Along with the disintegration of extended families, the past few decades have seen an increasing amount of social and economic pressures being placed on the nuclear family unit. Our culture is more geared towards rampant consumerism than towards supporting our children to grow in the company of their own parents during their early formative years. And yet the far reaching importance for this basic biological continuum being fulfilled has been confirmed by countless researchers and child psychiatrists; according to James Prescott and many others, the future of humanity may well depend on it.2
Parents today are called upon to be pioneers of a lifestyle that honours the evolutionary blueprint of each child within the context of our rapidly changing society. It is now more than ever imperative that parents create for themselves the support they need to nurture and sustain secure bonds with their children.
Part I of Regaining Sanity (March – May 05 edition of Kindred ) explored the possibility of parents choosing a life of voluntary simplicity and finding their lives enriched by having more time and money available for spending with their families. However, an equally important factor in raising children is the chosen community the entire family grows in; for the parents as well as the children! The ability to truly nurture a family does not flower in isolation; creating community as a network of support is just as essential as the second wing that enables a bird to fly.
Bill Ellis from the Coalition for Self Learning, defines community as, ‘a group of friends, a neighbourhood, or any cooperative association for meeting common goals. It is an extended family providing the caring, belonging, and deep association that links family members with the world outside of it. It provides the diverse and varied human interactions that make life not only possible but enjoyable.’ 3
Becoming a parent, especially an at-home parent, (not to mention, a simplified at-home parent!) is a major life change with tremendous new responsibilities which can be so much easier understood by sharing it in the company of other parents. It’s a sad reality that in our culture many women especially return to work due to missing a sense of community and feeling overwhelmed by being alone all day with young children.
Family and Home Network (FHN) is an organisation formed to support mothers who choose to make the transition to being at home for their children. Nelia Odom, a writer for FHN’s Welcome Home Journal , observes that ‘many women experience an enormous sense of relief and comfort in the discovery that her questions and emotions are understood and shared by other mothers’. 4 Odom describes how mothers getting together regularly with other mothers to support one another are succeeding in creating a healthy social context in which they can grow as individuals, where their mothering ability flourishes.
‘Mothers need friendships like anyone else,’ says Odom. ‘They need the stimulation that contact with peers provides. They need information about child behaviour and development that is reliable and yet respects their own mothering intuition. They need playmates for their children and the occasional help with childcare….and they need other mothers to laugh and have fun and go places with kids in tow!’
Certainly the same applies for both parents, men and women, especially as men who choose to stay at home with their children are a minority group, albeit a growing one. The good news is that there are as many different kinds of support groups aimed at helping parents develop friendships and gain confidence in their parenting abilities — all kinds of mothers, fathers, and family caregivers of small children — even entire families! Support groups connect a variety of parenting interests, often with an emphasis in a certain direction, such as communication awareness, simplicity circles, home education to name a few. The way in which support group gatherings are structured vary from group to group — from irregular informal playgroups at one end of the spectrum, to regularly scheduled meetings with organised activities, speakers, newsletters and dues.
Julie Chester, mother of three, experienced intense isolation when her family moved from a close-knit city neighbourhood to a sprawling suburban setting. She says her ‘survival tactics’ were to form her own playgroup which grew to seven mothers and seven other two-year-olds, and to sign up for a class at the community college; she went for daily walks in the neighbourhood, making dates with other mothers and children to go picnicking or sightseeing, and regularly joining story time at the library, as well as helping out once a week at the older children’s school. She and her husband occasionally leave the children with a trusted baby-sitter and go out on a date (which, by the way, is another very important aspect of maintaining sanity for an at-home parent!). 5
It’s natural to at first feel strange to be the newcomer to a group, but it is perhaps wise that ‘when you visit an existing group, go gracefully and with an open mind,’ Family and Home Network suggests to observe the ways every group has its own ‘culture'; its own purpose, values, leadership styles, goals and modes of operating. Although there may be a genuine interest to support other parents, there can sometimes be an underlying consensus on certain issues that may be in opposition to your own. This can either be a stimulating exchange, or an indication that you haven’t yet found the right group for you, but be prepared to give it a go! ‘More than likely, you soon will find yourself developing respect and admiration for those whose opinions in some areas may oppose your own, but whose commitment to parenting is nonetheless strengthening.’ 6
Sharing, caring, and living together
Living in community doesn’t necessarily mean living together, but it’s certainly a possibility to consider for families who are interested in making the experiment! It serves as an effective simplifying (‘downshifting’) strategy to reduce household expenses by inviting another person — even another family — to share the practicalities of living together within the space which they are already renting or owning. This can be a satisfying and mutually beneficial arrangement, once careful consideration is given to choosing people who share the values and ethics that you deem necessary in order to live well together.
