I have had a strangely surprising and important realization about parenting in our society. I may never have had it if I was not a single mother. There’s something very raw and exposed about being out in the world on one’s own with two young children for whom you’re 100% responsible. You see stuff. You notice stuff. And you feel it where it counts.
I have been espousing firm, clear, healthy boundaries for decades. In marriage, partnership, parenting, business, dog-training. “It’s all about boundaries” is one of my go-to mantras. For many years, I’ve been acutely and painfully aware of the impact poor boundaries make on children (and dogs) and the environment in which they live and socialize.
What I’ve realized is that in my efforts to focus on creating and maintaining my own style of firm, clear, healthy boundaries in my parenting, I have created a bubble around myself and my children that not only serves to protect me from overwhelm and infiltration by conflicting and threatening elements, but also blocks me from receiving support. Out of a need to survive, I’ve inadvertently perpetuated the isolation of the single, nuclear family.
This is an important distinction – between keeping out unwelcome energies and blocking out needed assistance. And here we venture into a controversial realm in mainstream American thought, values, and practice. Most of us have been exposed to the African saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” popularized by Hillary Clinton over twenty years ago with her book bearing that title. It caused debate then, and the concept continues to be at the heated core of intense political and social conflict today.
It causes very intensely heated debate because it cuts right to the core of what our society is based on – individualism of the rigid nature that has developed among humans since the dawn of agriculture and the industrial age, which brought private property, including of the wife, and organized religion.
Stepping out of mainstream American society’s number one institution – marriage – and becoming a single parent voluntarily (not through death), though common, is in itself radical in terms of creating an alternative to the core foundation on which our outdated and ineffective social, financial, and psychological expectations for families and child-raising are still based: the two-parent/adult parental figure, single-unit-dwelling, nuclear family. Statistics show that this model is approximately 70% of reality, with an ever-growing rate of single-parent homes. It continues to be upheld as the ideal, however, and our social institutions and structures are riddled with deeply embedded assumptions, insensitivity and ignorance of an increasing and different reality.
My big realization happened in the context of private social gatherings in my own home and in other people’s homes. What hit me is that these societal assumptions – that the parents have it all under control, and it’s their job to do so, alone – these isolating structures for parenting, easily prevail, even among friends. I see now that I have been perpetuating my alone-ness in the intimate setting of my very own home, where I get to do things my way with people I choose. Ignorance reigns supreme, and I just woke up.
Many of us have asked a friend to help with some aspect of kid world at a party or gathering. It is not radical to ask an adult or older child at a party to bring a cup of juice to a youngster, provide accompaniment to the bathroom, or even read a book or play a game with a child, or a small group of little ones. What I’m talking about is a fundamental agreement to share the parenting role – responsibilities, attentiveness and follow through with discipline and boundary-setting – with friends (extended family members tend to do this better – they behave more like a tribe). To be Village Parents.
It takes a village is true. The book’s focus is on institutional, governmental and community organizations and services. That’s important. My focus is on relationships – the true core of any family, social network, community, and the world. What are the underlying, unrevealed expectations, assumptions, frustrations and resentments in the social context among friends about the parenting that occurs in that setting? The children’s behavior? The impact on others? Do people feel dis-empowered to do something to make it better, because it’s all just too sensitive and private?
Much goes unsaid. Unexplored. Un-communicated. Just like so much epidemic unconsciousness in partnership relationships that my professional work specializes in, I found a whole, new realm of the same unconsciousness – in myself and my social life. I imagine I’m not alone in this.
I love hosting. I always have. But these days, as a single mom with two kids who are very verbal, love social interaction with adults, too, and one of whom is extra energy both behaviorally and emotionally, when the party is over and the guests have all gone, I’m alone with my children for bedtime and I feel run over by a truck. Instead of feeling invigorated and nourished by some much-needed adult interaction, I am drained, frustrated, and sad. I feel alone and resentful that my needs for socializing were not met because I was parenting the whole time. It never occurred to me that I could ask for help – real help.
As I write this, I am in a new experiment. I am currently reaching out to my inner circle – those with whom I spend social time with my children – and presenting this idea of the Village Parent, asking who is willing to embark on a practice of discovery with me to offer assistance and collaboration with parenting actions – vs. babysitting – when we are together. This feels a bit radical, a bit risky – I could lose some friends who feel this is too much to ask, puts them in an uncomfortable position (if they are uncomfortable saying “No”), or who are plain uninterested and lose interest hearing my new agenda. I have given the wide-open door to declining, stating that I only need one or two people to really step up and be Village Parents with me. In fact, the term “Village Parent” came in an email response to this outreach.
So far I have two Village Co-Parents who have stepped up – and we have not gathered socially since their agreement to do this with me. We have the basic starting point of one concept. If I, the parent who is number one in charge (the only way this can work), initiate a discipline action with my child, and follow-through is needed because of lack of compliance, and I am busy preparing food, tending to guests, or just enjoying a moment of conversation, if I want assistance, I can ask one of my Village Parents to do the follow-through, including removing my child from the common space if the behavior is disruptive to the vibe.
The only way this can work is when the parent(s) and the children know and trust the other Village Parents, and when bottom line rules have been established (i.e. no hitting, but picking up child and bringing her to another room is okay, or whatever works for you). A system of steps must be in place. And it’s going to take practice. I feel relieved and eager to try it out. Any relief for me is welcome, and my heart feels very touched by the willingness of my dear friends for saying Yes.
This is a way to deepen what we mean when we say our friends are our tribe. It is extremely challenging in this society, this world, even in a cabin in the tropical jungle of Hawaii, to create a tribe – a healthy one, anyway. This is a way to have less overwhelm as a single parent. A way for everyone involved to have a better time by empowering others to step in and actually collaborate on parenting the children effectively vs. sitting by suffering silently while a single parent struggles to balance the world on her shoulders. My learning has no end and I keep going deeper and higher. Come with me.
There is much more to say on this topic, and I will keep writing about it. On this topic particularly, I’d love to hear from you. Please do email me with resonance, impact, stories.
In HeartMind Parenting,