They say “it takes a village to raise a child”. This ancient African proverb stems from the ideal of a child being raised by a large extended family and community. It advocates the importance of the involvement of many different people in a child’s upbringing. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends working together to share responsibility and ease the burden. It is a beautiful sentiment, but what if you are parenting far away from your family? What if you are parenting without a village?
In the last 50-60 years geographical separation in families has become a lot more common. The freedom to start new lives in foreign lands has come at an expense. The expense of our village. Of our extended families being able to rally around and help when we need them.
I moved to France from the U.K. 13 years ago. It was a huge move at the time, and I have missed my family and friends from home every day since. But never have I felt it as profoundly as I have since having my daughter.
My ever present motherhood guilt gnaws away at me. Am I denying my child the benefits of her extended family? Is living somewhere so amazing and giving her endless opportunities that she wouldn’t otherwise have, enough of a pay-off for what she is missing out on? Perhaps it is all just an inevitable part of humanity evolving. Changing our social systems to align with modern living.
So what are the benefits of raising children with your village close by?
It reduces loneliness and isolation.
Being a mother to a small baby can be an isolating experience, especially the first time round. Your life has changed, you can’t go out as much and your baby needs you around the clock. Some days it feels like you are stuck at home in an endless cycle of dirty nappies, feeds and stolen naps. Meanwhile the rest of the world keeps spinning around you. I felt the absence of my family deeply in the first year of Aylas life. There were many times I wished I had their support with simple things like shopping and cooking. And of course I simply missed their company during those long blurry days as well.
Help with childcare is always available.
Having family close by means that there is always someone reliable around to take care of your child. It gives you freedom and peace of mind.
When you don’t have that backup, simple tasks like nipping out to the shops, taking a shower or going for a walk become difficult. Dinners out with your other half involve planning ahead and inevitably paying a stranger to look after your kids. Nights out with friends are cut short to relieve the sitter and because you know you will be up early the next day. It’s a lot easier to have down time when you can drop them off at Grandmas for the night.
It provides emotional and mental support for the child and mother.
For the first 2 years and 4 months of my daughter’s life, I was her main care-giver. Her Dad was wonderful when he was there, but up until the start of the COVID pandemic he was working long hours to support us. Our nearest relatives are my mother and father in law. They provide much needed support and a sense of family, especially when I was battling breast cancer, but live 2 hours drive away and have busy lives. So for the most part the responsibility of raising Ayla was on my shoulders alone. I was the centre of her universe and some days it felt like an enormous weight.
Your child will always come first, which means that without support, your own wants and needs can get left behind.
It leads to well rounded and socially well developed children.
Growing up in large social groups exposes children to different personalities, which teaches them to communicate in a wide range of ways.
As talked about in this article, children act differently, worse, around their mothers. (I for one am glad that the study in that article turned out to be tongue in cheek. What a waste of resources that would have been when every mum can already confirm this fact.) You, as their mothers, are their safe place. They know that you more than anyone will still love them despite their challenging behaviours, and so that’s what you get thrown at you. As humans we are hard-wired to behave differently depending on the person we are with, and it’s a valuable skill to learn.
It increases the physical and emotional safety of the child.
If there are multiple people looking after a child there is always someone looking out for them and always someone they can turn to. It’s as simple as having those extra pairs of eyes and ears on your children. This one is especially beneficial for single parents and busy working parents whose time and attention is already stretched to its limit.
What can you do to help ease the situation?
If you are in the situation where you are parenting without a village, as many of us are these days, don’t despair. There are things you can implement to help you manage, and to ensure close and loving bonds with other people for your little ones.
Video message with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins regularly.
The massive increase in portable screen devices in the last 10 years means that we are never more than a click away from seeing and talking to our loved ones. This is true no matter where in the world they are. Is it as good as a hug in real life? No. But it is a wonderful way to build familiarity and relationships between your child and their relatives. It instills a sense of family values in spite of physical distance.
Build your own village.
Create a circle of people that you and your child can bond and share experiences with. Seek friends with children the same age or older that you can swap tips with. We have all the information we need at our fingertips now, but there’s no substitute for real advice from real people. If you are very lucky as I have been, you will find that these people become good friends and confidants, people you can turn to in your hour of need and can in turn support back.
Involve your pre-baby friends.
A lot of my friends from before I had my daughter, even those without kids of their own, have been eager to be a part of her life. I was surprised to find this, I’m not sure why. I suppose I thought the last thing they would want to do would be to hang out with someone elses baby/toddler.
But as it turns out she now has many “aunties” and “uncles” who adore her and don’t hesitate to love and engage with her whenever they can. They also occasionally offer to babysit, and for free!
Turn to your existing friends when you need them. As anyone who is living away from home will tell you, you form deep relationships. You naturally seek out the close connection with other people that you are missing. A family away from home. They will likely be happy to help, and can be a tremendous support for you.
Make the most of Dad.
Work with your partner to more equally share the load. Never before in history have fathers been more involved in childcare than they are now. Yet as most mothers will vouch, they still fill the position of main caregiver. Default parent. And while us mums might fit into that role naturally, it can also be overwhelming, especially when combined with work and other commitments. Before burnout hits, throw a few more responsibilities Dad’s way. In my experience men don’t “hear” subtle hints, so don’t be afraid to be upfront about what you need. As with so many things in relationships, communication is key. If he complains, you’ll just have to threaten to move closer to his mother in law!
Is it worth it?
There’s no doubt that parenting without a village is HARD. You don’t have the emotional and practical backup to support you as you navigate the rocky road of parenthood. You’re faced with challenges every day that might be easily solved if you were in closer proximity to your relatives.
The truth is, I flip backwards and forwards on whether or not it is worth it. Most of the time though being able to live somewhere that delivers what I want from life and where I know my child will have an amazing upbringing, is worth the expense. Thankfully in our modern day world of ever progressing technological advances, it doesn’t have to be a straight choice between the two. With a little adjustment of your expectations it is possible to have both.
It’s a tightrope walk. Balancing the place you want to live with the people you love most, and gathering your own “village” as you go.