My new neighborhood is a swath of tightly packed homes. I know more about my neighbors, their children and their pets than is reasonably comfortable for people that relish privacy. If I wanted to, I could lean out my bedroom window and touch the house next door.
If you’re looking for quiet dinners, walking around in your underwear or some peace and quiet when you get home from work, this is not the place for you. A gaggle of variously-sized children are usually clumped together cruising around on scooters, screaming, climbing down the sewer drains, biking or running around wildly.
Sometimes it’s quiet, though, and the kids are not to be found. I know it’s because they’ve found their way into someone else’s home and are wreaking havoc there instead. I breathe a sigh of relief because it’s not my home this time.
Things become a balancing act in etiquette when it’s time to herd my kids inside. I do my best to whistle and then patiently wait for their arrival. I really want to look like I have my kids trained and under control. However, when no one comes running, I whistle a second and third time. When I finally yell something loud and obnoxious, you know I’ve lost all composure and courtesy.
At this point, some parent walks outside and tells me where my kids are and points to where my dog took an unsupervised poop. I reluctantly step outside braless, wearing my tattered T-shirt, sweatpants, slippers and hair up in an unruly knot. With a glass of wine in one hand and a bag in the other, parents in the neighborhood witness my evening-wear and undoubtedly tsk-tsk me for completing my children’s unfulfilled dog duty chore.
We live so close together that when one family sets out their trampoline, there’s an immediate waiting line to hop on and jump. And instead of just making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my own children on a lazy Sunday, I make extra for the ones I know will cruise through my kitchen later in the day. Others must be doing the same because I overheard a mom talking about going through over 15 yogurt tubes in a day. And she only has one kid.
Hopefully I’m surrounded by families with similar needs as in my own home. Maybe everyone is also trying to manage the circus act juggling work, family, meetings, school, spouse, sports, home, pets and play. And when I start becoming overly self-conscious, I tell myself others surely wear the same kind of evening outfits and look bonkers, too.
Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, but a family’s salvation may just end up residing nestled between a tight community, close living quarters, and with other families searching for more time, money, energy and emotional bandwidth for the ones they love.
Sign me up for this style of living in what a few of my friends have affectionately dubbed Free-Range Parenting. It’s when a girlfriend spots your child standing aimlessly in a parking lot and picks him up and takes him home. That’s coupled with no shaming for forgetting the offspring at practice. Or when you’re finally home all alone, and a child, not yours, knocks on the door and you say it’s OK for them to spend the afternoon with you. If the child ends up spending the night, you’ve surely taken one for the team.
This free-range philosophy is my lifeboat, and, without it, I’d be sinking fast. Some days I feel like I’m surely too immature to take adulthood seriously, and it’s refreshing to have support when I feel like walking away. I mean, most nights I’d rather be in bed watching reruns of The Office instead of laboriously going over square roots with my middle schooler. So I eagerly call a friend and rant that I don’t know why I need a square root or even how to use it properly anymore. To make matters worse, I tell her that I don’t really even care. And then I feel better because she’s just taken herself to the movie theater and doesn’t even know about the homework due tomorrow.
Surely things could be easier if extended family lived within walking distance, or, even better, if we could all live happily under one roof. Instead, I’m treading water wishing more of us would jointly do the hard stuff together making for lighter work all around.
Until then, I’ll ruminate on the ferret that surprised me when I opened my kitchen cabinet door this morning. To be clear, we don’t have a ferret. The neighbors do. Regaining composure took a few minutes but then I knew just how to proceed. I scooped up the sinewy rodent and brought it back to the neighbor’s home barefoot and in my pajamas. I opened their door, tossed the pet inside and walked back home to my coffee getting cold on the counter. I took a brief moment to smile at the absurdity of realizing that the ferret had been housed with us for the night, and then I went about unloading the dishwasher, feeding the dog, and folding laundry before racing off to my son’s lacrosse game.