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,