No mum is an island

A week or two ago there was a rather smug article in the Good Weekend about how, really, we’re all a pack of whingers, and being a mum is dead easy these days. After all, the article chirps, our mums did more, with less, than we are doing these days, and you never heard them whinge. They had more kids, less dishwashers, no dvds or laptops to entertain the kiddies. The author did confess that she had an easy baby who is, as yet, only 9 months old. My husband, when he read the article, commented that here was an opportunity for a new business – selling voodoo dolls of the author.

Annoying though the article was, it did raise some interesting points. You do hear a lot of parents (myself among them) saying that parenting is hard work. That it can be distressing, depressing, and downright terrifying. Even though we adore our kids and wouldn’t turn back the clock for anything, there are times (for some of us it’s most of the time) when parenting is an incredible struggle.

Why should that be? I have frequently wondered what it is that we’re doing wrong. Is there a way we could have made it easier on ourselves? Have we made the wrong parenting choices, as many would argue, creating rods for our own backs and making life unnecessarily difficult, or is there something else going on here?

We’ve all heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child.” I think that’s a huge part of the problem, right there. Few of us have a village these days. Of course, most of our urban mums didn’t live in villages either, but it was far more likely that mums lived in neighbourhoods with other mums. They shopped locally – meeting local people. They played with their kids in local parks. They went to local kinders and local schools. They were far more likely to have neighbours with kids.

Research has shown that simply being near a familiar person – even an acquaintance, let alone a friend – can have amazing health benefits. Everything from lowered blood pressure to improved immune function and dramatically reduced depression. These days we rarely see familiar faces in the course of an average day. We go to huge, distant shopping centres (and we drive there, avoiding any inconvenient personal interaction along the way, apart from occasionally bursts of road rage). Most of us have a community in our workplaces, and that’s where becoming a stay-at-home parent can be a particular shock, because it may be the only source of community in our lives. Its loss can be startlingly difficult to cope with.

Forming friendships and local networks requires frequent interaction. It is not easily replaced by well-meaning attempts to create mothers groups out of random groups of mums – even when a group works well, meeting once a week means it can take a long time to form the kind of friendships that really support us. It’s running into the same people day after day that allows connections to form and relationships to build. We can certainly build friendships with people we don’t see so often, but it takes time, and you don’t get a whole community that way. You get one friend who you see sporadically, if you’re lucky.

Our whole lives are arranged in such a way that we don’t form the local networks of friends and neighbours that used to sustain our lives. For the most part we don’t have local shops, and we don’t walk in our local streets, or even play in our local parks very often. The local neighbourhood is somewhere we pass through, not somewhere we truly live.

I have a mental image of neighbourhoods full of kids, running in and out of each others’ houses, and parents sharing cups of tea and the odd glass of wine. Of course, that image didn’t always exist in the past, and isn’t always absent now. But I think it is becoming increasingly rare, perhaps particularly in the lives of those who need it most. I think that may be why parenthood isn’t a walk in the park.

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6 thoughts on “No mum is an island

  1. So sad, but so true. It’s a shame more people dont live in their local neighbourhoods as you can build some amazing relationships. Our local biodynamic shop has adopted Little B as their mascot, and are devastated if he doesnt come in at least once a week LOL.

  2. Chris

    The reciprocal of the lack of community is, I think, increased concerns about safety. In my Grandmothers day people could kick the children out of the house in the morning and tell them to be home by sunset without worrying too much :-).

    Possibly a little too enthusiastic, but I think we’ve swung too far the opposite direction now… if we don’t know our neighbours and don’t see them much, then we’re not likely to be as happy with our kids roaming the neighbourhood, and the family turns inwards to the DVD player and playstation…

    1. lindamciver

      I think you’re right, Chris – and in part it also stems from the fact that we are not out roaming the streets ourselves. If we don’t walk around our neighbourhood, there is no way of knowing whether it is safe or not. It is much harder to see the local streets as hotbeds of terrifying danger if you actually spend any time in them.

  3. Rebecca

    My friend is a stay at home dad in the dandenongs and the isolation he feels is stark. No wonder he has adopted twitter as a pseudo “dad’s group”

  4. Joe

    We have two young kids (4 and 1) and do quite a bit locally. It’s not a cure these days.

    We live ten minutes walk from our preferred shopping district, have a couple of decent parks also within a walk, and most days the car stays at home. Even so there’s not a heck of a lot of “social connection” in the streets or at the shops, though after several years there are a few faces that get smiles.

    We do, however, have pretty good relationships with both our immediate (older) neighbours which helps a little. But having moved cities before having kids both of us get our society contacts through our workplaces.

    Which is why as soon as #2 has weaned himself off day feeds (#1 weaned herself *completely* at about 15 months) my wife will be back at work a few days a week, and I’ll be home again a few days a week. It worked well with #1.

    As to “danger in the streets”… bah. The vastly most likely source of personal hazard is people you already know anyway. I blame ever-more-cunningly-crafted “news” media for digging out and hyping the supposed faceless risks in our communities. Our kids will be out fending for themselves routinely in a few years time.

    1. lindamciver

      I agree – the media is shockingly alarmist. If you read the papers, watch the news & current affairs and take it all seriously, you would never be able to leave the house. You’re right – we don’t have the local communities anymore, and never will unless many, many more of us get out into our streets. There’s a huge cultural shift needed – but with rising petrol & energy prices, maybe that will start to happen.

      I know where you are coming from about work & social contact. I have recently been working somewhere new and positively revelling in the social contact I get from it. It makes me a much better (and saner) mum when I am home. It’s a shame we’re not good at providing parents with the social support to stay home full time if they want to, but as things are I would go totally loopy. We’re both part time, and it’s a brilliant mix. Shame it’s not available to more families!

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