There is a lovely African proverb: ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ African culture recognises that parenting is a shared responsibility – a communal affair – not just the concern of parents or grandparents, but of the extended family. Uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbours and friends can all be involved, and all have a part to play.
In our society, over the last fifty years, family life has changed immensely. Geographical distance, family breakdown, multiple caring responsibilities, and the long-hours culture have all contributed to their being less connectedness between extended families. Isolation and loneliness are increasingly the hallmarks of our society – a century ago, if a young mum had a baby who wouldn’t sleep, if a newly-married couple had the row of a century, or a child needed advice with a school project, there would most likely have been a grandparent, an uncle, an aunt or a cousin just down the road who would be able to give much-needed reassurance, advice and support. But today many are parenting without family or even friends nearby, and we are the poorer for it.
I know that in some ways we have more communication possibilities at our disposal than ever, but I also know through my work at ShareAbode and as a solo mum that many parents feel incredibly isolated in their role of bringing up children. They also feel like they have to maintain a certain image because of the stereo-typical parents that do it all, have it all and not a smudge of dirt on their make-up faces. However, this reality is not the normal reality for most parents, its simply the one manufactured the most and the biggest injustice about it is that it doesn’t take just one parent juggling it all to get through this parenthood journey but instead it takes a village.
By village I don’t mean a group of houses, I mean a community within which individuals know one another well, share the joys, burdens, and sorrows of everyday life, nurturing one another in times of need, mind the well-being of each other’s always-roaming and exploring children and increasingly dependent elderly, and feel fed by their clearly essential contribution to the group that securely holds them.
I’m talking about the most natural environment for children and parents to grow up in. Yes, it is our growth too! And I’m specifically referring to what we as humans are biologically wired for, but is nearly impossible to find in our developed nations and that is … The unmet need driving the frustration that most every village-less parent is feeling, daily. Because without a village, enormous pressure is put on parents as we try to make up for what entire communities used to provide. In out attempt to do this we become confused, unclear and often feel failed by ourselves because of the unmet conflicting needs that come at us at once.
To be without a village is to be forced to create our tribes during seasons of our life when we have the least time and energy to do so and we run around like crazy trying to make up for the interaction, stimulation and learning opportunities that come with parenting because we cannot solely get this from ourselves and our children. And because of this forced way of being we forget what “normal” looks and feels like, which leaves us feeling as if we’re not doing enough, or enough of the “right” things. With this, a door opens that contributes to our feeling disempowered by the many responsibilities and pressures we’re trying so hard to keep up with.
Parenting is challenging and a parent without a village not only loses the ability for connection with others but can distort their own sense of self, causing us to feel that our inadequacies are to blame for our struggles, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth in fact is that we are doing plenty. We may feel inadequate, but that’s because we’re on the front lines of the journey, which means we’re the ones hardest hit. We absorb the impacts, feel the feels and carry on regardless.
But, starting within us and working our way out, we can create our own villages and we can contribute to our children’s natural way of being which is packs of children, communicating together, exploring the backyards, writing in the dirt with sticks – away from screens, walls of the house and of various ages and genders with each other and their imaginations. And here’s how you can:
- Follow up with those people who have offered to support you, but you never took them up on it.
- Join a new parent support group (google this or go to a facebook group and search)
- Go to places where other parents will be. Library time, parks, local kid friendly events
- Go for walks instead of driving, you never know who you will meet
- Find some kid friendly cafes to visit, you’ll find other parents trying to get some me time in and the eye roll and knowing glance is enough to start a conversation
- Be brave! It is challenging and scary at first to make contact, especially if your introverted but all relationships start with a nervous first interaction. I can bet that majority of the time, these other parents wish they had guts to say “HEY” too.
- Take it upon yourself to text a few neighbours and friends when your going to do something, kid-less or not and ask if they want to join you at the farmers market or the playground.
- Get to know your neighbours. Make contact, continue to maintain contact. A tea and a biscuit on the veranda can be the start of a lifelong relationship that’s really supportive for you and your kids
- When people ask you over social media or email how you are, say, how about we get a coffee or go for a walk and chat in person. This takes things off screen into reality. When you make time in person for people, they make time in person for you.
- Attempt to create some sort of monthly get together with neighbours, friends, workmates – whoever you really like and get them all interacting.
- Help another mum or dad that you see struggling at the shops or in the park and break down the walls that way. Exchange numbers and text for a future playdate.
- Offer to watch a friends kids when they feel stressed or overworked. Like attracts like and what’s a few hours of crazy with 4 kids anyways to help a fellow parent.
As 21st-century families, we have much to learn from the people of Africa. Even if we do not have extended family of our own on our doorstep, we can be ‘family’ to others in our community, giving and receiving mutual help and support.
By Wilhelmina Ford