In neighbourhoods close to higher education facilities, students are often looking for accommodation and are happy to exchange for babysitting and light household chores. Travellers and friends at interim points in their lives can also welcome the opportunity, with everyone involved benefiting in unexpected ways. Kumari, mum of one-year-old Aiyana, says, ‘When our friend Ila came to stay with us for several months, we put a caravan in the garden for her and in exchange she would occasionally play with my daughter and help out. They adored each other and became completely bonded. The experience opened Ila’s heart to a real nurturing side of herself that she also really appreciated.’
Keys to success
The key to parenting exchanges becoming sustainable and meaningful between people within a community context, is when an exchange fulfils a need for everyone involved. In this case, Ila was pleasantly surprised to discover just how enriching the experience of care-taking was in her life, beyond the exchange for accommodation. It’s an important point to remember because often people are hesitant to ask for assistance. And yet the single most essential factor in the success of co-operative efforts such as a babysitting co-op or a LETS system, is that people are willing to equally use and contribute towards the system; the key is participation . We may not realise just how many opportunities to connect and enrich each other’s lives fall by the wayside if we keep our wishes and needs to ourselves.
Perhaps it requires a certain willingness to inquire for ourselves into the true meaning of giving and receiving; with a little reflection one realises that in fact every real exchange between people always contains an element of both.
When we allow ourselves to receive support from another, we are in fact facilitating that person to receive the gift of contributing towards another’s wellbeing, which is of itself its own reward.
Make it worthwhile, be honest!
Relating with other parents about the innermost challenges we face in raising children can have a powerfully transformative effect. Being willing to honestly expose ourselves in revealing our conflicts in the company of another understanding parent allows us the potential to catch sight of areas of hidden emotional blindness. This self awareness alone can be the key to deeper insight, giving rise to its own spontaneous solutions.
Surrounding ourselves with other parents whose parenting styles we admire can be an inspiring and confirming experience, bringing out the best in each other especially when we dare to face and reveal our ‘worst’! It is profoundly reassuring to realise that we are all human, and often deal with similar issues which we can support each other to see through. Connections like these often lead to deep and lasting friendships as we navigate the intricate and transformative task of childraising in each other’s company. It is a further confirmation and testament of trusting and being trustworthy to ourselves and each other as we heal and re-parent ourselves in the process.
We all have something valuable to contribute
Imagine if you were to make an inventory of all the knowledge, skills and passions you have explored in your lifetime. Consider all that has been learnt through the roles you have played, the jobs you have worked, the places you have lived, the hobbies you have pursued, the talents you have developed — what an incredible wealth of experience you have gained through simply living your own life!
Whether we work with our hands or our heads — or whether we ‘work’ at all — every one of us are, in essence, living universities with a great deal of life experience and skills we can share with our children and with each other. And when we look to the circles of the most significant people in our lives, we can see how we are already both mentoring and apprenticing each other in so many ways, exchanging the gifts of life we have to offer. If we were to draw lines between the people we know and everyone they know, we would see between us all an amazing web of connections and interconnections as beautiful and unique as a spider’s web. I like to think of this ‘network’ as our way of creating a net through which we are all catching and exchanging information with one another. Within any community, we have a vast wealth of knowledge and life experience to draw upon.
