Parenting in (Utopian) Community at Twin Oaks Commune

Photo: Will White, Courtesy of Twin Oaks

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For years, whenever I was feeling exhausted or overwhelmed or underappreciated, whenever I began contemplating the number of dishes I’d scoured or meals I’d prepared or loads of laundry I’d washed and folded and sorted, I would say to whoever happened to be listening, “Maybe I’ll run away and join a feminist commune.”

It wasn’t a threat so much as a fantasy. Well, maybe it was a threat, albeit an ineffective one. I’m not exactly “commune material.” I have a stubborn, contrarian streak, and I like central air-conditioning. Still, it comforted me: the idea that one day I might live in a place where the burden of domestic labor, both waged and unwaged, would be borne equally by all who benefited from it.

“If you want me to do something around the house, why don’t you just ask me?” every man I’ve ever lived with has said.

My Swedish friend suggested this was an American problem — that men in Sweden didn’t have to read women’s minds to know they should do some dishes. Other men, apparently, would shame them for a dereliction of domestic duty.

But fleeing to a feminist commune, or to Scandinavia, wasn’t very practical. Still, I wondered if the kind of utopia I was imagining still existed. I knew that in the 19th century, followers of the French philosopher Charles Fourier and the Welsh social reformer Robert Owen had inspired others to set up experimental, utopian communities as an alternative to what one Fourierist called “the innumerable evils of the isolated household.” I knew that in this century, in the ’60s and ’70s, there had been lesbian separatist communes and men’s child-care collectives aimed at reimagining gendered relations and divisions of labor. So that night after speaking with my Swedish friend, while the dishes festered and the dog stood longingly by the door, I Googled “Are there still feminist communes? Can I move there?”

The first site that appeared was a place called Twin Oaks.

Twin Oaks is the oldest secular, income-sharing commune in the country. It is located on a swath of rural land in central Virginia about an hour from Charlottesville. Over the years, other sister communes, the Acorn Community and the Living Energy Farm, have cropped up around it, creating an island of secular communitarians in the unlikely region of Amelia County. Founded in 1967 by Kat Kinkade and seven other students of behavioral psychology, the architects of Twin Oaks modeled the place after B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two, a book about a fictional behaviorist community set up to encourage cooperation, egalitarianism, and nonviolence. Valerie, a 54-year-old woman originally from Ontario who has lived at Twin Oaks for 29 years, stressed in our first conversation that “people always assume we were founded by hippies — but, really, we were founded by psychologists.” At the core of Skinner’s behavioral model is the premise that human behavior is shaped as much by environment as it is by individual will or choices. If you value children, then you set up a system that meets both their needs and the needs of those who care for them. Change requires a reimagining of spaces and environments rather than of individual desire.

In this way, Twin Oaks is more of a social experiment than a political one. The people I spoke to who moved there tended to do so more out of dissatisfaction with the modes of social living available to them in mainstream society than out of a specific, political conviction, though many certainly held strong anarcho- and ecological-leaning beliefs.

While the community is founded on values around equality, ecology, and nonviolence, it offers more of an escape from the isolation and scarcity model of the nuclear family than a road map for remaking it. When I asked writer, transfeminist theorist, and family abolitionist Sophie Lewis what she thought of such communities, she replied that while she doesn’t view these places as “proto-revolutionary,” she does believe that “after the revolution, we’ll be looking to experiments like Twin Oaks for the skills people have learned there.”

What exactly were those skills, I wondered, and could they help overwhelmed mothers like myself live in a better, saner way … now, even before the revolution?

For over a year, I’d been reading about American families devastated by school closures and lost income and an unprecedented mental-health crisis among children. I’d read about the conditions that forced nearly 2 million women to leave the workforce since the start of the pandemic. Even last month, eight out of ten child-care centers around the country were still reporting staff shortages, one in three women said they have considered either downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce completely, and children are coping with unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, suicide, and self-harm. Many parents, particularly those in Black and Latino families that have been hardest hit, have watched their children lose academic skills, falling behind more privileged peers. Under normal circumstances, raising kids in a country without paid family leave, affordable day care, a well-funded public-education system, or basic social safety nets can feel like an impossible task. The past year and a half has been the opposite of normal.

