They say it takes a village to raise a child. And once you become a parent, the truth of that statement often becomes immediately clear. But what if you don’t have family nearby to help out? What if you simply don’t have a village?
The other evening as I walked the dog, I was admiring the abundance of colorful tulips and emerging tree buds announcing the arrival of spring when I encountered an elderly gentleman pacing up and down the sidewalk. As he approached, I saw that he had a baby swaddled to his chest in a wrap, its legs and arms dangling in a relaxed stupor. We decided to walk together briefly and I learned that he and his wife were visiting their son and daughter-in-law from Michigan for two weeks to assist with the newest member of the family.
“We never used these things, but they are so easy,” the proud grandfather explained in regard to the wrap. He went on to joke, “We have to fight my daughter-in-law’s parents to have time with the babies since they live here.”
As I listened to him revel in grandparent bliss, I experienced a pang of longing – with a twinge of envy. My husband’s entire family resides in Poland and with parents who have health impairments (in addition to a fear of flying), this leaves Skype as the only medium that connects our daughter to “Babcia,” or “grandma” in Polish.
A recent bachelor in New York City, my dad undoubtedly loves our children but his involvement is minimal due to a hectic social calendar, as he enjoys his newfound pseudo-retirement.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, we sat in the hospital waiting room the day before my C-section, filling out paperwork. I remember observing the numerous family members, laden with balloons, stuffed animals, and other gifts, awaiting the arrival of their baby. Grandfathers laughing loudly while posing for selfies and three women, presumably aunties, talking rapidly while exuding a palpable, hopeful energy before a sudden silence and anticipatory gasp each time the conjoining door to the maternity ward swung opened.
My husband and I watched quietly, each aware of what the other was thinking but not wanting to put words to it. My heart sank, realizing there would be no family to welcome my daughter who would be arriving in the midst of Hurricane Joaquin. No proud, beaming grandparents or uncles, aunts, and cousins.
My earliest and happiest memories include my grandparents, especially after I lost my mother at the age of five. Summers were divided between family on the West Coast and my doting grandparents in northern Virginia, who would bring us kids on mini historical adventures to Colonial Williamsburg, DC, and Philadelphia.
My grandma in California, who is turning 90 in October, entertained us with stories about fairy shoes that enabled her to fly, while my Grandma June and Papa in Nevada would bring me over to my cousin’s house for endless hours of playing in the pool and camping out on the trampoline. My grandma in Virginia completed all my back to school shopping and helped move me into my freshman year dorm on a sweltering August day in 2002; things that would have been overlooked by my dad.
To this day, my grandma in Nevada, also turning 90 this year, and I talk on the phone regularly. Most recently, I texted her about how to clean one of my daughter’s dolls. She immediately responded with a long explanation detailing how to wash it properly while maintaining the integrity of the fabric. That kind of advice and wisdom never grows old.
Because my grandparents played such pivotal and formative roles in my life, it saddens me imagining my children not enjoying those similar relationships. The longing is perhaps intensified realizing that the grief of losing my mom resurfaces in the form of the missing relationship with my children, her grandchildren.
As the years go on, my husband and I have grown more accustomed to the challenges of parenting without family around, mainly because it’s all we’ve ever known. When our friends are able to take a kid-free vacation, or even go out to dinner without tackling the logistical (not to mention expensive) challenges of arranging childcare, I am genuinely happy for them but still privately long for that kind of support.
Yes, we have an incredible network of friends who are enormously supportive (and who braved the hurricane to welcome our daughter into the world), but no matter what, it’s still not the same. In the words of a friend whose parents passed away, you are never anyone else’s number one priority. You’re always a distant third or fourth if you’re lucky because, by nature, one’s own children and family will always come first. In a society pressed for time and seemingly consumed with work, nobody has the luxury of free, unscheduled time to just give unreservedly outside of their own home. Understandably, these precious resources are reserved for our own families.
For a while, we had friends in our neighborhood with whom we shared a babysitting barter system of sorts. I’d go to their house one evening while my husband stayed home so they could go out for a date night and vice-versa. That worked well until one of their moms retired and moved down to Richmond. Now, they no longer need to participate in the exchange. Running late at work? No problem, grandma can do a preschool pick up. Want a kid-free weekend? Grandma to the rescue with cookies and adventures aplenty!
Recently, a co-worker was complaining that her mother-in-law always dresses the kids in matching outfits when she babysits, a gesture she finds irritating. It was hard to commiserate and yet, I’ve had to reflect on the times I’ve vented and perhaps been insensitive to other people’s situations. Griping about my kids when someone has privately struggled with infertility for years or making statements about feeling exhausted when a new mom recently returned to work as a single parent.
I also remind myself that my husband and I are beyond fortunate; particularly that we can afford quality childcare during the week and have flexible work schedules. In fact, every few months, we’ll both agree on a day off and schedule a “date day.” Not only are crowds non-existent at noon on a random Tuesday, we also aren’t trying to stay awake through dinner while mentally keeping track of the time to avoid overextending the babysitter.
Sometimes, I remind myself that, as with anything in life, the grass isn’t always greener. There are plenty of people whose parents are physically nearby but due to certain circumstances, such as still working full time or various interpersonal issues, are unable to provide assistance. I also know of couples our age, in their 30’s, who are supporting their parents as they endure chemotherapy for cancer, MS, ALS, or a myriad of other debilitating health impairments.
You simply cannot live wishing your life could be different. The best solution, in my opinion, is to express gratitude for all the gifts you’ve been given. I am so grateful for all the people who have stepped in as a surrogate family – from my best friend’s family to our favorite neighborhood babysitter who occasionally takes the kids, free of charge, to a seasonal event like pumpkin picking.
These reprieves are magical for us. Knowing there are people who want to spend time with the kids without monetary gain feels blissful; it’s affirmation that they love them just because. And for that, I am beyond fortunate, for these are the people who have become my village.