How much does a pack of diapers cost these days? We were playing “The Price Is Right” at a baby shower and, just as I wondered what brand the host had in mind, the woman sitting next to me started talking about her upcoming spring break plans. “My parents take the kids for a week during every school holiday,” she explained. “That gives me and my husband time to just relax or go out or just have cheese and crackers with wine for dinner, you know?”
Sister, I only wish I did. When I admitted that my husband and I have never had a single overnight away without our kids in the eight years we’ve been parents; she almost fell out of her chair. “Why not?” Like we’re choosing to parent alone. Like we’re not interested in relaxing or working on our relationship or, you know, just having cheese and crackers with wine for dinner. All I could tell her was the truth: “I just don’t have people like that to help."
We’re not outcasts or anything. Our neighbours are friendly, my in-laws live in town, and I do have friends—OK, one good friend and a bunch of moms I like to chat with at school drop-off, but still. We know some people.
And yet, somehow, we’re missing that crucial piece of the puzzle that draws friends together for the long haul. I would love friends who casually stop by for potluck dinners thrown together at the last second—no Evites needed—or a close girlfriend to text when I am stressed out and need a laugh. When I hear people talking about annual girls’ weekends with college friends or camping trips with the family down the street, my heart starts to shrivel.
Because I’d love to take trips with another family or enjoy a weekend getaway with my husband. To be honest, I’d totally settle for a group of people to celebrate my birthday with.
First of all, there are logistics to consider. We have four small kids, ranging from three to eight. When you’re talking about a weekend handoff, that’s a challenge with everything from cars to food to the sheer amount of noise one can be expected to endure.
Also, we’re newcomers. We moved to our small historic town outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, four years ago after spending the first Obama administration in Italy, where three of our kids were born. That lady from the shower? She also told me 20 minutes’ worth of heartfelt stories about her local village of friends. Their core group met when their 13-year-olds were in preschool.
That’s a decade of friendship banked. And, though it sounds like I missed the boat, this detail was a turning point. It finally hit me that friendships take time to develop—something that many busy families don’t actually have much of these days.
Modern mothering feels like constant FOMO. And, thanks to Instagram, we have the pictures to prove it. But don’t believe all those smiling vacation pics for a second because the numbers just don’t support it. In a survey of more than 2,000 Americans in 2016, CBS News reported that 72 percent of people feel lonely from time to time, and a third of them feel lonely at least once a week every week. That’s a whole lotta lonely.
When we compare our mediocre day-in, day-out experiences with someone’s highlight reel on Facebook or, say, at a baby shower, we’re distorting the facts. Having parents who lovingly watch your kids, creating happy memories for four weeks every year, is simply not the average. Sure, studies show that babysitting helps seniors live longer, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s doing it.
But that didn’t stop me from thinking they did. Still lamenting this idea of a family whose grandparents take the kids for a full month every year, I ran the story by another mom. Her response was everything. “Wow,” she said, “but that seems unusual, doesn’t it? I mean, my parents don’t take our kids either. I don’t even know anyone like that.”
And just like that, the everybody-has-it-better-than-me bubble burst. Huh. Maybe lower the bar, I told myself. Not too low, but just a notch. So from that bar—in its new lower, more comfortable setting—is where I learned how to be my own village. Here’s what I do.
Focusing on gratitude changes everything. My elderly in-laws like spending time with our kids in groups of one or two—that’s their speed, and it’s fun for the kids—so that’s our bar. Instead of feeling jealous of people with more support, I choose to be grateful. My kids love spending time with their grandparents, and that’s what I focus on now.
I mean, we really get into it. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing parenting wrong because I’m so annoyed and quick to snap, sighing over the little things. But I finally realized that I get irritated with my kids when I am trying to get something done and keep getting interrupted by tiny faces that I made myself. The solution was to make realistic blocks of time for both work and play.
This spring break, we staycationed. I had a lot of work to do, but we planned ahead. My husband and I plugged in whole-day trips where the focus was fun, not folding that last load of laundry or answering emails. We’re talking full-on ice skating, bouncy houses and a cheeky trip to the beach (now there’s a laundry situation that still needs to be addressed, but I digress…).
I think of my husband not just for tag-teaming on parental duties but also as a guy I used to know pretty well. Don’t worry; this isn’t the part where I start talking about the magic of La Perla (and if you’re already there, good for you!). I’m just saying that sometimes talking for 15 minutes a night before Netflixing together might be the best we can do for a period of time. This matters because he is a permanent resident of my village.
I’ve spent the last year really focusing on trying to build a friendship circle, and I’ve made some progress, but it wasn’t easy. I joined a cookbook club, but it fizzled. I joined a prayer group, but it also fizzled. I even got gussied up for a mom’s night out that no one else showed up to—cue the sad trombone (wah-wah).
But I kept at it and found some gems. My book club is thriving. Last week, I went to a local networking group where I instantly found someone to help me plan an upcoming event. No, there haven’t been any weekend trips, but we’ve had friends over for meals and been invited elsewhere. That’s better than last spring.
It’s such an old chestnut, but it’s true. I know two families from church who adopted a fourth child from overseas this year. I kept thinking, That must be stressful! I wonder how I can help support this beautiful effort. Eventually, I stopped saying things like “You guys will have to come over some time” and just gave them two dates to pick from, telling them I was taking all their kids for the day.
They could shop, relax, go to a movie or do whatever they wanted, but all those munchkins would be safe with me. It was so fun for everyone, and I can’t wait to do it again this summer. A twice-annual thing. We’re practically a village.
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