Over in an online summit of parenting experts I like to call "parenting school," the conversation is lively. Dr. Laura Markham talked about giving ourselves permission to be less productive. Lori Petro talked about healing ourselves if we didn't grow up with good role models for communication. I talked about letting our kids do things for themselves -- and asking for help for ourselves. To that last point, one mom commented on Facebook:
"What if [the support network] just isn't there? There's no village."
This is such a big issue for nearly all of us, I think. The village isn't there. We have to work to create it. I talk about some of this in Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science ("Ask for help"). But here are more of the things I did to create a village for myself:
- Following up with a retired neighbor who said she'd love to watch my baby any time. Texting her with a specific date and time (including, "Can you take her for 60 minutes right now?) and not waiting for her to come up with one.
- Joining a new-parent support group (www.peps.org, for those in Seattle) to meet people with babies the same age
- Going to places where other new moms were, like mom and baby yoga or library story time or music class or the playground or the grocery store. Going for walks. Walking instead of driving.
- Getting over my introverted personality to talk to these other moms and say something real. AND saying "Let me give you my number." AND actually texting.
- Taking it upon myself to text a few neighbors whenever I was going for a walk or to the playground or to the farmers market or whatever, so they could join (knowing it often wouldn't work out, since it was spontaneous -- too hard to plan ahead in those early months -- but continuing to offer).
- Sending invites for pajama playdates or early dinners, and not getting fancy about it, so no one felt like we had to look nice or prepare amazing food or clean the house to have each other over.
- Getting to know my neighbors, as I wrote in "Would you call 911 on another parent?"
- Asking a close friend (without kids) to set aside the third Thursday of every month to babysit, so my husband and I could have a date night. Doing this with a couple other people!
- When people would ask over email or social media how I'm doing, I'd say, Let's get coffee. (Let's actually see each other. Let's build that real relationship.)
- Even just wandering around the grocery store and talking to the person doing the food demo, whenever you need to get out of the house, can help save your sanity with a newborn.
- Attempting to create a neighborhood babysitting co-op (this didn't pan out, though). Saving up a babysitting fund while I was pregnant. Trading a few hours of babysitting with a neighbor who was also a stay-at-home mom. (And even trading full weekends, after around 2-years-old.)
- Giving a hand if I saw another mom juggling a bunch of stuff.
- Offering to watch other people's kids whenever they needed help. Offering again. (We often have trouble accepting help, yes?)
- Asking to bring a friend's kid with me when I was going to the children's museum or the beach (this was probably after a year old).
- Getting it on my calendar that I would go to a weekly yoga class or a monthly girls night out while my husband watched the babe.
I really took this seriously. Even if you have family nearby -- my mom lives an hour away -- you still need people literally next door, and you still need friends with kids going through the same stuff you are. Why? We evolved to parent in groups. Not solo. That's because of the heavier burden of raising kids that is particular to our species. It's not just nice to have this village; it's necessary.
University College London anthropologists Gillian Bentley and Ruth Mace demonstrate this need across a number of societies in their research tome "Substitute Parents: Biological and Social Perspectives on Alloparenting in Human Societies." They write:
"It seems that alloparenting is a necessary but flexible phenomenon for humans that may have co-evolved with other life-history traits such as our larger brain size, short birth-intervals, long life spans and extended juvenile period.
The heavy investment of parenting typical for humans whose offspring need nurturing for several years has led to the evolution of multiple patterns of allocare and parenting strategies which shape themselves around the particular ecological circumstances of societies."
This village usually doesn't just exist. Building it, though, definitely pays off.
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(Yes, you can still join the free online parenting summit I mentioned. It's 20+ video interviews with parenting experts in your inbox, one per day, plus a closed Facebook group to discuss your questions, struggles, and insights.)