How to build a village

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But what if you don't have one?
Paper people surrounded by paper houses

Photo: Roberto Caruso, Paper illustrations: Stephanie Han Kim

More than a decade ago, I spent a few months living in a rural village in Northern Ghana, where I made friends with Abi, an older woman who was the local midwife. Whenever we were together she would ask me lots of questions about babies, mainly why I didn’t have any yet and when I planned to fix that. One day she asked, “When you have a baby, will you live with your mother or your grandmother?”

“Probably neither,” I replied. She looked shocked.

“Oh, so an aunt or a cousin, then?”

“No,” I told her, “probably just my husband.” She burst out laughing.

For Abi, the thought of two brand-new parents who had no idea what they were doing, living on their own and raising a baby together, was unthinkable.

Seven years later, when I had my first child, I thought of Abi often: as my husband and I fumbled through those first diaper changes, googled “baby making weird gurgling noise” at 2 a.m., and obsessively tried to perfect those parenting-book-recommended tight swaddles and loud—but not too loud!—shushing noises. I remember thinking, Abi was right. This is ridiculous.

Once I became a mom, the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” sounded less like a nice little proverb about the value of community and more like a warning to parents: Seriously, you can’t do this alone.

We now have a five-year-old and an almost-two-year-old and we’ve gotten used to the chaos, daily slog and general uncertainty that come with the joys of raising kids. My husband and I have been lucky. There are two of us, and we have help from my mother-in-law and my aunt, who both live nearby. My parents are a couple hours’ drive away, plus we have a great network of supportive neighbours and friends. But what if you don’t have family who can help out? Or you become a parent after moving away from all your close friends? Then what?

Among the four other moms I hung out with on my last mat leave, I was the only one who had any parents in the city. Three of them had moved from another province or a different country altogether. As more and more Canadians stray far from home for school and work opportunities, parents are often left to create their own “village” themselves.

Canadians “are much more geographically mobile than ever before,” says Nora Spinks, the CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family, a charitable non-profit research organization based in Ottawa. Spinks says baby boomers tended to move, at most, twice as they were establishing their careers and then stayed put, but that’s not the case with millennials. “I lived in two cities over a 20-year time span,” says Spinks. “But my daughter, who’s in her 20s, has lived in four cities in four years.”

Spinks says some of this increase in geographic mobility has to do with the overall trend toward urbanization. “If your family roots are rural, remote or from the North, chances are younger generations are gravitating to urban centres,” says Spinks. For a lot of people, the choice to move far from home isn’t really a choice at all: The decision has to do with employment opportunities, which can often mean decamping to bigger cities, or, in some industries, like mining or oil and gas, can also mean temporarily relocating to more remote areas. (A 2012 report based on Canada Post address-change data found that one in five Canadians who moved in the previous year did so for work-related reasons.)

Spinks says her institute has also found the way people define family is evolving. “‘Family’ can be a result of biology or of circumstance,” she says. “And surrogate families are increasingly vital.”

Elizabeth Weafer’s “surrogate family” is one of circumstance. She and her wife, Karen, moved to a small town in New Brunswick for work reasons in 2007 and didn’t know anyone in their community. But they forged new connections by volunteering as Girl Guide leaders, and by the time they had their first child, Jack, in April 2010, they had built a Guiding family who threw them a baby shower and came to visit them at the hospital. Jack went to his first family gathering—a Girl Guides conference—at two weeks old. “Three people came up to us with bags of hand-me-downs,” says Weafer.

For parents without nearby family, connecting with friends, neighbours and acquaintances who can lend a helping hand or a sympathetic ear is crucial for their mental health, says Greer Slyfield Cook, a social worker with the Reproductive Life Stages Program at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. But she often hears from people who are hesitant to ask for help from those they don’t know well. Greer suggests parents start by identifying one person in their lives who might be able to offer some support. “It’s about redefining relationships that are already there,” she says. “They aren’t going to be your mom or sister from back home, but what can they be for you?”

Amara White gave birth to her daughter, Poppy, in December 2014. She and her husband, who are from New Zealand and Australia, respectively, had only lived in Toronto for two years, and none of their local friends had kids yet. So when a woman White had met in their prenatal class a few months earlier invited her to a breastfeeding support meeting, she immediately said yes. “I wasn’t having any trouble breastfeeding, but I was watching way too much Netflix—I had gotten through 10 seasons of Friends! So I wasn’t about to turn down an invitation,” she says. After the meeting, they went for a beer at the baby-friendly pub next door with a few other moms, which turned into a regular tradition they dubbed “Boozy Boob Tuesday” and friendships that lasted beyond mat leave. Some of the women from the group now celebrate holidays and go on vacations together, too. “Our kids are so obsessed with one another, we have to FaceTime if we don’t see them for a week,” says White. “I can’t imagine what I would have done without that moms’ group. I went through some rough times and those women were my life source.”