But how has it been, I wondered, for parents at a place like Twin Oaks?

“Was the pandemic rough on parents?” a slender, unimposing man in his early 50s asked me from across the picnic table during my first day there. I was picking at my leek-and-lentil salad when he said it, and it took a moment to swallow. I thought the man was joking, but there was nothing insincere in his expression.

“It’s been hard,” I said. “Really hard.”

The man, Keenan, was sitting across from his partner, Kelpie, a cheerful woman in her late 50s with a long salt-and-pepper ponytail, and beside them were two other Twin Oaks parents and a man in his 40s named Christian, who technically has no children of his own but, because he has lived in this place for many years, feels as though he has many children of all different ages — some still living at Twin Oaks and others who have left.

I tried to explain to the group all the reasons it has been a very bad year for American children and the people who care for them. The Twin Oaks parents had read about these multiple crises but remained largely insulated from them. Unlike us, they were not anxiously awaiting to see if any form of child-care credit or family-friendly reform might be salvaged from Biden’s torpedoed Build Back Better bill, which originally proposed 12 weeks of mandatory paid family leave. It was a depressing legislative failure, especially here, at a place that had figured out how to integrate child care into its economy over 50 years ago and is still doing so today.

Many of the parents I spoke to at Twin Oaks had been drawn to the community precisely because they hoped to one day have children without making the kinds of wrenching sacrifices and compromises so many American parents make. Keenan’s partner, Kelpie, for example, who just before lunch had been singing with a group of children, saw firsthand the toll parenthood had taken on the friends she grew up with in Kansas. “I’d done a lot of babysitting before I came here, so I knew what I was getting into, and I purposefully wanted to raise children in community. I could see that raising kids in a nuclear family was going to be” — she paused, looking for just the right word — “hell.”

Kelpie was quick to assure me that her own family of origin was wonderful and her childhood had been a happy one. “But we had relatives nearby who often took care of me and my brother,” she said. “My friends were moving away to different places and had no one helping them raise the kids. I knew I couldn’t manage being a single parent, but you don’t always get to choose — sometimes it just ends up that way.” Throughout her 20s, Kelpie watched her friends with children struggle: “So many were just not making it. They had trouble with their parents, trouble with poverty. I wanted to help, and they were like, ‘Uh, can you watch this child while I work, while I go on an interview, while I do anything?’ And I was like … ‘Sometimes … when I’m not working or going to school myself.’ There was just no support for them, not in a structural way.”

After lunch, Valerie took me on a tour of the grounds, showing me the different dormitory-style houses in which members live. Every member, including children, has their own bedroom but shares bathrooms, a communal kitchen, and spaces for socializing and recreation. She showed me the house designated for members with young children; the visitors’ house, at which a prospective member lives for a month before applying to join; and the various agricultural businesses the commune runs (a hammock-making business, a tofu-making plant, an organic seed company).

The land on which Twin Oaks sits feels spacious, much of it rustic and undeveloped. While members come and go as they please, staying anywhere from a few months to four decades, the community caps the population at 150, adhering to evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar’s theory that it is the highest number of humans with which an individual can maintain stable relationships. These relationships at Twin Oaks are nonhierarchical by design. Managerial positions rotate among members. Decisions are arrived at not by majority rule but by process of proposal, discussion, revision, and debate. This process applies to everything from a decision about adjusting members’ weekly individual allowance (they currently receive $80 a month for personal expenditures), to the acceptance of a new member, to decisions around family planning.

