I have always viewed myself as a very independent person. I like to figure things out on my own, and I don’t usually ask for help. Up until this point in my life, autonomy has worked out relatively well for me allowing me to leave home, complete college and a master’s degree, get a job, start a life separate from my parents and build a small business. But let me tell you, complete self-reliance does not work well for parenthood.
Everything changes when you have children in a way that is so immeasurable you can’t even conceptualize how to get ready for kids when you are not a parent. Before my first was born, I spent hours wandering the aisles of Babies "R" Us, like I was lost, wondering things like, “Is the $100 pack-and-play really different from the $200 pack-and-play?” or “Do I really need a wipe-warmer?”.
I had baby showers, got lots of useful gifts, and folded hundreds of sweet little onesies into drawers organized by size. But nothing quite prepared me for the reality of parenthood. Becoming a parent is the ultimate learn-on-the-job assignment: the exhaustion and sleep deprivation, the baby that started crying at 7:00 pm and didn’t stop until well past 10:00 pm even though she had been fed and rocked and changed, and the frustration of struggling for eight weeks to nurse my baby before it became the natural process everyone said it was.
During those first few months, our little family often felt like an island floating in a vast sea of work, time commitments, and busyness. We tried alone to battle the waves that crashed upon our shore and the problems that arose daily.
At the time, I was attempting to balance a new business that was run from my home, caring for a loved family dog who was dying from an autoimmune disease, all while learning to take care of a new baby, and recovering from a c-section. I felt like I was barely able to move fast enough to keep my head above water.
I tried to do what had always worked in the past. I tried to do it all myself. My husband helped, but he was new at parenting too. At 3:00 am we would ask each other questions like, “Do you think we need to sterilize that syringe apparatus we just used for tube feeding milk into the baby’s mouth or will it just melt?” Then we would look at each other and shrug, too sleep deprived for the critical thinking involved in weighing possible gastroenteritis against the potential for releasing cancer-causing BPA. After a few weeks, my husband had to go back to work. That’s when it really hit me that one person can’t be your village. And, trust me when I say, you will need a village once you become a parent.
Luckily family pitched in. My mom stayed with me for a week and cooked meals. An aunt watched our daughter when my husband wasn’t home from work and I needed to start tutoring. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law took care of our sick dog for a few weeks even though she now required twice-daily insulin injections and did not have control of her bladder. They were with us when we had to make the tough decision that she had struggled long enough. I joined a mom’s group that I met through a nursing class at the hospital, and slowly my parenting village started to form.
Today, my village is also made up of moms who commiserate with me over a late-night glass of wine. They brought meals three times a week for a month when I was recovering from the birth of my second child, and I do the same for them. We often trade child care or meet for a night out, which helps to maintain my sanity. We arrange meet ups at parks, pumpkin patches, and farms where our kids play together. They are stay-at-home moms, work-at-home moms, and working moms. Some bottle-fed with formula and some nursed their babies. Some homeschool, some send their kids to public school, and some to private school.
I think it is also worth mentioning that we are not all the same. So often I see people vetting their mom-friends like a potential match on a dating website. I think that problems are more likely to be solved when challenges are approached from multiple perspectives.
Each person we meet has a lesson to teach us: friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and colleagues. (At first, if you are resistant to advice like I am, this is a little annoying or more than a bit overwhelming). But it is through these connections, that I have come to realize I am not alone in the parenting struggles I encounter. Parenthood provides us with an opportunity to move from being an individual to becoming a member of a community, if we are willing to embrace this change instead of fighting it.
For me, becoming a parent has been a slow and increasingly difficult lesson in letting go. Letting go of control and the way I envisioned things to be. Letting go of perfection and order. Letting go of always doing things my way. But also letting go of isolation and learning to invite others in.
Having a village means inviting people into the reality of your life -- the good and the bad. It’s hard work and it’s intentional -- this trading of perfection for the joy of a genuine connection to others based on a messy reality. It is inviting a friend in when you have a sink full of dishes, a load of laundry on the couch, and toys strewn across the floor. It’s admitting that you don’t know everything and asking for help when you need it. It’s letting go of the idea that you are the only one who can care for, teach, or provide a positive influence on your kids. We have to learn to lean in to the changes life presents us with while also reaching out.
So, I am building a village. It’s made up of family and friends, teachers and experts. In some cases, we agree about very little as far as politics, opinions or interests are concerned. But what we do have in common is more important -- the love we have for each other and the love that each of these people have for my daughters. I know that it is this love and support that will surround my daughters with a strength and resilience I could never offer on my own.