Community and why we need to stop making like we're penguins
It is very rare that mammals rear their young, or indeed, old, on their own. Yet we humans make like penguins, often facing arctic blasts of isolation and struggle alone.
I’ve just come back from a holiday with lots of other families. Because we are all sharing the same space, we start our time together with a meeting where we work out the ground rules we are going to use to co-exist with each other and each other’s children.
We decide on bed times, screen use, chocolate consumption collectively because it is so much easier to get your own kids to bed if all the kids of their age are going to bed then too. We let each other know about our kids; which ones have allergies, which ones are shy and might need help getting involved and which kids might need reminding not to climb tall trees or run around the house.
We also discuss how, and to what extent we will parent each other’s kids and usually we agree that it is OK to remind whichever child it might be about manners, about clearing away their plates, about the wonders of tidying up.
The time that follows that meeting is a joy. Kids get on with kids, parents have time to connect with each other and their kids and everyone, if they want it, can take time alone. There is always community and there is always solitude. It is the one place I go that I feel truly rested and at ease.
We're mammals, not penguins
We work so hard to raise our young in our nuclear or single families. We protect them, we feed them, we teach them, we do our best to send them into the world as the best human beings they can be. And sometimes it is exhausting, and often it is relentless especially when they are very young. It is very rare that mammals rear their young, or indeed, old, on their own. Elephants care for their elders as a herd. Buffalo circle the old, the young, the old and the sick when a threat is at hand. Yet we humans make like penguins, often facing arctic blasts of isolation and struggle, waiting for our single mate to come home to take over childcare so we can go off and fight for food alone.
I am not convinced that we are meant to be penguins.
My aunt has died after 68 years of marriage. In her last years she was cared for by her husband, children, grandchildren and a niece and was able to spend her final years in her home. Not everyone ends up with their children living near to them, not everyone lives with someone who can look after them.
But maybe that doesn’t matter if we broaden our sense of family. When my children were very young I had someone else’s grandma living across the road from me helping me with my babies. My friend has befriended someone who is not his. When he can’t be with his own dad, he looks after someone else’s.
Love the one you're with
There was a song in the sixties which had the line; ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with’. The lyric was alluding the sexual love, but I think there is a deeper truth, that we can all be each other’s mothers and sisters, grandparents and aunts without being blood relations. If we live near someone who is at home with young children, we can be the one to pop in to make a cuppa and give a helping hand. If we live near someone older, we can be the ones to do their shopping or having a chat.
When I go on holiday with those other families, and it can be different families every time, I just feel so much better knowing that other people have my back. I had a cracking headache one night this time and could retreat to my bed to read alone knowing that my kids were safe and downstairs having fun.
I also love that my boys and I get to meet new people and learn from them. This time I learned (or remembered after not doing it since I was a young child) how to knit. The children learn card games from each other, share piano tunes and we all share mealtimes, conversations, songs and games. I simply cannot provide my sons with the diversity of experience these other families can offer.
It reminds me, every time I go, that we do not needs to do so much alone. That life is easier when it is shared, whether it is dish washing, child raising or problem solving.
How could you extend your sense of family and community?
What could you offer to share and help with?
What do you need and who can you ask to help?
Ps...I've also written about finding soul family in community here