My friend Bec has been spending a lot of time trying to pick up chicks in playgrounds lately. But as the weather grows colder, her pickings are getting slimmer. She is disconsolate about this. “Where’s my village?” Bec asked me plaintively last week. Except she used an adjective before the word village and it rhymes with shmucking.
We were talking about the challenges of being at home alone with small children and she was referring to the famous African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”. It’s a beautiful saying that refers to the positive impact individuals and groups outside the immediate family can have on a child’s wellbeing. ‘Many hands make light work’ is a more flip way of putting it, but in truth it’s more than that. It’s not just about helping hands.
About a year ago, Bec’s husband took a new job and their family moved interstate. There’s a name for people like her: “The Trailing Spouse”. It refers to a person who uproots their life to follow their partner’s career in a new city far from home. You both leave behind family and friends but only one of you is immediately absorbed into a new job and all the structure that provides. The other is….trailing. Without a network of support and without the distraction of a career to help ease the transition.
On paper, The Trailing Spouse agrees the move is the right thing for her family, often for financial reasons. But practically, it can be a rough ride.
In almost every case, the Trailing Spouse is female and not in paid employment, not after the move anyway. Usually she is (or becomes) a stay at home mother, left alone to build a new village of physical and emotional support for herself and her family. From the ground up.
The thing with villages though is that they can take years to establish. Decades. A lifetime. When Bec had a baby a few months ago, this became woefully apparent. Her husband was working long hours in his new job and without family or close friends to help her, she found herself home alone with her three year old and a newborn. She is still working but from home, further limiting the daily contact that leads to new friendships and connections.
Bec has a rock solid support network – a raucous, loyal, village of women (and a few men) she’s accumulated since primary school. But they’re all a plane ride away. Hence the loitering in playgrounds, hoping to strike up a friendship and create a building block in her new village.
You don’t notice your village until it’s missing. And so it was one day last week when Bec and I were chatting on Skype. I was at work, she was home juggling a newborn and a preschooler with sleep deprivation and a book deadline.
Me: I’ve worked out when I’m most happy looking after my children. It’s when there are other adults around. Husbands, friends, my Mum or mother-in-law….anyone really.
Bec: ME TOO!!!!!
Me: It’s not that I want them to do the work so I can lie on the couch and eat Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream (although…). It’s for the company. The adult conversation.
I love my kids but puzzles and dolls and trucks just aren’t that mentally stimulating for hours at a time.
Bec: But isn’t that the way kids used to be brought up? Literally in a village with big extended families of aunts and uncles and cousins and siblings and friends? We just don’t have that anymore. We’re all locked away at home alone with our kids and wondering why our brains feel like they’re turning to mash potatoes.
Me: Yep, why is it still such a source of guilt that I didn’t enjoy playing with baby toys? It’s because I’m an adult! I’m not meant to do puzzles! Not all day every day. There are other things that are fun for adults.
Bec: Like Rob Lowe.
Me: And cocktails. Hence, the village! It’s more fun when you can share the cute things they do with someone else. And the annoying bits.
Bec: Exactly. I had a brilliant mothers group in Brisbane made up of my friends – we all had babies at the same time. Now it’s just me and 50,000 tubs of Play-doh. Where’s my ****ing village?
Mothers aren’t the only ones who need villages. It’s an innate female need.
I have two friends who swapped states last year. They don’t know each other and are decades apart in age and yet they’re both struggling in the same way. At least when you are a trailing spouse, you bring a teeny part of your village with you; your partner and often your kids.
When you’re single, it’s even tougher. Moving to a new city where you have no history and no roots can be an invigorating way to hit the reset button on your life but it can also be deeply lonely. Making friends as adults is something we all do but until you relocate, it’s by choice not necessity. Village-building takes time. And just like any construction project, they’re impossible to fast-track. Bec knows this. She’s slowly, slowly building her new little village. Although some of it is made of Play-doh.
Do you have a ‘village’? Have you ever struggled with a big move?