Giving your children the chance to form close ties with people outside their immediate family—and from different generations—is another benefit of cultivating your own village. Nora Loreto and her partner moved from Toronto to Quebec City for work four years ago. In 2013, Loreto gave birth to twins, Riel and Della. When the babies were four months old, a friend introduced Loreto to a woman who was in her 60s. “She just invited the woman over one day and said, ‘She is going to babysit your kids,’ and to this day she is our most consistent caregiver, aside from daycare,” says Loreto. Three years later, her kids squeal with delight when their babysitter shows up on Sundays. “She indulges them a little and doesn’t always do things exactly the way I would do them,” says Loreto. “But I think it’s good to let go of some of that power and control as a mother, and allow other people into our kids’ lives.”

I’ve found that even though letting go can be tough, as our children venture out into the world and form their own connections—at daycare, in summer camp, when ripping around the playground, and then heading off to school—the village around our family has grown exponentially. We share babysitting and occasional drop-off and pickup duties with other parents in the neighbourhood, and we’re big fans of the cheap, no-planning-required dinners with friends at our local farmers’ markets or Friday night community suppers ($5 per plate) in a nearby park.

My friends who don’t live in cities might not have a park dinner within walking distance to drop in to every week, but they create a sense of community by getting together for batch-cooking nights, organizing carpools to hockey practice and ballet lessons and throwing impromptu house concerts in their living rooms.

Adorably, our daughter has become such good friends with the girl who lives next door that one day we all agreed to cut a kid-sized hole in the tall fence that separates our properties. Now the kids can freely run back and forth between our yards and houses, sharing the space as well as their toys.

Proximity to fellow parents can be a huge advantage. Toronto mom Mandy Wintink and her husband, Mike, took this set-up to the extreme by splitting home ownership: They literally own half a house. They live on the main floor with their 16-month-old son, Ashar, and their friends Lindsey and Bronwyn, whose son, Nyjah, is also 16 months old, own the top half of the house. The decision to purchase a home together was partly a financial one, but even before they decided to buy, the two couples had been looking for apartments in the same building. “It just made sense to live together,” says Wintink. “None of us are from Toronto, and we don’t have family here, so we wanted the support of a family unit.” The two families share renovation and maintenance expenses, have regular family dinners together and pop in and out of each other’s living spaces several times a week.

Wintink says their arrangement was a lifesaver when she was home with Asher on maternity leave. “I remember one night I was starting to spiral downward in tears trying to get my screaming baby to sleep,” says Wintink. “I called Lindsey crying and she came running down in seconds and just sat with me. If she wasn’t right upstairs I would have worried that asking for help was an inconvenience, but I knew it wasn’t.”

Like lots of parents my age—especially the moms—another big part of my support system is virtual, by way of online neighborhood buy-and-sell groups, crowd-sourced diagnoses (for better or worse) and asking for parenting advice on Facebook, or using group texts and emails to keep in touch with faraway girlfriends. But Facebook can’t invite you over for dinner or pick up your kids when you’re running late. And Snapchat can’t keep a spare key for when you’re locked out of your house. One trustworthy neighbour is worth a thousand Instagram followers.

Lately, I’ve been trying to prioritize IRL connection over social media time in my life. I’m inspired by Sarah Grey, a Philadelphia mom who started what she calls “Friday Night Meatballs,” a weekly group dinner at her home. She invites as many as 10 people every week and she and her husband always make the same simple dinner: spaghetti and meatballs. Grey says she was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response when she started the tradition three years ago. And she’s found the weekly ritual has helped deepen her connections with people who were once only passing acquaintances. She says the secret to throwing a successful “family-style” dinner is to get comfortable with not making something fancy and to skip tidying the whole house before people come over. “If you’re self-conscious about the dust bunnies in the corner, just dim the lights and light some candles,” says Grey. “I promise, nobody cares about your floors.”

Sometimes extending a last-minute dinner invitation to those parents you hit it off with at a birthday party or daycare drop-off can lead to lasting friendships. Jessica Andrews, a Montreal single mom to 13-year-old Eden, is still close with two other anglophone single moms whose kids went to daycare with Eden more than a decade ago. “The majority of the support I’ve had over the years has been from those two friends,” says Andrews, who is originally from Halifax. “We’re like a family, and our three kids are like cousins.” When the children were younger, she and the other moms would trade off babysitting and organize dinners together.

When I asked Andrews if she still feels like she needs the village as much as she did when Eden was a toddler, she chuckles knowingly, as if only someone like me, a mom who’s just a measly five years into parenting, could ever think (hope?) it gets any easier. As I might have guessed, that “am I even doing this right?” feeling new parents know so well doesn’t go away as the kids get older.

“I think Eden needs me more now,” says Andrews. “I like knowing she has these two close friends with parents she trusts—and who I can talk with openly about all these huge things that come up. The idea of the village feels more important now than ever.”

Read more:
When your parents suck as grandparents
Why is “help” a four-letter word for moms?
Should you quit your job to be a stay-at-home mom?

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