As we walked across the damp, wooded farmland, past the office, library, and the laundry lines of garments referred to as “commie clothes,” at which members can trade and share clothing, Valerie described to me the system and the process of starting a family at Twin Oaks. Most members of Twin Oaks were able to enroll in Medicaid under the recent expansion. Any non-covered medical costs, including prenatal care, are covered by the community. After a member has lived at Twin Oaks for at least two years, they and their partner or partners (some members form polyamorous parenting partnerships) can apply to have or adopt a child. In their application, they must document that they’ve completed a certain number of child-care hours, that they have interviewed other Twin Oaks parents to learn what it’s like raising kids there, and that they’ve formed a social support system among other members to support them as they become parents. The applications are reviewed the same way all proposals are at Twin Oaks: They are circulated around the community for anyone to read and respond to. From what members have told me, the response to a proposed new child is rarely negative or controversial. Keenan, who works sometimes in responding to inquiries about Twin Oaks, described how often families with children inquire to see about moving there with their kids. He feels bad giving them the news that Twin Oaks doesn’t accept new members with children, largely because it wants to make sure it has enough space for existing members to have kids if and when they decide to.

Mala, one of the first Twin Oaks parents I met, a 46-year-old mother of two, was eager to assure me that this application and approval process is not as controlling or dystopian as it sounds. “Almost everyone who applies is approved,” she told me. “I’ve been here for 20 years, and I can only think of one case in all those years where there was a problem: A member was having some significant physical- and mental-health problems and wanted to have a child on her own. She wasn’t told ‘no,’” Mala said. “She was told that she needed to work on some of these health issues and find people who were willing to help her and then reapply. Not long after, she had a psychotic breakdown and ended up leaving the community. We all felt like we really dodged a bullet.”

For a moment, I felt a pang of sympathy for the woman and wondered if being told by those closest to her that she wasn’t fit to bring a child into her community contributed to her breakdown. There are many parents who struggle with mental and physical illness and still become good parents. Of course, they generally don’t do it alone. As though reading my mind, Mala added, “It would have been different if she’d had other co-parents onboard.” The woman wasn’t able to find anyone in the community who wanted to co-parent with her. The community thought she needed more support: “We put a huge amount of money and labor into each child, so we’re trying to avoid a situation in which we’re making that investment for somebody who isn’t invested in us.”

Until the mid-1980s, that investment in children looked different than it does today. During the two decades after it was founded, Twin Oaks children lived in a separate dwelling called Degania, a child-care center modeled on the children’s houses in Israeli settlers’ kibbutzim.

“Eventually, the parents decided they didn’t want it,” Mala explained. Many members had turned to communal living to escape the rigid divisions of work and homelife in mainstream life that forced people to divide up their time and attention, so in place of the former, communalized children’s house, Twin Oaks implemented a labor system that counted the hours that parents (or other members) spent with children toward their 42 hours of required weekly labor. Mala described the current system as “nuclearish.” There are currently 14 children living at Twin Oaks and more at the nearby sister commune Acorn. The kids and their parents are distributed across four different buildings, and many parents choose to live in the “family” building. Parents there help one another out the same way an extended family living in a multiunit flat might. Also, parents receive labor credit for the care of their own children that can be divided between themselves as they see fit. “A 42-hour workweek sounds like a lot, but not when you realize what work includes here,” Mala said. “So it’s not that you work 42 hours and then, on your time off, you have to get the groceries, and plan the dinner, and wash the dishes, and parent your children, and fix things around the house, and so on. All of those things are work — they’re valuable, but in the mainstream, they’re not counted. Here, they are.”

The other thing that she and the other parents I spoke to loved about raising kids in community like this was the commune’s “primaries”: non-parental figures who receive labor credit for working with a specific child and developing a relationship with that child that often continues for years. At lunch that day, Christian described how meaningful those relationships have been: “In the outside world, most people have to choose between having almost no contact with kids whatsoever or taking on the single biggest responsibility anyone can take on. If I were a single 44-year-old male living alone and childless in the outside world, I would not be okay with that. But living here, I love it. The relationships I’ve had here with kids over the years, I do feel like, in some ways, I am a parent.” When I asked the Twin Oaks members if it was hard to get used to this practice of having non–family members invest so much time with your children, they looked at me with sympathy, as though I’d asked if it were strange to have a roof over your head or enough food to eat. Many of these parents had lived here for years; they had lost touch with the fact that on the outside — or “the mainstream,” as they call it — parents often have no one and nothing to rely on but themselves.

