We recently uprooted our family and left our extensive support network to allow my husband to take a posting overseas and further his career. Friends asked me, “Are you crazy?” I often asked myself the same question.
From superficial observation, new acquaintances often comment that I seem like some kind of super-mum: three youngsters, all close in age, a fourth on the way, an active political life, creative life, and social life. Well, I have a secret that Im willing to share: I never work alone. I fail to thrive in isolation. I need people around me to bring out my strengths. I believe in community and the value of a network in raising my family. Communities are what I do best!
I think of my closest friends back home and how deeply rooted we were in each others family life. How satisfying it was to wash a friends dishes and have her attack my mountain of unfolded laundry in return. I allowed these people to see my home, not just in kiddie chaos, but in obvious stages of desperate domestic disarray! There were times I presented at their homes with a sick child, or arrived with no food and grumbling tummies, knowing our imposition would not be resented.
And I saw their vulnerabilities too. Exposing our weaknesses made us safe, made us accepting. Shared compassion nurtures common bonds. If a friend was struggling, Id roll up my sleeves and lend a hand or offer to take the children for an afternoon so she could catch up on some sleep. It was always rewarding to leave a friends home knowing that she was grateful or relieved for our visiting instead of feeling obliged to entertain us. Practicality is what community is really about.
I regularly fulfilled a role in a community food co-op, sharing camaraderie and an organic bounty with like-minded people while our children played together. I almost always had ready child minding or a ride to and from school for a child if I was waylaid. I relied on a trusted babysitter who enabled my guilt free, childless day each week so I could attend meetings, do the shopping, bond with my youngest or just rejuvenate myself. I was the giver and receiver of many a frozen dinner. In return, we left fresh fruit or bread on each others tables. With a strong sense of security and belonging, I knew that these people were there and that I would readily return the many favours they have showered upon me and my family.
How do I really feel about leaving all these wonderful, like-minded people; my women friends and their children who are my childrens friends, our organic co-op, my birth reform network, my mentors, and our beloved babysitter? How will I ever cope without them?
Well, I feel sad and lonely about it but I know I will cope. Ive built one village. I can build another.
The old expression, “It takes a village to raise a child” is such a modern cliché. Naturally, we all agree that we shouldnt be raising our children in isolation but what do we do about it? Do we even understand what it means to raise our children in a village?
My first year as a new parent was perhaps the loneliest year of my life. All my previous relationships had changed now that I had leaky breasts, a smelly nappy bag and an infant with no consciousness of my needs. I had a wide and varied circle of childless friends where I didnt fit anymore.
Now here I am far from home, awaiting the birth of our fourth baby and in almost the same position. How will I meet new friends with four children in tow? People with families are busy coping with day to day life. How do I start finding friendship and support in a totally new and different environment? Small mercies: I am equipped with a few more skills than I had when motherhood first isolated me almost six years ago.
First, I keep my expectations realistic. I dont anticipate that Ill easily build a reliable network in a very short time. I dont even expect to find the same degree of support and belonging that Im accustomed to. It took five years to evolve those treasured relationships that sustained our family. Starting over, it will no doubt take that long again.
Second, I start close to home, whether that be geographically or ideologically, or both. Our first day in our new house we introduced ourselves to the neighbours and found out how many other families lived on our street. Each week we meet new neighbours and their children and welcome them to our home or greet them in the street and ensure they remember our faces.
At the same time I seek out my tribe – the people who share my ideologies. I collect names and numbers through my husbands employment, through my midwifes network, through my childrens activity groups, and I join the local breastfeeding association or other special interest group. Im proactive about calling them as I know they are all busy families with good intentions. If I wait for them to contact me, I might be waiting a long, long time.
Next, I drop my privacy screen and try to develop a routine of regular contact with our new acquaintances. A play date arranged outside the home on neutral ground evolves to a regular open house day, an offer of child minding or an invitation to each others homes. I take it slowly at first, not wanting to intimidate new friends or impose on their privacy. But I want to ensure they enjoy our company and find us interesting enough to return so I plan slightly structured family activities like baking, painting or craft, so I can share my skills and interests and provide an icebreaker over which we can get to know each other better. There is still no better get-to-know-you than the preparing and sharing of food. It might seem contrived at first, but persistence and open-hearted generosity provide a solid foundation for familiarity and friendship.
Over time I will have evolved some true friends and allies while those families with fewer common interests will naturally slip away – and thats alright. Its now safe to be more intimate, to be vulnerable, to have expectations, to ask for help. Now is when the real village begins to establish as I meet my friends friends, their families and their extended network of support.
Back home I considered myself very lucky to have a network that knew our philosophies and foibles and accepted us unconditionally. Yet it wasnt all just good luck. There was an element of planning and design behind it. Not to mention, a mutual need. I cant ever seek to replace our old community. I dont intend to try because I know we will return one day. I simply adopt the attitude that new and interesting experiences await us here in our temporary homeland and I make a conscious effort to be honest and let people see the real me, the real us, and not some ideal projection Id rather they perceived of us. To my way of thinking, genuinely supportive relationships are inevitable. And so far, I havent been proved wrong.
Jodie recently moved from Brisbane, Queensland, to Westford, Massachusetts, with her husband and growing family. While she still calls Australia home, she intends to make the most of this expatriate experience by homeschooling, sightseeing and forging new associations in the USA.