It was a rough day, and I needed to call in reinforcements.
It wasn’t the day my mom typically watched my baby boy while I worked on my business. But the difficulty of this particular day had left me with a debilitating migraine, and I needed help. My mom swooped in, scooped up James, and offered me an ice pack for my aching head. While she fed, changed, and rocked my baby, I lay down in a dark room, my body racked with pain, and felt a wave of guilt wash over me. “What if I didn’t have her help?” I thought. “What about moms who don’t have families nearby, or nannies, or other childcare options? What would they do in these situations? What would I do? Why me? Why am I the one who has all of this support?”
These questions led me down a shame spiral that exacerbated the drilling pain in my head. I thought about the superabundance of help that carried me through my days: my husband who handled late-night feeding sessions; my dad who shared financial counsel; my in-laws who brought us meals during stressful weeks; our neighbor who has mowed our lawn from time to time; our friends who popped in with coffee, meals, and diapers when we brought James home. Before long, I found myself caught in a hideous, mean internal dialogue: “Who on earth would I even be without these people?”
A few months later, a concept in a book I was reading—Your Blue Flame by Jennifer Fulwiler—cut straight to my core: the notion that even though so many of us insist that we can “do it all,” we were never meant to live in isolation. In fact, when we examine how other cultures manage childcare, work, and household tasks, it’s the American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that is unique and foreign—not the concept of surrounding ourselves with a community that (quite literally) helps us survive on a daily basis. Fulwiler opines that we are wired for the proverbial village, not for radical individualism and the “you should put your big girl pants on and do it yourself” syndrome that permeates our wildly popular self-help media.
Calling upon the village
Recently, my mom told me about an Italian family she knows. One of the siblings moved to North Carolina from the Northeast, and this set off a domino effect: the rest of the family followed her, and they settled just a few houses down from one another. My mom shared that this reminded her of how she was raised. She grew up just blocks from her own Italian grandmother, who also lived on the same street as all of her siblings. And in a poetic full-circle event, my parents now live less than a mile from my husband and me.
I’ve seen this pattern repeat when I meet people who were raised in other countries. A college friend born and raised in Romania lived with her grandparents until she was a toddler. Another friend witnessed a European family descend upon her apartment complex when one of the residents had a baby (and the other women in the group cooked, cleaned, and cared for the baby while the postpartum mother rested). And in many countries, families rely on a literal village in raising children. Kate Ward, health and parenting writer, observes that in countries like the Congo, Colombia, and China, engaging others in child-rearing tasks is actually the norm. In fact, in the Congo, all of the women in a village are called “Mama,” and they all look out for one another’s children with the same care as they would their own. “Not only do the women not think twice about caring for another mothers’ child,” Ward shares, “but the idea of sharing breast milk also isn’t given a second thought. After all, if a baby is hungry and breast milk is available, why not use it?”
While I am not necessarily endorsing a practice of sharing breast milk (especially in a post-pandemic world), simply hearing and reading about these cultural norms reassured me that while having so much help and support felt like a luxury, maybe it really wasn’t. Maybe, just maybe, it was a reflection of how we are wired. At the heart of these customs is a recognition that we humans are built for communion with others. They whisper that other people are not meant to be viewed as disruptive to our own agendas, but rather, partners in navigating life’s trials. In these cultures, people embrace each other, and in turn, when they need help, a literal village responds.
Sometimes, people respond to our proximity to my parents with bemusement (“Oh, wow. How’s that working out?”). In fact, when my parents first walked through the home they ultimately purchased, my dad asked my husband how he would really feel about his in-laws living less than a mile away. “You don’t really want that, do you?” he asked.
The honest answer, though, was “yes.” Yes, we really did.
Granted, we both genuinely like my parents and enjoy spending time with them, so this helps. But people’s reactions to our setup, and even my dad’s question about whether we’d accept such closeness, highlights what our culture values—or rather, what it doesn’t. A 2016 Forbes article about the mobility of millennials confirms that the American Way, particularly for young people, seems to involve the pursuit of radical independence. The article states that in making relocation decisions, millennials are drawn to cities because of “what they can offer,” mentioning climate, commute times, access to health care, and “being around peers” as driving factors. Notably absent was any mention of proximity to parents, grandparents, or siblings.
But understanding the radical individualism we prize as Americans does not require a deep dive into research. Our media—a reflection of our collective values—says it all. How many children’s shows paint the parents and elders as hapless, comedic figures while portraying the precocious kids as the heroes? How many celebrity children tout their emancipated status? How many young adults set off for college only to completely divest themselves of their seemingly restrictive family values in favor of more freedom, more independence, more unfettered enjoyment of what they want, when they want it?
The village is a gift, not an invitation into guilt
The independence we value as Americans is not inherently negative. However, recognizing that my husband and my closeness to family is actually common—at least on a global scale—made me realize that maybe the fact that I had so much built-in support wasn’t what was disordered or unnatural. Rather, it was my guilt about the situation that was disordered and unnatural.
Recently, a stressful situation hit our family, and once again, I needed the village—except this time, I felt no compunction as I tapped out a few text messages. This time, I knew that the village was no accident. It was a gift. It was normal. It was natural. I knew that to call upon it at this particular time was best for my family. And, perhaps, the greatest gift of all was the knowledge that when they needed me, I would be there to respond, that I would be the one to carry the ones who’d carried me throughout every significant challenge and milestone in my life.
My village is a gift, and this time, I’ve made up my mind: I’m not going to feel a shred of guilt about it.