Families at Twin Oaks are insulated from the world beyond the commune but not isolated from it. Mala, for instance, left our world behind 20 years ago, but she and her partner and kids still visit friends and family regularly, as do most members of Twin Oaks. Over the years, a number of Twin Oaks kids have attended public school in Amelia and a Montessori school in Charlottesville, and members regularly take small trips in the surrounding area for entertainment and recreation.

In college, Mala wrote her thesis on feminism and reproduction in science fiction, reading Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex and Marge Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time. The latter depicts a genderless, classless world in which every child is assigned three mothers of any sex; Mala found the idea intriguing. “I knew I wanted to have children one day, but I’d already come to the conclusion that there would never be true gender equality as long as half the population did most of the work of child-rearing. When I read Woman on the Edge of Time, I thought, That’s the kind of place where I want to live — or whatever’s closest to that,” she recalled.

The idea that the nuclear family might not be the most humane or sustainable structure for human reproduction is hardly a new one. In her forthcoming book on the subject, After the Family: The Case for Abolition, Lewis takes her readers on a tour of this movement, from Plato’s Republic to the utopian visions of Fourier and the polyamorous, anti-work communes founded across Europe in his name. She describes the nonfamilial modes of collective ownership practiced by Native and Indigenous peoples until they were destroyed by imperialism. She details the anti-family arguments at the heart of Friedrich Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State and the revolutionary Soviet commissar Alexandra Kollontai, then jumps forward to the anti-family revolutionaries of the ’60s and ’70s, who launched a “parallel insurgency that championed the economic, sexual and gender freedoms of young people, and attacked the private nuclear household ‘from the outside,’” and, finally, to the 45-year lull in family-abolitionist activity that coincided with the Reagan-era Moral Majority, stranger-danger Zeitgeist of both neoconservatism and neoliberalism.

According to Lewis, there is a very recent resurrection of family-abolitionist activism that began around 2015 with the publication of K.D. Griffiths and J.J. Gleeson’s academic paper “Kinderkommunismus: A Feminist Analysis of the 21st Century Family and a Communist Proposal for Its Abolition.” While this might have been viewed as the stuff of radical, fringe-left fantasy only a few years ago, Lewis noticed a shift that began with the pandemic, when “sincere conversations blossomed around the topic in diverse forums ranging from socialist ones like Tribune and Jacobin to mainstream vehicles like Vice Media and The New Yorker.”

The timing of this reemergence of family abolition, in many ways, makes sense. Last year, Annie Lowrey wrote in The Atlantic about “the great affordability crisis,” a meteoric rise in the cost of living, especially for families, that has substantially lowered middle-class security and quality of life during the decades of so-called economic growth. The structure of the nuclear family has always made economic life and social belonging difficult for those who fall outside it, those who, for whatever reason, choose not to marry and have children or do so without a partner. But after decades of disinvestment in public education, rising child-care costs, and the increasing isolation of the nuclear family, even middle-class, two-parent households are struggling under the strain. The pandemic did not create this crisis, but it has exacerbated it and, in a sense, democratized it. As Lewis writes in After the Family, “A household breathes and dies together in its owned or rented property … The virus is a stranger danger.”

The newer members of Twin Oaks I spoke to, many in their 20s and 30s, were well aware of the bleakness of this economic landscape.

Faye, a 31-year-old social worker, moved to Twin Oaks in September after spending the preceding year traveling through a pandemic and working on organic farms around the country. She returned home just as lockdowns were ending and remembers clearly the moment she decided to seek out a community. “It was always kind of on my radar,” she explained. “I had friends who lived at a Missouri community called East Wind.” Living in Florida, Faye worked as a behavior analyst with kids with autism, then as a social worker in the state’s foster-care system. Faye had moved back in with her parents temporarily due to some health problems and remembers how “when the pandemic hit, I was saving up all this money to move out of my parents’ house and get my own apartment. And I just realized that with my salary, I was never gonna be able to. I had a decent job, and it still felt impossible.” But even more than the economic reality was the social one. “I was lonely,” she told me. “And even if I was able to buy a house, a house wasn’t going to solve that.”

