Be My Village

Friday, May 6, 2016

Me (the curly top), my sister and my mom c. 1989

"I got it," my husband said slowly as he ended the call. We both smiled and hugged each other tightly. It was his first offer for a college teaching position after getting his PhD a few months earlier. In an economy that was still in a holding pattern after suffering a severe blow several years earlier, it was welcome news.

We'd also received some welcome news a few weeks prior to that: our first baby was on her way. I was teaching high school Spanish at the time, and while I was certain that I loved my particular job more than I had any other up until that point, I also knew I'd want to be home with my baby longer than the maximum 12 weeks of maternity leave that I'd be able to get as a teacher.

The only news that was a bit unwelcome at the time was this: my husband's new job required us to move three time zones away to Southern California - far from the MidWest towns each of us had grown up in, and far from our parents who still lived in those hometowns. It was even opposite the East Coast where my husband's sister had lived for over ten years.

We moved on August 1, 2012, almost two months before our daughter was born. We hired a doula almost as soon as we arrived, not only because we had no idea what the birth process would look like, but also because we wouldn't have any guarantee that family members could get there in time for our daughter's birth, and we had no friends in the area. We really needed someone who we trusted to guide us into the world of first-time parenthood.

Thankfully, my parents were able to fly out and arrived a full four days before our daughter made her debut on the 8th day past her due date. There were three weeks of in-house help from them as I learned how to breastfeed, as my husband and I learned how to bounce her just right to get her to fall asleep, how to stroke her up her spine to release burps, how to bathe her, how to get her into the baby carrier, how to survive. They had opportunities to hold her, rock her, sing to her, kiss her as I caught up on sleep during the day. It all left me full on ugly crying after I dropped them off at the airport and drove away, envisioning how all of their future visits would end this way. My mother-in-law arrived the following day for another week of help and holding her first grandchild. One whole month of solid help. And then, there we were - on our own in a place that was still new to us, where we still knew few people, where we were still finding our rhythm.

Growing up, I'd had one set of grandparents who lived in the same town until I was 3. We even lived with them for a short period while our new house was being built. I had another set of grandparents who lived about a 5 hour drive away, further north. I didn't realize, until I was expecting my own children, how much this experience had shaped my hopes and expectations for what my own children (and I) would experience in relationship with their grandparents. I think I especially grieved the loss of easy safety-net people nearby who we could call and who would come at the drop of a hat.

Of course I've learned over the past few years that that last part - the safety net - can be composed of people who are not blood relatives, and can be found anywhere. Friends who we came to know through church especially became this for us. They had to - we had no one else nearby.

But there have also been times where I have been acutely reminded of the ways in which our lives look a little different from many of the people around us, most of whom grew up here or within driving distance of the town we live in.

It's hard when the women at my MOPS group encourage everyone to "take a look in your mom's closet" for the ugly Christmas sweater we need for an upcoming celebration.

It's hard when friends talk about going on spontaneous lunch or dinner or coffee dates with their moms, or when their kids' grandmother spontaneously calls and asks to take the kids for the morning or for an overnight.

It's hard when I am invited to a mom's day out to celebrate a friend's birthday, and everyone else seems to have grandparents eagerly awaiting an opportunity to watch their grandchildren (for free) for an entire day. I have to swallow my pride and call around to find a friend or babysitter willing to watch my baby for an entire day so I can go.

It's hard when it's a given that on long holiday weekends, like Thanksgiving or Easter, most of our friends will be having large dinner celebrations with their families, and while they kindly and sincerely and with much love invite us, we will always feel a little like guests on those holiday weekends, no matter how much they try to treat us as part of the family.

It's hard on days when I am sick and my husband must work. If we lived closer to family I would ask them to come take the kids, but since there is potential that my kids are contagious with my sickness, I can't ask any of my friends to do that.

It's hard when being 3 time zones away means FaceTime dates with grandparents tend to always happen at inconvenient times. Early in the morning here? Mid-morning errands are happening there. Nap time here? Early evening dinner prep there. Post-dinner pre-bedtime here? Late evening there. But at least we have FaceTime, right?

It's hard when it's not a given that we will be with family this Christmas because the combination of time zone changes, air travel in the middle of MidWest winters with a high potential for delays, disrupting our children's daily routine for 10 days, and rising airplane ticket prices for a family of four has made us decide to stay in our own home this Christmas.

It's hard when family members do visit but in order to make the high cost of the airplane ticket worth it they stay for 10 or more days in your small house, and you must adjust to each other's idiosyncrasies.

It's hard when friends talk about how they love but perhaps don't get along with their nearby family members, and I want to empathize and say "That's hard!" because it truly, truly is hard in a way I can't even quite fathom, but in the back of my mind I also am thinking "But at least your family lives nearby and in an emergency they'd probably totally swoop in to help."

It's hard when I allow myself to think far into the future and wonder what it will look like to care for my parents and my husband's parents as they age, and wondering how much of that responsibility for my parents will fall on my sister and brother who still live nearby.

It's hard when I feel guilty for throwing all of these pity-parties for myself when it's not a given for a lot of people that even if family lives close that they have a relationship that is functional enough to ask for help with kids. Or when I remember that at least I live in the same country as my family, unlike several acquaintances who live across the world from the families they haven't seen in years. Or when I remember that my parents are still alive. There are a lot of people who have even less family backup than I do.

There are also a lot of people, in an increasingly globalized world, who are in the same boat. When I meet these friends where I live, I always sense an automatic kinship: we know. We know what it's like to feel the sense of loss - ideally, having family who want to help you and that you love nearby is good. But we also know the beauty that is found in having to set aside your pity parties and ask for help, straight up help. To tell people that they are your family here because you have no one else. To tell people that you really do need them to be your village, that when your family is all down for the count with the worst stomach flu ever, you really do need someone to make a grocery store run for Gatorade, disinfectant wipes, Saltines and chicken noodle soup.

There was so much beauty after my second baby, my son, was born two years later and I unashamedly wrote on Facebook that yes, we needed meals, and that yes, if people were willing to bring one, we would take it with much gratitude. My parents were visiting at the time, and I could have decided not to take any meals because, well, we had the help - right? But our meal calendar filled up completely. God met our need for family-like care even though we were so far from our places of origin. God has done that, honestly, ever since we moved here. He has broken down my pride about asking for help. He has used people to meet our needs for childcare, family-like relationships, people who love and care for us deeply who are geographically close. We do have a village here. We do have family here. It looks different than what I imagined...but it's still every bit as beautiful.

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