Where is the village of my Midwestern childhood? Living abroad in Turkey the first seven years of my son’s life, I was used to being far from family but had an amazing support system of friends and neighbors. Not to mention the often-suffocating help of passersby who couldn’t resist the urge to touch my child, pick him up if he fell, and entertain him while we were out to dinner. Both he and I were comfortable with perfect strangers helping me parent.
I thought moving back to the US would be easy. It is, after all, where I grew up. My Michigan hometown seemed idyllic, a time we kids would ride our bikes all around the block with the neighborhood group, going in and out of each others’ houses, taking orders from other parents. My mom knew if she couldn’t see us, our neighbor probably could. You know, the village.
My entire family lived nearby, and we spent lots of time each week at a grandparents’ house, or an aunt’s. If there were a snow day, we would wake up to find Grandma there while our parents were at work. If Mom needed to grocery shop, she would leave my sisters and me in the car with windows open, reading our cherished library books, and shop in peace. No worry that someone would call the police and report her. Ah, the privilege of parenting in the 1980s. While I am sure that my mom was stressed about childcare, I don’t think it was on par with what we are dealing with today.
My first year back in the US as a single mom, grad student, and working mom, a whopping eight-hour drive from the nearest family member, was like a cold jump into the waters of reality, more frigid than the shores of Lake Superior near my sparse apartment. There is no Plan B if my son has an early dismissal or snow day; he has to come to work with me and often disrupts office life. I was extremely sensitive to criticism and side-eye for bringing my son to work at first, things I had not experienced in Turkey.
At his school, I complained to other moms. How did they manage? They were vague. I was waiting for them to offer to help, maybe offer a swap, like a “How about I take your kid on this half day for a play date, you take mine on the other half day for a play date?” kind of thing. But no offers came, leaving me frustrated, frazzled, and depressed.
When I complained to my parents, it was my problem to figure out. They, after all, had managed fine when we were kids. BUT IT’S NOT THE SAME, I wanted to shout. Most parents of school-aged kids these days do not live anywhere near family. There is no blood relative nearby to help. I was sinking, flailing, and refused to believe I was the only one.
How the hell were other parents, much less single parents, managing? Childcare is expensive, yet gone are the days of leaving kids with neighbors or in cars while grocery shopping. Today is the day of unnecessary calls to CPS by “concerned” citizens, and neighbors needing a day care license in order to watch your kid for a few hours. Everything clouded by murky legality and a sense of righteousness, yet coated with a smile “for your own good.”
Yet, everything is not fine. Scratch the veneer, and I am sure others are crying just as hard as me on the bathroom floor wondering how we can do it all alone.
I finally said, “Fuck it.”
I refuse to believe the village is gone. In fact, I believe the village is still here, it just looks different. There just needs to be a new tactic to find it, right? First, I pushed out of my comfort zone, and approached other moms at school pick-up and drop-off to initiate coffee and play dates. After a few, I just outright asked if we could help each other out on half days and snow days. Not waiting for them to offer after hearing my sob story, just a blunt request.
Guess what happened?
They said yes. Granted, it wasn’t emphatic. It involved taking out phones and pulling up calendars. Coordinating dates. Offering days and times I was free to take their kids, while giving dates I needed help, and we worked something out. Yes, it was carefully planned and didn’t happen as organically as I remembered in my childhood, but it happened. Next, I approached my fellow graduate students, most of whom are in their early twenties, and asked if they would be interested in a watching my child in exchange for me cooking a few days’ worth of meals for them.
Guess what happened?
They said yes. In addition, I was approached by two faculty members with early high school-age kids. Apparently, gone are the days when kids that age could do odd jobs and such to earn a bit of money and learn responsibility as we used to do back in the day. These moms were looking for help teaching their kids responsibility, wondering if their sons could baby-sit for me for a much-reduced rate. I jumped at the chance. So we help each other. New-village life.
This is what my village looks like now. It’s different, and I had to push for it a bit, but I built a support system once I opened up and took a chance. I think my generation too easily falls into the trap of not wanting to ask for what we need, not wanting to impose, choosing instead to suffer in silence. This helps no one. I implore my fellow parents to be better about asking for what you need, and to saying “yes” more readily when asked for help. Even offer when you hear a sob story. However, saying a clear “no” is also important, and being clear on boundaries. A few people I asked hemmed and hawed and I just outright said, “If you can’t do it, that’s fine, just be honest, there will be no hard feelings.” Maybe my direct approach seems strange to people, but it is an aspect of communication I learned after living abroad.
Another thing I’m adding to the list is to tell a mom daily, randomly, that she is doing a good job, that she is a good mother. A mom at my gym sent me a message via Facebook after running into me at Target with my son, telling me this. She didn’t know that the minute her message came in I was crying, exhausted, after fighting with my kid over not eating his dinner. She had no idea I needed that message right then, but I did. And I have since paid it forward.
Join me in this new village, and let’s take care of each other. We need it.