it takes the whole damn tri-county area

When the twins were born, on Easter Sunday seven years ago, we lived next door to my mom. She lived in a tiny house and we lived in a bigger tiny house. They were both one-bedrooms, but ours had an extra little room that was big enough to be a grow room. We know this because when we moved in, the landlord’s only stipulation (no lease, no deposit, no last month’s rent) was that, if we grow pot, don’t do it in the upstairs room because “there’s a drainage problem up there.”

Anyway, no pot, but two babies. I would go over to my mom’s house in the middle of the night, after Chris and I had used up all we had of ourselves. (And that was even more than I would’ve ever estimated.) I’d be crying, delirious, and holding bottles of expressed milk. My mom would have already been over several times that day, but I begged her: “Please. Need. Sleep.”

She would grab her robe, slip on sandals, and come over to take a shift. She had recently quit her job, as a beloved teacher’s assistant at a juvenile detention center, in order to go back to grad school and write. She had the summer off that year, thank God, because I don’t know what we would have done otherwise. Chris’s parents lived 6 hours away and they drove up at least one weekend a month, but those middle-of-the-night breastmilk exchanges week after week may be a key reason I have enough mental capacity now to remember and write.

None of our friends had children yet, and though they showed up for us the best they knew how, there’s no way they could have known how desperate we were. We couldn’t afford help. I quit my job because it cost more to have two babies in childcare than I made in a day. Chris increased the hours he worked to pay for medical expenses (hospitals do not give “two for the price of one” discounts) and to save for a bigger place. Neighbors brought food. Family members sent money for diapers, cribs, strollers. A state agency donated car seats. We had love, support, resources. But it was so hard. We were scared and sad and confused because we weren’t supposed to be scared and sad and confused.

(Did I mention this pregnancy wasn’t planned?)

We have a different life now. I survived 18 months of debilitating depression, got help and began to recover. We learned that parenting is a slow, learned experience. We steadily squared away our finances and found a bigger house. I realized I wanted to focus on writing, went back to grad school myself, and after a few years of feeling like a failure as a mother, learned I’m not so bad, after all. Chris and I realized we had partners in one another that were worth fighting for. We had two little boys who blew our minds.

Our family of four healed together. We blossomed. We had another baby without the accompanying lifestyle transition. (I am here to say, going from 2 to 3 is NOTHING like going from 0 to 2.)

But then we moved across the country. Hello!

It’s been about a year since we gave up the luxury of having an established support system. Luckily, we live in a place where many of the families are in the same boat and become families to one another. But my mom just got here for the summer (she is back to teaching and has summers off) and the minute she walked through the door, a deep breath I realized I’d been holding for a year escaped my lungs. My shoulders relaxed by an inch. My stomach let go of knots I didn’t realize were there.

We always hear “it takes a village to raise a child,” but I’m not sure we really understand what that means. Young parents often feel isolated and lonely. This is why my generation writes so much about it: blogs, articles, books. We think the village must only consist of other people in the same stage as us: mothers of young children looking to each other for help and companionship. Young fathers doing the same. We make deals with one another: “I’ll pick up your Johnny from school if you can watch Suzy during my doctor’s appointment.”

But as much as I want to help my friends and siblings with young children and need the help reciprocated, I want to cry out at the constant negotiations. “WE ARE ALL SO TIRED! WE ALL NEED MORE!”

But the rest of the village doesn’t seem to want to hear it. (As an update in response to a comment below: sometimes it’s our own fault they don’t want to hear it…vicious cycles.)

I began a book by John Bowlby on attachment theory. (Not to be confused with William Sears, “attachment parenting,” and having a 3-year-old hanging off of his hot mom’s boob while they stare down the camera.)

In 1980 he said,

I want also to emphasize that, despite voices to the contrary, looking after babies and young children is no job for a single person. If the job is to be well done and the child’s principal caregiver is not to be too exhausted, the caregiver herself (or himself) needs a great deal of assistance…In most societies throughout the world these facts have been, and still are, taken for granted and the society organized accordingly. Paradoxically it has taken the world’s richest societies to ignore these basic facts. Man and woman power devoted to the production of material goods counts a plus in all our economic indices. Man and woman power devoted to the production of happy, healthy, and self-reliant children in their own homes does not count at all. We have created a topsy-turvy world.

I want to thank my village. You are helping our humble little family thrive and fully realize our existence. I am a better mother, as an individual and part of a unit, able to devote myself to the production of happy, healthy, and self-reliant children because of you. I promise to return the favor when I can.

To those of you still looking for your village: find it. Create one for yourselves, if you have to. There’s a chance they won’t come knocking down your door, but my hope for you is that they are out there. You need a great deal of assistance.

