They will always have that connection, I think. My eldest, Lilla, has recently been getting advice from Martha, Nicola’s daughter, over which A Levels to choose—they are both at the same school. Lilla especially misses the commune, as she is like me—she likes parties and busy households. She said the other day that she was so glad we had all lived in a commune because it meant she always had someone to talk to about divorce and her feelings. She also said that some of her school friends had to almost support their mums through divorce, and she said she felt so relieved that we were all in it together and that she never had to worry about me because I had the immediate support of Vicki and Nicola. She never felt scared because I was always okay in front of her and her brother and sister, and that is thanks to the commune. I do miss it sometimes—I miss the parties and the instant chats we could just have without having to book it a week in advance because everyone is so busy. Now the children are all so much older, and I am working pretty much full-time, I don’t see everyone as regularly as we used to, but we all live close by. I do see the girls most weeks, but we can go for a while without meeting up because of busy schedules. However, we are texting demons and they are still the people I text the most—after Neil!
I wrote a book called The Single Mums’ Mansion. It’s based on a blog I wrote while we all lived together in the commune, called The Girls of the Single Mums’ Mansion. The joke being we didn’t live in a mansion—it’s an ordinary London Victorian terraced house. I wrote the blog during our entire time in the house, and for a while after Vicki moved out. I have since taken it down because it was way too defamatory! But it was like therapy writing it, charting all the highs and lows we faced while living together. It was anonymous and I never mentioned anyone’s names. It wasn’t until I was dropped by my children’s-book publisher two years ago that my agent suggested I turn the blog into a novel. The book is a mixture of fact and fiction (hence the label, ‘faction’). I’ve written a sequel about Ali (who was Vicki in real life) and her journey after she moved out of the Single Mums’ Mansion. It comes out later this year.
The Single Mums’ Mansion took a year to write, and it was quite cathartic and stressful at the same time. Feelings and events I hadn’t thought about for years all re-surfaced, and I went through a bit of a low patch. Vicki said the same when she read the first draft before it was sent to the publishers, and she ended up in tears quite a few times, especially at the part where her dad died. The book has done extremely well in the UK and has been number one on the Amazon Kindle fiction charts, and I have been on TV and in the press talking about the mommune. I have had lots of readers contact me through social media to say how much the book has helped them through a divorce or separation. It has been overwhelming to know my story has touched other people. Even though I know the book is out there, I still find the concept that people might read it and like it astounding. It’s very surreal, especially as writing is such a solitary experience.All the press attention has made me realise that this could be a huge solution for struggling single parents. I do know one other set of friends who live as single mums with their kids, but it would be great if more people clubbed together and made a go of it. The meaning of family has changed over the last twenty years, and so many children now live in split families. I would recommend communal living, but I think it helps knowing each other first. Things can get tricky once you start involving children, and you need to have firm boundaries about what’s acceptable and what isn’t if you’re deliberately going into something new. You do have to be flexible and quite relaxed about things, because it can be mayhem with so many kids in one house. As I said, we had no rules because we lived in the moment and took everything in our stride, but I know that doesn’t work for everyone. I think one of the big differences with us was Vicki moved in to my house—we weren’t arranging a lease on a place together. In a situation like that, I think there would have to be some kind of agreement drawn up so that everyone felt safe and happy.
This article is from issue 15 of Lunch Lady magazine, you can buy the issue in our shop HERE. For more great content follow us on Instagram HERE and Facebook HERE