Involving ourselves in this potential to exchange enhances a community’s capacity to nurture their children, creating the possibility for people to share raising children in a community spirit that is in many ways enriching to the lives of all those who wish to participate. And the ones who stand to benefit the most, are all of our children.
Parenting in Community – things you can do:
Form your own babysitting co-operative
Create a community of regular familiar friends that your children can grow and learn within, as you also grow and learn as parents, linked by the intimate bond of raising children together. Joanne Brunn, Family and Home Network author, offers suggestions of how anyone can start their own co-op, with a minimal amount of organisation in Cooped Up? Start A Co-op! (see also March – May 05 edition of Kindred orwww.familyandhome.org). For a comprehensive formal business model, see Smart Moms Babysitting Co-op Handbook, by Gary Myers.
Join a support group
You can begin by checking your local noticeboards and classified columns, or by asking other moms at the playground, local swimming pool, the paediatrician office, library, birthing centre, community centre, your local supermarket, even the internet. Or put up notices and talk about starting your own support group in all the same places once you decide upon your own group’s vision and purpose, and where and when you want to meet! Consider initiating a community parenting oriented discussion group to meet regularly and share ideas on how to support a conscious approach to parenting in a community context.
It could be as simple as meeting at each other’s houses or even hosting and organising speakers on areas that are of interest to the group. Choosing themes or topics tends to give gatherings focus; you may even decide on a book review format where an interesting parenting title is jointly read and discussed in subsequent meetings, with feedback and insights shared. (An especially good one to start with is, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, and, How To Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish )
Join a Baby Moon roster
If you are soon expecting another addition to the family, or know someone who is, join together for a baby moon roster — a circle of friends gathering around a new mother to support her in the precious few weeks after delivery with the day-to-day practicalities by co-ordinating between themselves a schedule to provide meals, help with chores, and running outside errands on a roster basis (see Kindred ‘s Baby Moon article, March – May 04 edition)
Join your local LETS (Local Energy Trade System)
Originally started as a barter network model, LETS has become an increasingly popular full scale alternative economic system, empowering individuals to literally manage their own work and money supply, and at the same time, participate in strengthening their communities, supporting their local economies, and forging sustainable networks of social support and meaningful contribution. Find out more about a LETS network in your area at www.lets.org.au. See also International Journal of Community Currency Research (IJCC) www.le.ac.uk/ulmc/jccr for information about other alternative social economies.
Create a working bee
Co-ordinate between yourselves and few other families for group working bee projects, taking turns one weekend day a month at a different family’s home each month to accomplish real life goals, ie coming altogether to paint or build or repair or landscape…with lots of fun and cookies and cakes to go along with it! The idea is that there is an economic benefit to all the participants, and that projects that are too large to handle alone can be tackled altogether. Even children can take an active role in this co-operative teamwork.
Share the nitty gritty!
Can you imagine getting together with a friend to clean each other’s houses along with that cup of tea? As bizarre as it may first sound, a number of women are realising that one way to get all the housework done, take care of the kids and still have time for friends is to combine it altogether! It’s a whole other level of intimacy to share the actual reality of the day to day business of householding with friends rather than reserving social occasions for ‘once it’s all been done’. Refer to articles such as Mothering magazine issue 102, Finding Your Tribe, about mothers bringing their kids over to each other’s houses to clean them up, rather than just to visit…
Consider the myriad ways to integrate livelihood and home
Create and support home run businesses; advocate child-friendly work practices; explore the possibility of bringing your baby to work! (see Mothering article How You Can Bring Baby to Work , issue no 128, Jan-Feb 2005)
Check out the Community Parenting Exchange
The CPE is designed as a model that anyone can initiate in their local area to connect with other like-minded souls interested in practising holistic parenting and exchanging life skills and experience in a community spirit that is economical and enriching to the lives of all those who wish to participate. The Exchange supports connecting with other like-minded souls, learning from one another, offering ways to spend less and create money more in harmony with family life; promoting home run businesses; conscious consuming, sharing resources; suggesting the means for children to meaningfully engage in community life; as well as opening ourselves up to accepting help with the practicalities of living through involving and learning from others in the community.
