It’s 6 a.m. back in the 1980’s, and I’ve just woken with a fever. Back then, in the small town propped up by a steel mill and sadness, a lack of opportunity and a lack of hope, my mother would pick up the phone, call her mother, and say: “Mom, one of the kids is sick. Can you keep her?” And I would be summarily packed off, sniffing and sneezing, to my grandmother’s. Mom-Mom fed me buttered toast and read Tom Sawyer aloud until I fell asleep. I watched Gilligan’s Island and ate saltines. My brother spent his yearly battles with seasonal bronchitis sleeping on my paternal grandmother’s pull-out. We had a village.
That same grandmother, or a paternal aunt, picked me up from preschool. When I was in kindergarten, my mother’s cousin’s wife walked me to the bus stop with her daughter. That’s how far it reached: my mother’s cousin’s wife. My parents always had a babysitter. Mom-Mom would arrive on Wednesdays or Thursdays while I was in school and wash our laundry, iron our clothes, do the dishes in the sink. There were always other hands, other arms, other houses I could walk in without knocking.
Now, when one of my kids wake up with a fever, it’s back to bed and a canceled day of work for me or my spouse. When we want to go out for dinner, we pay upwards of sixty bucks for the privilege, so date nights are rare. There is no possibility of daytime doctor’s appointment: no one can keep the kids. No one can help us pick them up if we’re late, or stuck in traffic, or sick or busy with a brother’s extracurricular activity. No one helps.
We are an island, one of the those sad, ghost towns whose sign reads, “Population: 5.” I don’t have a mom network standing there with open arms to help; our fictive kin — the people you make your family — all moved away or work long hours. We don’t feel right asking them to watch the kids when they’re so slammed by life themselves.
We have no village.
And so we go on. Alone.
This is what it means to be parents without a village. Even though most Americans still live within 18 miles of mom, according to The New York Times, the more education you have, and the higher you scale the socioeconomic ladder, the less likely you are to remain with the type of close-knit kin I remember from my childhood.
We certainly don’t have it. Most of our friends don’t — at least, the few we have. It’s hard to make friends as an adult, hard to make good friends as a parent: not playdate buddies, but the type of friends whose front doors don’t need knocking. The type of friend who’ll take your kids when you’re sick. This past year, our entire family had the flu at once. I think some friends may have dropped off a pizza and ran.
Forget about a postpartum rest. You’re too busy trying to run a household.
Forget a date night. You can’t afford dinner and a movie and a sitter. Hell, you may not be able to afford just the sitter. And though we’ve tried to start babysitting swaps, they’ve come to all talk and no action. We have three busy boys. We can’t ask friends with one kid to watch all of ours.
Forget a mental health day. You have no mental health days. You have Netflix and Amazon Prime, movie after movie, and you feel like a terrible parent when the third Ice Age iteration rolls over.
Forget help picking up kids and shuttling them around. You’re there or they are not, period. No help from grandma or friends to get kids from the bus stop, kids from soccer practice, kids from school. True story: I would sometimes ride the bus home to my cousin’s house instead of mine. No one cared. It was a normal occurrence.
Forget doctor’s appointments. Either your spouse is home or you pay someone, and it probably feels like a vacation.
No village means a constant scrabble for sitters, endless interviews of college students, care.com and sittercity. One doesn’t play with the kids. One relies too much on TV. One is only good for calling 911 if the house is aflame, and another’s never available.
No village means missed days of work.
No village means take-out, again.
No village means no safe place to land after a hard day, no safe space to collapse while the kids run wild and someone else deals with them while you collect yourself.
No village means paying for dogsitters and housesitters, someone to take up the mail and water the plants. No one calls and asks if you need anything at Target. No one cooks you pot roast and sends you home with the leftovers on a random weeknight.
No village means you travel for holidays and spend others alone. You don’t break out the good china for five people who see each other every day.
It means loneliness. It means no break.
It’s sad out here in no-village-land. You learn to miss your mom, even if you had a horrible relationship. You miss the aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, the network of helping hands and open arms. You miss it for your kids. You miss it for yourself.
You’re always hunting for real friends. True connection and support.
But it’s you and your spouse and your kids, population 3 or 4 or 5. It’s your dogs, who have to wait hours inside because there’s no relative to pop over and let them out. It’s your heart, lonely, wishing someone would reach out.
This is what it means to live without a village. We like our self-sufficiency. We like that no one questions our decisions or second-guesses us.
But we are alone. That’s worth all the second-guessing my relatives can muster. It’s lonely on this island.