This phrase’s origins have never been pinpointed with absolute certainty, it is largely believed to be an African proverb but in truth when viewing how all human beings lived before modern times, it seems more likely just a human proverb rather than specific to any one ethnicity, nationality or group.
Regardless of its origins, in my mind, this phrase is less of a proverb or pithy piece of advice but a pure statement of fact. And for most mothers in the 21st Century, this fact alludes us.
The truth of “it takes a village to raise a child” is so profound that once you have a child and you have no village it actually hurts. Your heart breaks, your soul yearns and your life becomes immeasurably impossible.
But isn’t this what we wanted? Self-sufficiency? Independence? Privacy? Boundaries? Personal Space? Autonomy? It is certainly what I thought I wanted.
But take a minute to consider what our hunger for a society centred around the individual, not the group has bought us. Consider what having a village could look like.
The village to which the proverb refers is not just a grouping of dwellings, it is referring to a community. It refers to when, we, as human beings lived according to the principles of a community;
- Know those around you (not just by sight or recognising their car as it zooms past in the early morning or late evening).
- Look out for those around you (not hiding behind your high walls and intercoms, but actually taking an interest in the welfare of those who surround your castle).
- Sharing of responsibilities, sharing the load (safety, time limitations, illness, grief, young & old, money or food).
- Sharing the joys, the companionship, the stories (co-parenting, holidays, friendship, freedom, support, kindness and laughter).
- Sharing of knowledge, sharing the burden of the unknown (in communities wisdom and experience is shared and transferred, you do not have to be alone in your decisions or choices).
Poet, John Donne, in the 17th Century, wrote, “no man is an island”. And yet four centuries later we have become exactly this – islands. Isolated in our self-imposed extradition. In the words of the mother of three and writer, Elizabeth Broadbent, “…one of those sad ghost towns whose sign reads – Population: 5”.
And what we obstinately refuse to acknowledge is that we as humans suck at being islands, we are pack animals, we like connections, we like safety in numbers, we are biologically wired for a life in a herd. There is a reason isolation or solitary confinement is used as punishment and in some instances viewed as torture. Isolation has a significant and dangerous effect on the human psyche.
It’s hard and lonely living on an island. And what’s more, it seems impossible to get off the island, because where is the mainland, where can you find the village? We are all on our own individual deserted island, stranded from each other, separated by a puzzle of moats.
None of us islanders has the resource to form a village, we are all low on time, energy and money. We are at a point in our lives – motherhood – where creating connections and forming a tribe is near impossible as we simply do not have the time or energy required to achieve it.
Each islander must learn to deal with their own problems because the islands nearby have their own lives to survive. Each islander is labouring under the pressure and is too busy providing for their families what entire communities used to provide. The islander is wearing every hat – the chief, the healer, the teacher, the warrior, the cook, the hunter, the forager, the mender, the maker and the giver. This multi-tasking places pressure on the few relationships that remain, especially our partnership as we toil under unrealistic expectations.
Even though we are alone on our islands with clear boundaries and borders, we have never felt less safe. We need to have eyes in the back of our heads, and the side and the top. We are solely responsible for the protection of our island, there is no-one else to take a shift and give us a break.
On this island, children are bereft of adventure and the freedom to explore in their own packs. There is no place for a pack of children roaming wild, discovering, making, imagining and feeding their curiosity. There is only room for your children, the children you are have committed to taking responsibility for, the children you feel you can control. There is no time or resource for other people’s children.
But islanders are not heartless selfish humans, and so we beat ourselves up over our children’s loss and try to fill the void with scheduled activities that steal time we don’t have, we fill the void with gifts and stuff which uses money we also don’t have. We are overcome with guilt, guilt about everything – time, money, energy, work, screen time, outsourced childcare, food, milestones and progress.
And with this guilt comes its most awesome sidekick: shame. We are constantly judging ourselves and constantly suspicious that any other islander we come into contact with is also judging us.
Shucks, this island is a shitty place to live. If we lived in a village, there would be different challenges, a village is not ever going to be perfect, because remember perfect doesn’t exist, but a village might feel like an oasis after years of life stranded on an island.
But after years of living on an island, we forget what a village is supposed to look like and so we turn to a virtual village. We try to form pixelated connections with usernames and curated profiles. We rely on this village to support us, to advise us, to help us, to affirm us and are devastated when it doesn’t. Human connection cannot be truly made via an internet connection. If it could, why does online dating require a face-to-face meeting to make it a real relationship? This virtual village often only serves to further isolate us and erode our what little sense of community we retain as we fall into a false sense of connection and hide on our islands behind our avatars.