As Faye spoke, I found myself moved by her honesty but also saddened for all the people like her: people of every age and background who felt excluded by the structure of the nuclear family, people who, for one reason or another, felt as though there was no place where they belonged, no space where they felt seen and needed and safe.

A long time ago, in my early 20s, I had been one of those people. But unlike Faye, I lacked the courage or imagination to abandon all the old familiar structures. Instead, I married. I had children. I determined I’d make the kind of home I’d always wanted, that if I tried hard enough I might struggle but I couldn’t possibly fail. In the years that followed, I struggled and failed to be the kind of homemaker I thought my kids deserved. Like most women who attempt this challenge, I did the best I could. Now, I might occasionally imagine running away to a commune, fleeing the confines and conventions I willingly chose. The truth, though, was that after only a few days away, I missed them badly. I missed my children, my partner, my home, my furniture, my desk, my chickens. For better or for worse, I was a woman shaped by personal possessives. I called a college friend who lived in Charlottesville and asked her if I could come for dinner.

A teacher and writer, she lived in a big house on a hill with her husband and cats. She could tell I seemed crestfallen when I arrived and raised my spirits with decadent provisions. There was chili, good bread and cheese, red wine, and ice cream — her favorite brand (not local but shipped direct). After a couple days of lentils, the ice cream felt as luxurious as caviar. I saw myself for what I was: a woman softened and spoiled by civilization. I coveted Twin Oaks’ communal values, its anarchist and egalitarian principles, but not its lack of high-speed internet and expensive desserts.

“I’m a bad communist,” I said to my friend, finishing off a pint.

“Most of us probably are,” she offered.

The next day, I returned once more to Twin Oaks. Mala had told me there was one more member who was eager to speak with me: a man named Tigger in his late 50s who had met his co-parent at Twin Oaks and raised two kids there. Both his daughter and son had left to attend the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, but six months earlier, his 18-year-old daughter, Gwen, had been killed in a car accident.

Sitting across from me at a picnic bench, set back from the others, Tigger told me how when people wrote about Twin Oaks, they often focused on what it was like to work and live there, to have fun and have relationships there, and all of this was fine, but he thought it was also important to acknowledge that in addition to all that, Twin Oaks was a place “where people are born and where people die. I’ve been here for 26 years, and that really impacts how I see the community and the relationships we have with each other.”

Tigger was still in mourning but told me he couldn’t have gotten through the past six months without this community: “We went and got her from the funeral home, and the kids she grew up with were her pallbearers. They carried her coffin. There were 200 people at the funeral. It was huge. And it was beautiful. I did not want to have a funeral, and I didn’t want to bury my daughter. But part of what has helped me in my grief is how we buried her together.” As Tigger saw it, birth and death were not meant to be borne alone, and the main difference between Twin Oaks and the rest of the world was that its members shared things in a way and to a degree that had become unusual — not only material things but also experiences, responsibility, even pain and loss. “I mean, we’re primates on a biological level,” he said. “We’re not meant to be private. And what has happened in the modern world is that we’ve slowly gone from a clan to an extended family to nuclear family to the individual. And the bonds between us are breaking. Our basic needs aren’t being met.”

As I left Twin Oaks that day, I felt the truth of Tigger’s words. I felt it even as I took in the familiar comfort of my car, my house, my partner, my kids. I felt it in my body like the memory of a fading dream while I bought my groceries, made my dinner, washed my dishes, did my laundry, paid my bills.

I even felt it as I curled up on my sofa with the new copy of Woman on the Edge of Time, the feminist utopian novel I’d ordered at Mala’s urging, which was waiting for me upon my return. Piercy had envisioned not just a commune but an entire world without families, without boundaries around love and care and need. Reading an interview with her about the novel, I was surprised to learn that she pushed back against the book’s classification as utopian fiction. A utopia, she insisted, was a place that did not and could not exist. Everything she had written, she said, had existed either in the past or in isolated places today. “It’s not a utopia,” she said. “It’s accessible.”