Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Living in the Village

There was a blog post that went viral among my mommy friends over the past few months titled, "I Miss the Village." The fact that it went viral just highlights the isolation that mommas in suburban America feel. I felt it too. 

It's different here, so strikingly different. I'm IN the village everyone is dreaming about. Since I'm here, let me just say that I'm not sure you could hack it, Western mamas, if you were given the chance to create "the village" over there. You'd have to make major adjustments... to things that you value. Consider, what's more important to you? "The village", or your independence, the privacy of your family, your extra-curricular activities, and the security of your children?

It's so incredible in some ways, being here. I came home from the store with Elly in her wrap and the neighbor told me next time to just drop Elly off at their house while I go to the store. At the corner is another sweet lady who calls herself Elly's grandma and anytime I walk by she takes Elly and tells me to go work on homework... so I do. 30 minutes of free babysitting! The neighborhood kids all gather in little packs after school and can be found playing games or just hanging out in random corners of the neighborhood. The little ones are looked after by the big kids, and every local parent knows all of the other kids and is responsible for any needs that pop up when the kids are in their front yard. When I go to the store the employees take Elly and watch her while I shop. Hands free shopping! When we eat out for Sunday lunch, the family next to our table for the last two weeks has noticed that my attempts at eating while holding a wiggly infant are less than successful, and have taken her until I'm done. Judah wanders to the field beside the restaurant with other kids and plays while the adults eat.

It's not just with kids, either. We live in a small town but it's still the "village" in the sense of a small local community. Things are very local here, both as a culture and as a governmental policy.  Our neighborhood, maybe 40 houses, has a head guy that we reported to when we got here. The neighborhood plans holiday festivities, greets new members, divides up neighborhood watch duties, and attends to important neighborhood issues. It's as if your neighborhood association was actually the city council. At our first community meeting we introduced ourselves so that everyone would know who we were, where we live, where we came from, etc. If we are out of town for a couple of days or have someone staying with us, we let the community leader know. If someone dies, it's announced from the local mosque loudspeaker and immediately (as in like, within hours), the corpse is laid out in the home and the entire community gathers and sits with them, joins in mourning, and pays into the funeral expenses. On Friday everyone goes to mosque together. We've been here two months and we know half the neighborhood and gather with them for at least three official neighborhood meetings each month. In the US I would have probably just met the people next door.

So here's the thing. To get the village, you give up other things. You give up privacy. For neighbors to know each other, you can't have soundproof walls and gates and cars so that you pretty much get from your bedroom to the cubicle without speaking to anyone except perhaps someone at the Starbucks drive-through. Here, neighbors may well know when our kid is throwing a fit, what we generally cook, if we've had a fight, when bath time and bedtime is, recent purchases, when we go on vacation, etc. There's no keeping your house messy and no one knowing it, there's no having a pantry full of overpriced luxury goods or crappy dollar store brand but no one knowing it.  In the West we idealize the community support but then we really like to go home, get away from people, lock the front door, and know that we can squabble, discipline, and have a private family routine that is away from everyone else.  The more private you are, the less you live in the village. Which do you want?

It's kind of ironic actually because at the same time as the "I Miss the Village" blog was going viral, another blog was as well, about how moms feel constantly judged by each other and calling for an end to mommy wars. Here's the thing. If you really want the village, you're going to have to give up the desire to avoid critique. If other people get to help parent your child, they also get a say in how it should be done. Here I have received constant advice on how to dress my child, what to feed them, when to bathe them, school, play activities, safety guidelines, medical advice, etc, etc.  It can totally make me feel judged and like I don't know the best thing for my kiddos. Guess what. I may actually not know the best thing, and if I want to parent in the communal village, I best get over it.

Then there's independence. We like our cars because .. well... we don't know how to live without them. With them we get to the store, to church, to school. It gives us the freedom to get where we want to go, right? That way we can do all the extra curricular stuff we like to do. Sports. Church events. Art classes. Library time. Etc, etc. And then you can swing by your favorite store, drive to church on Sunday, and eat out at your family's favorite restaurant afterwards. Except, you know what almost every single one of the those activities do? Takes you away from the neighborhood. What if you used your car only to go to work? What if you only chose extra curricular activities you could walk to, ate only at restaurants within a mile of your house, shopped only at the closest grocery stores, and went to the church around the corner instead of across town? Could you do it? You have to give up the ability to choose your favorite things if you really intend to foster "the village". Church in the US attempts to recreate its own village through a host of community-building activities, but the down-side of that is that they are only attended by church people rather than people around you of all stripes, including different religions, ages, and socio-economic status.

It's the same thing with people. It's true that in the US we've lost some of the village, but the benefit is that you pick your people. You decide which groups your or your kid are in, but if you are limited to your neighborhood then, well, what if the guy next door is weird and the mom across the street is controlling and the kid on the corner is a bully? Are you still willing to live in that village? It'd be great to have others helping to raise your kid, but you also are giving all of those people your trust to guard your children and be an influence in their lives.

In the end, I'll take the village. I just think that the Western world needs to weigh their values and understand what they have to begin setting aside if they really want to foster that "village".

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