I’ve been paging through Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village, and, to my surprise, agreeing with much of it. I’ve heard so many of my friends rail against Clinton’s “village” idea, saying “it takes a family” and “I do not need a village to raise my children.” Clinton advocates government solutions more than I think necessary, but she has a good sense of the importance of strong families. I picked the book up in part because I’m starting to think that maybe motherhood was never meant to be a one-woman show, and raising children was never meant to be one family’s job.
My employment right now consists of coming into five different homes and, effectively, facilitating motherhood. In one family, I’m helping a dyslexic high school student read her history book. Her mom told me it was easy work that she’d do herself, but she has eight other kids and the toddlers need more mom time. Another family has three boys, ages 11, 9, and 2. The homeschooling is either a two-person job or a one-person-and-one-TV job, so the mom hired me. Another family has three boys, two with severe developmental delays (ages 7 and 5, can’t talk, not potty trained). The third boy is developmentally fine, but he’s two, and like most two-year-olds, he thinks he’s in charge and can’t fathom why mom won’t nurse him all the time.
I wasn’t hired because the parents don’t want to be real parents and would rather dump their kids in daycare. I wasn’t hired because dad ran off after his girlfriend got pregnant. Every one of these families is devoutly Catholic, with parents married to each other and a stay-at-home mom. I was hired because raising children is a big job, and these moms can’t do it on their own.
Parents, of course, bear the primary responsibility to raise their children. But “primary” and “only” are not the same thing. That’s why we have schools and hospitals and babysitters and homeschool groups – and amazing men like Pope John Paul II writing letters to families: “Parents by themselves are not capable of satisfying every requirement of the whole process of raising children, especially in matters concerning their schooling and the entire gamut of socialization.” (section 16) We do need a village.
When I was in fourth grade, a friend moved away and I cried my eyes out. Now everybody moves away all the time, and it’s hard to establish relationships before neighbors are transferred out of state. We build relationships primarily by spending time together, and it’s frustrating when you have to start over entirely every couple years. And, from everything I can tell, it’s even more frustrating when you have to pack up a handful of squirrelly children to go to a women’s group where you don’t know anyone, hoping for the kind of friendship you just don’t get from one or two meetings. You can’t spill your heart out to someone you just met, and you can’t leave a clingy two-year-old with a stranger.
Women need adult women friends. Men need adult man friends. Children – especially those without same-sex siblings close in age – need friends to do boy things and girl things with. Children need other examples of adults living holy lives – maybe that’s the godparents’ job, but by the time the kid is old enough to know what godparents are, they’ll probably have moved far away.
Tim Kreider wrote a beautiful piece for The New York Times on aging and death. He writes:
“Segregating the old and the sick enables a fantasy … of youth and health as eternal, in which old age can seem to be an inexplicably bad lifestyle choice, like eating junk food or buying a minivan, that you can avoid if you’re well-educated or hip enough. So that when through absolutely no fault of your own your eyesight begins to blur and you can no longer eat whatever you want without consequence and the hangovers start lasting for days, you feel somehow ripped off, lied to. Aging feels grotesquely unfair. As if there ought to be someone to sue.”
Those of us who grew up shoveling the driveway for the elderly couple across the street and watching our parents care for their aging parents don’t live in this fantasy. We’re better prepared to face our post-golden years and our deaths, and it’s obvious to us that euthanasia is an assault on human dignity. I wonder how I will teach my children this lesson if their grandparents are far away and the elderly couples don’t live across the street.
We do need a village to raise children. Phone and internet are great for keeping in contact with friends now miles away, but those friends aren’t available to babysit, or to hug you when you feel like life is falling apart. Their kids can’t come over to play with yours. We need each other, to grow in holiness, keep our sanity, and raise our children. How can we Catholics – parents and otherwise – pull together to build that village?
It can be as drastic as lending your house for a month or as simple as bringing a meal over when a new baby is born – and stopping by a while later with cookies to chat with the new mom again. It could be taking the youth group to visit a nursing home, or do work for an elderly couple in town. Anything to reach out, make connections, and establish relationships, especially with those who can’t get out of their homes as easily.
We need a village. So let’s make one.
© Mary C. Tillotson. All Rights Reserved.
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