I’m raising my children in a flat and the community that comes with it is worth it

April 17, 2023

My father lives in the next suburb, but I can count the times he’s been inside my home on one hand. Two fingers, actually: after the birth of my son and after the birth of my daughter. It’s not because we don’t get on – I love Dad and he loves me. But he is a boomer who bought a four-bedroom, three-garden house for $2 in 1974, and I am pushing 40 and live in a flat. Let me repeat: a flat. When he steps inside my front door, I know what he’s thinking.

How – he wonders, administering the polite amount of baby cuddles before racing for the exit – can my seemingly intelligent daughter, mother of two, whose private school fees I paid for, live in this hellhole?

Career choices aside – IT versus writing, no prizes for guessing the more lucrative – it’s not what my younger self expected either. The Great Australian Dream is still home ownership and, more specifically, house ownership. Growing up in middle-class inner Melbourne in the 80s and 90s, none of my friends lived in flats and I assumed that by the time I had children, I too would live in a house of my own. But – who knew? – the keys don’t emerge with the baby in a kind of painful-but-convenient two-for-one deal.

Like it or not, higher-density living is the future of our cities and families in flats are becoming more common. Living cheek by jowl has its obvious downsides (wafting smoke out of a neighbour’s window, for instance, and don’t get me started on the window-rattling sex in the bedroom above) but there are positives to living so close to one’s fellow man.

Sandwiched above, below and to one side by other apartments, our place is cool in summer and warm in winter. A neighbour can easily pop up the back stairs and crack a can of Fancy Feast for our cat when we’re away.

During lockdowns, the woman next door left gifts on the mat for our toddler: piles of shells, helicopter leaves, the latest supermarket collectible. When I take my son down to play in the communal courtyard, we never know whom we’ll meet – Jeff hanging up his Y-fronts? Chris watering the ferns? – which keeps things interesting.

Is my generation ashamed of the comparatively small size of our homes? In the 1980s, when I was born, Mum’s new mothers group met at someone’s home – they all lived in houses, with plenty of space to chat and play.

Not any more. My group of inner-city parents meet in public – parks, libraries and community centres mostly, with the odd trip to the museum thrown in. At almost five, my son has attended countless birthday parties, but not one has been at someone’s home. His own parties have all been in parks except one, his first, which we held in my parents’ garden.

That day I eavesdropped on a group of dads, professional men in their 30s and 40s, sipping beer and talking about – what else? – real estate. “We can’t afford anything like this,” said one, gesturing at the large leafy garden. “A proper home for a family.”

But what is a proper home? My dad’s disdain for where I live is blinkered by a limited experience of what constitutes “normal”.

In Europe, where 46.2% of people live in flats, raising children this way is unremarkable. I lived in Nanjing, China, for a year, where owning a house would be unthinkable for all but the uber-rich. Everyone lives in apartments and at night, rather than staying cooped up inside, people headed out to the streets, often in pyjamas, to chat, eat, play cards, dance. The streets became 热闹 rènào, a term that means lively, bustling. I once showed a Chinese friend around our Melbourne suburb. “It’s beautiful, but so quiet,” she said. “Where’s the rènào?

Our suburb may not be rènào, but raising kids in a flat forces you out and out is where you meet people. Before I had children, I knew very few neighbours. But when you’re roaming the nature strip with a mushroom-seeking toddler, people stop for a chat. Children, like dogs, are a social lubricant and I can’t go out for a walk any more without bumping into someone I know.

I have no study, so I work at a communal studio where I’ve made countless friends. I have no garden of my own, so I grow veggies at the local community plot. We often spend entire Saturdays down there: it’s become our village square, where kids run wild and adults meet and mingle. For Easter, we had a big hot cross bun cook-up with some other gardeners and it was loads of fun. Would we have done that if we lived in a house?

At times I debate a move to the country, to a place of our own. But at what price? All those precious networks uprooted: social, professional, family. The need to start again. No. My kids will be flat kids, with all that that entails. I reckon they’ll turn out just fine.

This piece was first published in Guardian Australia on 17 April 2023

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Isabel Robinson is a writer and community development worker based in Melbourne. She is writing a middle grade novel with her husband Stephen Sholl. She has two children and lives in St Kilda.