With love and compassion,

Maria

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17 thoughts on “it takes the whole damn tri-county area

  1. I just got completely teary reading this. It was beautifully written and I couldn’t agree with you more. My favourite line: “Chris and I realized we had partners in one another that were worth fighting for.” Love it. We are heading to Canada soon and I’m looking forward to having my “village” around, at least for a month. 🙂

  2. I appreciate your sentiments here. I also appreciate your willingness to ask for and actually accept help. But I would like to articulate a personal hurt of mine that plays a slight devil’s advocate to your position – one you perhaps haven’t considered because, being beset by twins for your crash-course introduction to parenting, the manner of operation I’m about to describe wasn’t your style.

    I have been a ready and willing villager looking for families to help but have been rebuffed on numerous occasions. Parents don’t want my help. Why would we, they ask? You’re single and don’t have children of your own. You’re not a schoolteacher or a sports coach or a professional musician. You couldn’t possibly add to our children’s lives in a way that we as the parents cannot. Of course, no one ever says this explicitly. Instead, they turn down offers of girls’ nights out; decline free babysitting; override my discipline of their children even if it’s in line with what they themselves would do; rush to take their children out of my arms when they start crying while I’m holding them.

    A great number of parents are sending messages that they do not, in fact, need help from anyone who doesn’t share their blood type, so the villagers have retreated. In fact, I will narrow this frustration from parents to just a lot of moms. Somewhere, somehow, mothers have received the message that they must be superheroes and that nobody but them is capable of caring for their children. These misconceived and tragic beliefs begin in the delivery room, with new mothers who refuse nurses’ help and yell at medical professionals who try to teach them about breastfeeding or sleep schedules and rhythms, proclaiming that nobody but knows how to care properly for their children or what exact particularities of care their children need except for them alone. (I’m not making this up; I could name names.) Not to step on your brand-new maternal shoes there, Momma, but are you SURE you’re the only one who knows? This child is as new to you as it is to the rest of the world, and it’s quite possible that you have a lot to learn beyond what your God-given maternal instinct can cover.

    But I can’t say these things to new mothers because “mother knows best.” Really? She does? Even if she’s only been a mother for two hours? I beg to differ.

    I appreciate the struggle and difficulty that parenting is, and I want to come alongside my friends who are parents and truly help them. The truth is, none of us know what the hell we’re doing. Whether we’ve never had kids, just delivered our first children 48 hours ago, or have mothered 10 over the last thirty years, everything is trial and error, and I think nobody would be quicker to say that than the long-term mother of 10. Because breastfeeding worked fine for #1 but #s 2, 3, and 4 wouldn’t take to it. And then #s 5 and 7 wouldn’t give UP the breast while #6 had an allergic reaction to it. Also, timeout worked wonders for #s 8-10, but 1-7 wouldn’t stop screaming. Get my drift?

    I don’t want to put full blame on any single party. But I want to assert that there are and have been willing villagers. Some of us just happen to have surrendered and retreated.

    There is so much more I could say (for both sides), but as far as blog comments go, this is a doozy, so I’ll leave off for now.

    • Audra! Thanks so much for this perspective and thoughtful reply. In fact, as I wrote this post, I wondered if friends of mine during this difficult time remember it differently and will feel taken for granted or rebuffed at my recollection. Perhaps there were more villagers than I realized. I’ll be the first to admit that depression and grief can distort reality. I do remember some specifics: my doula coming over for a post-birth check-up and asking me if I had enough help and whether I was REALLY doing as well as I said I was. I wasn’t, but somehow felt indignant that she should ask even though I PAID HER TO! I lied to her. Maybe I was also lying to myself.

      Another time, I asked my best friend to take off work when I came down with my second case of mastitis and Chris was out with West Nile Virus. (Yes, that’s part of the story.) My friend was at our place within the hour and spent the night. I’m sure there are many other times I’m not remembering so clearly and want to apologize for that.

      I think you’re right, though, that I didn’t ask as often I should have or waited until it was Worst Case Scenario or assumed that all our visitors were only interested in holding the babies for a picture and getting back to the real world. I did feel ashamed that I wasn’t doing better and that, somehow, needing so much help was a sign of my failure as a mother.

      I guess the thing is that we are ALL in it together and absorb so many skewed cultural messages that we can’t separate nature vs. nurture. This is why I’m so adamant that all sides tell their stories as truthfully as possible. Your honesty here contributes so much.

  3. Thanks for making space for me to share my experience and for sharing more of yours. Parents do have it tough; they are constantly being judged, both by other parents and by people who have no child-raising experience. But there are people who want to help.

    I should also add that I have found one family in particular here in Kansas City who have NOT given me the experience(s) I described above. They have let me into their kids’ lives with open arms, and I have relished in helping them out wherever and whenever I can. That family has become like MY family, and they’ll never know what that’s meant to me.

  4. So thankful for my village, those people in my life, especially my parents, in-laws and sister who make my shoulders drop and stomach ease at just the sight of their supportive presence. I think I need to tell them. Thanks for the reminder and honest post.

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