Finding your way when a village doesn’t exist
Perhaps it’s one of those nostalgic, rose-colored glasses perspectives, but it often feels like the days when parents had an established village was a lot less overwhelming than modern-day parenting. That’s not to say parents — moms especially — never experienced stress or frustration in their own time. But, the notion that our great-grandmothers, grandmothers or even our own mothers had a family community to share parental burdens and joys is something I sometimes envy.
When people tended to stay in one location and close to their families, they had a multi-generational community in which to raise children. Villages of mothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins as well as spouses’ families pooled shared both knowledge and the responsibilities of caring for children and elderly parents.
Much of that traditional village life seems lost in our modern culture, and often, I feel like I have to fend for myself.
Recently, a friend offered to throw me a baby shower. Although this was going to be our third baby, the baby was a surprise addition to our family. We had unloaded much of our baby gear before we moved, so the kind offer was much appreciated. Besides, diapers are always needed. When she asked for my list of friends for invitations, I came up with five names. Now, of course, I was thinking of local friends, the ones most likely to attend. I didn’t include the friends I had just left behind in Belgium, or the ones in California, Florida, Missouri, New York, Germany, Utah, or those currently in the middle of PCS season themselves.
Regardless, my friend laughingly said that I needed to make more friends.
I get it, it would be a small shower with just a few people, but I’m not sure she really understood. We’d been in our new home almost eight months; my friend was born and raised here. She has lifelong friends, her parents, her in-laws and her grandparents all close by. My husband and I have each other and the few friends we’ve made with neighbors and fellow parents from our child’s school. It’s a work in progress, especially in the absence of a traditional military community where we live.
The conversation reminded me of a quote I read that had really resonated with me.
“It takes a village, but there are no villages,” wrote Beth Barry on the website Motherly.
What a simple and eloquent way to summarize what many modern mothers, particularly military mothers (and dads!) experience. Although Barry wasn’t speaking specifically about military affiliated parents, what she wrote fits perfectly to what many military families face.
Military parents are often villageless or forced to recreate our villages every few years — sometimes when we are at our most delicate and in need of support.
Our family had our first child after we’d been living in Alabama for about a year. My husband and I had made friends with neighbors and among our co-workers and within our respective circles of hobby-related friend groups. Our village was fairly established, and they came through for us with flying colors – a beautiful baby shower, meals delivered to the exhausted new parents, advice along with help with the baby and the house. This also was the time when I transitioned from active duty to the Reserves and after a few years of living there, we moved overseas.
When we moved overseas, I had a rude awakening.
Suddenly, I went from an established community of friends to living in a cold, dark place with no connections and a language barrier that prevented me from striking up conversations. I was stuck inside with an active 14-month-old, and although we slowly, slowly began to find our way, it was a long first winter.
Needless to say, I absolutely hated the place and regretted the move. I felt alone and frustrated with the new crop of parenting issues we were facing (redirecting, teething, child proofing, tantrums etc.)
Although there are many wonderful and exciting things about military life, being a new parent or parenting very young children on your own is not one of them. Military moms are forced to create new villages at a time when we are particularly vulnerable and in need of an already established community. Mothers, even those who are resilient or self-reliant, are not immune to the stressors of finding our way as new parents in a new environment.
The moving around the world, the routine of meeting and making potential new friends, the hurried building of the “in-case of emergency” contact list and separation from family and close friends greatly exacerbates the challenges of parenting.
For many military families, being without our village means raising children far away from other family members – those influential people who would otherwise play a supportive role in our lives and our children’s lives. That’s not to say they aren’t supportive, possibly even making long trips to where someone is stationed, but in the day-to-day grind of daily life with young children, their absence can feel overwhelming.
When we lack a solid parenting village, we can feel isolated, exhausted and easily overwhelmed.
We have no one to tell us what we are experiencing is normal, to help lend a hand, or to share and commiserate in our struggles and excitements. A village can help ease the grip of anxiety and loneliness and pressure that can accompany being a new parent.
I strongly encourage moms, no matter how long you’ve been at your current location or what phase of motherhood you’re in, to seek out your village.
Realize that no matter what you are feeling, you are NOT alone. There are moms walking around, smiling and putting on a strong face while hiding their anxiety/stress/fear/anger. Talk to other moms. Find a way to increase your personal connections.
I’ve attended breastfeeding support groups, play groups and reading time at the library. Even just swapping stories with other moms about lack of sleep made me feel better. I was not the only parent who’s child screamed through nap time or threw his food across the room.
Step away from social media every once in awhile, which can further alienate us or highlight our own sense inadequacy. Join an organization or participate in an activity that fulfills and energizes you.
Years ago before I had my first child, I joined a local photography club where I met a woman who remains one of my very close friends. While overseas, I found members of my village in a volunteer travel organization and a playgroup. Some of these women were mothers and some weren’t, or they had children grown and gone, but they all were wonderful.
Another good friend I’ve made since moving back to the states came over for a playdate recently. As our boys were playing, and we were chatting, I was folding laundry. Without hesitating or asking, she reached into the basket and started helping fold clothes. It was a natural gesture, not requiring much effort on her part, but I still felt embarrassed for some reason. Did she think I needed help? Was my house falling apart? Could she see the frustration and tension in my face after a difficult few days with my children?
I blurted out – “oh you don’t need to do that.”
“It takes a village,” she said simply, and her response eased my soul.
Yes, sometimes it does take a village, and yet, it can take strength and courage to find that village. But when we do, we are stronger – stronger individuals and stronger, more confident moms.