I remember (inwardly) scoffing at a friend of mine lamenting, after becoming a newly-minted mother, that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. I had never heard this phrase before and had precisely no clue what she was talking about. Must be a bit lazy, I thought. We all just get on and do it ourselves these days, don’t we? And, the reality is that so many of us do do it either alone or with just one partner, as our families are either far flung – or frail – or both. But at what cost?
The statistics around postnatal depression are alarmingly high and I cannot help but wonder if losing our networks/villages/communities is contributing to this somewhat? Now, I am no scholar, and this is simply conjecture, but I can’t help but think that the all-consuming nature of motherhood, without respite and relief, could be taking a toll on our mental health.
Firstly, ‘sorry’ to that friend, I had no mother-flipping clue what was in store for me. I did not realise that just because so many women do raise their children without ‘a village’ does not mean that it is easy or even advisable. My sister warned me too ‘you want to be around family if you’re going to have kids’. ‘Why?’, thought I. I’ve been gallivanting off around the world on my own for half of my life and never needed any of ya (apart from a few loans here and there and saving me from phantom burglars etc – oh and helping me move house: I’m the youngest of six – you get the picture I’m painting?). Basically, I was clueless.
Having a baby changed me more than I could ever have fathomed – I did not even recognise myself in the mirror those first few weeks. And I found it hard. The sleep deprivation and weight of responsibility was – and still is – a massive shock to the system. I can’t help but envy those with family, and the friends they grew up with, nearby. In those crazy early days when you just need a shower, a nap and hot meal (a chilli and an apple crumble if anybody needs to know). When one of you (or – horrors – all of you) is ill, when you’ve had no sleep, when you’re working and the childcare has let you down, when you lock yourself out, when you can’t get a babysitter for your anniversary, when you’re stuck in traffic and can’t get to nursery. Wow, you feel so alone in those situations.
Recent research shows that the successful evolution of our species is partly down to female cooperation in child-rearing and this dynamic is still evident today in some societies and even, a few decades ago, in our own. As well as family bonds, there is ‘allo-parenting’ which is when non-related members of the community are part of the unit that helps raise a child. From an evolutionary perspective a well-rested mother can conserve energy and remain well-nourished so that she can stay safe from predators and other hazards and better enables her to protect her young. It is also hypothesized that mothers with help can ‘wean sooner’ (wish I’d known that with my little boob-hugger) so that they can reproduce quicker. From a modern perspective, trusted help and some space would alleviate some of the constant anxiety and exhaustion. This could lead to improved mental and physical health and perhaps improved relationships or even work opportunities. The benefits of having a village are untold.
The current model of parenting is incredibly intense and I am not convinced it is wholly healthy. After two weeks of paternity leave (if you have a partner and are lucky enough to afford this costly time off) you are cut adrift, apart from a few health visitor or midwife visits. And it remains thus until nursery or school. Just you. And the bairn/bairns – encased in four walls, quite possibly going mad. You might have the energy to fill your days with baby sensory and coffee – meet your NCT buddies once a week – but the sleepless nights, the hours and hours of breastfeeding or sterilising bottles, the fretting over every breath/rash/slightly delayed milestone? All yours. How lonely. Doesn’t seem right does it?
And yet we’re expected to do/be/have it all. Springing back from the birth, all shiny haired and insta-ready; running your house; feeding, clothing, entertaining your children, keeping them safe and warm; catching up with friends; shopping, cooking, cleaning; working or home-making. All whilst plastering on a great big smile and fielding a barrage of judgement and options on child-rearing. If you’re anything like me you’re probably also pretty constantly thinking “I’m shit at this. Everyone is better at this mumming than me.”
Of course, having your mum or the mother-in-law buzzing about, judging your dirty dressing gown, and overloaded kitchen counter, whilst bombarding you with unsolicited advice might send you screaming for the hills; but I still can’t help feeling that we have lost something crucial. The falling breastfeeding numbers (no judgement: fed is best); the rise in postnatal depression; the depletion and lack of confidence that new mothers experience: is this all tied to us losing our village?
So, thank whatever God you pray too (my preference is leaning toward some kind of bad-ass female deity as I am increasingly of the opinion that no way did a man create the world in seven frigging days) that the Motherload and other online ‘villages’ exist…we are no longer alone: we are the village, people.
About LC Nicholl
LC Nicholl lives on the East Kent coast with her husband and young son. Currently working as a freelance consultant for a number of charities, LC has had a colourful and varied life which includes treading the boards, travelling and working abroad, being a ski/beach bum and then, latterly, creating a successful career in the not-for-profit sector. She is passionate about feminism and women’s rights (in particular around pregnancy and birth), worker’s rights, environmental issues and the theatre. She is a lover of chocolate, dodgy dance moves and the Blaze of Glory soundtrack. Words that have been used to describe LC include ‘free-spirit’ ‘passionate’ and ‘feisty’.
Image credit: Flickr/Village Idiots by Dennis Eagles