This story first appeared on RendezView
It hit me when I thought I had pneumonia.
After weeks of a persistent, raspy cough and pinching back pain, I limped off to the GP too weak to even stand, and was sent back home with an oxygen mask and vials of Ventolin and an order to rest or go to hospital. “I can’t go to hospital”, I thought, alarmed. There’s no one to look after my boys. Equally, I couldn’t rest; There was no one to look after my boys. I duly held the Ventolin mask to my face with one hand, feeding my one-year-old with the other, entertaining his two-and-a-half-year-old brother with his wooden airport. They say it takes a village to raise a child and, not for the first time, I wondered “Um, where’s my village?”
This is not how I thought it would be: nightly baths a careful negotiation involving Icy Pole bribes and threats to withdraw the Octonauts boat if they tip water over the edge one more time. I expected there’d be group baths with other kids and other mothers spilling into each other’s houses sharing recipes and babysitting. Where are they all? Mostly inside like me, doing it solo. Not just bath time but story time and Lego time and hammering wooden nails into wooden holes. Dressing and undressing, cooking, shopping, entertaining, placating.
No wonder so many women (and it is mainly women) find mothering so tough.
We don’t parent like they used to. The old school model (still practiced widely in many Asian, Latin and European cultures) of layers of grandparents and aunts and uncles – what anthropologists call ‘allo-parents’ – looking after and out for other people’s children, has been whittled down to two mere adults (for one in five families it’s only one, and for many more it may as well be) trying to do it all.
It’s no one’s fault. It’s what we have become living separately as we do, flat out with our own lives, grandparents passed on or elderly or, in my case, working too. We’re all trying to get by as best we can without a village, let alone sharing someone else’s load as well.
Yet it’s not how we are wired.
Humans are designed to care for each other and have been doing so since the Pleistocene era. We are, by nature, what they call ‘cooperative breeders’: other members of the tribe (those handy ‘allo-parents’), taking all the children under their wing while their parents were off (sometimes for days on end) gathering food. These days they call that ‘bad mothering’.
“The nuclear family is a wrong turn in history that does not work”, says psychologist Robin Grille. “Realistically in a nuclear family almost everyone will find it too hard — intrinsically too hard — to meet all of the child’s needs. It can be exhausting”.
Grille says cultures with extended family support have less to no incidences of Post-Natal-Depression or even sleep deprivation because there’s always someone to step in.
“A family would normally be thirty or forty people connected by blood, and that’s how we lived for two hundred thousand years,” says psychologist Steve Biddulph in Mama: Dispatches from the Frontline. “Every single piece of our wiring is geared to that. We even have slots in our brains for uncles and aunties, who come in and balance the perfectly normal deficiencies of mum and dad. We were made to live in that matrix.”
In practical terms, most of us can get by. I take my children with me everywhere, making adventure out of the mundane: the supermarket, hairdresser, leg wax, post office, bra shopping, work meetings, even the dermatologist as she froze skin cancers off my nose with a great menacing nozzle of dry ice. I pride myself on being able to pull it all off.
It’s not allo-parents I am after. Just connection. For others to care as much as I (and their dad) do (well, almost as much) about my children. A fellow-witness to their unfolding lives.
It’s not just in our best interests but our children’s, that they have others to turn to aside from mum and dad, especially beyond puberty. “A nuclear family can only get a child to twelve”, says Biddulph. “From twelve onwards the child will become dysfunctional unless there’s another circle of adults around the family.”
If we don’t have a village, psychologists say, we must create one, gathering good people around us. It seems like a big ask. How do we lure busy aunts, uncles, friends and new acquaintances out of the whirlwind of their own families and ask them to take a keen interest in ours as well? Equally, how do we find the time and energy to invest in their children when we have our own to look after? Even to take my nieces to a play is a major operation of swapping car seats and clashing schedules.
“You have your own family. That’s all that matters”, a well- meaning friend says to me as I lament the absence of my proverbial village.
But is it?
Jacinta ~ Have you found your village?
Jacinta Tynan is Sky News Anchor, Author of Mother Zen (Harlequin, Columnist, social commentator, Patron of SISTER2Sister, Monkey Baa board member, meditator and Mumma to Jasper and Otis. Jacinta is also a Hello Mamas Influencer. Check out www.motherzen.com and follow Jacinta on twitter and facebook.
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