Let’s remember what a real village looks like.
In a village maybe work would seem less of a sacrifice or guilt-trip, cause you are reassured by the fact that your child is not losing out on life and love while you are stuck behind a desk. In a village maybe every night wouldn’t be take-out night, maybe some nights a hot meal would be waiting for you with a little tin foil hat and note to return the casserole dish. In a village maybe date night could happen every week because your babysitter doesn’t expect financial remuneration, but is happy to accept an IOU. Maybe in a village when your kid gets sick, you won’t have to reschedule your whole day’s meetings and get side-eye from your boss, you might have someone willing to spend half a day watching Paw Patrol and administering Calpol to a fever.
Maybe in a village when you get sick, you can send your child next door for a few hours so you can sleep. Maybe in a village, you do not need an invitation to visit, you do not need to set up a time and place weeks in advance, in a village you just show up with a bottle of wine and some stale cheese curls and you are welcomed with open arms and slippered feet.
You may be asking yourself but this sounds like utopia, why would anyone else do any of these things for another person? Because it is what humans have always done, it is how we have always lived. Up until now, that is.
It is not about a one-sided deal, where you take and take. It is about community and in this word lies the heart of why it works – communal. As a collective humans are much more successful – emotionally, physically and mentally. Because when you embrace the notion of living communally, you embrace give and take. I will be there for you when you need me and in exchange, I know you will be there for me in the time I need you. And this shared safety net is why the village thrives.
My neediness for connection has always been a present force in my life, and I am not ashamed to admit it, but never has it been as obvious now that I am a mom, but I do not believe I am alone in my hunt for connection, for my tribe, for my people. Because I hate my island, it feels like a prison, it is torture, I need a village.
So, there is only one thing for it, in order to get off this island and begin the process of reforming humanity into villages, one islander at a time, I need to build a bridge.
A bridge that connects me to another island, and from there we will build another bridge and then another and another, until one day, maybe not in my generation but hopefully in my daughter’s we will have reset humanity’s compass back to the true north of what we humans are all about – community – and the realisation that we are better when we have relationships with those around us. We are better when we are united. We are better together. We are less scared together. Less burdened together. Less sad when we are together.
In order to build bridges, these are the things I think need doing;
1. First, find yourself, discover what you need and want (I am still a work in progress on this one, it’s not easy to focus on yourself, much easier to say, I don’t know, write a book or invent a new type of fermented detox juice).
2. Own your vulnerability and your neediness, ask for help, reach out, don’t wait for others to find you or offer to be your friend – you will end up probably waiting forever.
3. Become part of something, anything – a church, a tap dance class, a yoga practice, an adult drama club, a volleyball team, a crocheting circle, a gardening society, hell, buy a bird book and join the twitchers. Whatever blows your hair back, find your thing, find your people. But remember don’t overdo it, you can only connect when you have some space in your life to connect, too much stuff means less space.
4. Do not lose yourself to find a tribe, if you have to change to fit in, they are not your people. Remember a village is about give and take, if you are only giving, that is not a village, it is a country club and you are merely buying your membership.
5. Pay it forward, don’t wait for another islander to show you a sign of a village, start with you. When you see that mom about to lose her shit in Woolworths offer her a helping hand, even if your hands are full. When you walk past a mom in the school parking lot and hear her silent prayer questioning whether she is an abject failure give her a fist bump and tell her she is rocking this motherhood thing. When you notice a mom who has not had a night off in five years, offer to host a sleepover for her kids and yours – what’s another two on top of your three, five kids don’t need much, help them build a blanket fort, throw in a party-sized packet of Flings, a couple of pool noodles and you won’t need to worry about them for several hours?
If anyone else is interested in joining my village – the village for the faintly neurotic, very harebrained, severely exhausted, super fun, a little dirty-minded, very sarcastic, somewhat stabby and foul-mouthed, considerably awkward and slightly weird – my doors are open.
Leigh Tayler is a writer, a Leo, a feminist, a fan of The Walking Dead, a lover of all things unicorn and nearly succumbs to rage strokes on the daily. Oh, and she also happens to be a mother to one small feral child. She wears her heart on her sleeve and invariably tells it like it is, the good the bad and the ugly. She juggles her writing, her family, her sanity in-between a demanding career in advertising. She has no shame in sharing her harebrained and high-strung anecdotes on her experience of motherhood, no sugar coating, no gloss, just her blunt truth with a healthy side order of sarcasm. Find her on her blog, The Ugly Truth of Being a Mom.