Parents can also use the exchange to organise their own extended chosen circles, (their ‘tribe’ so to speak!), and find ways to co-ordinate with each other to share time meaningfully, in a way that truly meets everyone’s needs. www.communityparenting.org is still under construction but soon will be in operation. To find out more in the meantime, contact the author at email@example.com
Nurturing one’s own networks is most important in terms of creating an ongoing mutually beneficial and therefore sustainable community for raising children independently. However, in cases where it isn’t immediately possible to rely on one’s own networks for practical and financial support, there are forms of family assistance such as Federal Government in-home childcare programs, that will provide childcare assistance for special circumstances, such as shift working parents with young children, etc, as well as multi-care projects supporting families sharing care in their homes and the possibility for home-based carers to receive childcare benefit approval. Did you also know that due to the increasing number of grandparents taking on parenting roles that grandparents are eligible to receive Grandparents Child Care Benefit? Check www.familyassist.gov.au and also with Centrelink to see if you may be eligible for further support.
Volunteer home visiting program
One of the great support success stories that continues to grow in nurturing and empowering parents with new babies has been the Volunteer Home Visiting Program (VHVP) which is funded by DoCs (Department of Community Services). A trained volunteer will visit a family for two hours once a week for 6 to 12 months, helping in whatever way is needed; looking after children, talking through parenting issues, helping with meals. Volunteers initially complete 40 hours of training and then receive regular training, support and supervision from the coordinator.
Family Daycare is acclaimed as one of the most ‘developmentally friendly’ alternatives to regular daycare for older toddlers. A maximum of 5 children are cared for in the safety and familiarity of a home environment, with a consistent trained care provider. Family Daycare Networks are subsidised by Centrelink on a sliding scale basis, and are administered by local councils in each state.
Virtual community support
- Online Babies is a new Australian parents’ site with an active forum
- Parent Soup
- Family and Home Network
- Families for Natural Living
- Slow Lane, Resources for stay-at-home dads
- Putting Family First
These are a specific type of support group, based on a Swedish model. Lilly and John Lombard are part of a circle that meets every other week to share and discuss related topics like decluttering, eco-friendly homes, envy and deprivation, building community, vegetarianism, rituals, practising mindfulness, responsible investing, transportation alternatives, organising volunteer projects, and — not surprisingly — raising children simply! Based on their own shared interests, the group has regular gatherings in addition to their circle meetings. ‘We feel so lucky to have this group,’ concludes Lilly. ‘It feels like a big family.’ There are descriptions of how to start and maintain your own simplicity circle at www.simplicitycircles.com. Other simplicity support groups include:
Anna Jahns is a mother of two and a freelance writer interested in creating community and is developing the Community Parenting Exchange as a model that can be initiated locally anywhere in the world. For more information write to firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Penelope Leach, Ph.D., respected developmental child psychologist, author of Babyhood, Children First: What Society Must Do — and Is Not Doing — for Our Children Today , and the classic Your Baby & Child: From Birth to Age Five.
2. How Culture Shapes the Developing Brain and the Future of Humanity James V. Prescott
3. Bill Ellis, Coalition for Self Learning, Creating Learning Communities
4. Support Groups for Moms, by Nelia Odom www.familyandhomenetwork.org
5. How to Find (Or Start) a Mothers Support Group, at www.familyandhomenetwork.org
6 Problems and Solutions: How Do You Cope With Feelings of Isolation? Welcome Home,www.familyandhome.org,
FHN’s book Discovering Motherhood , gathering the voices of many mothers to convey the essence of a home-centred life, exploring the potential for personal growth to be realised through mothering.
www.familiesfornaturalliving.org Families for Natural Living