Where’s The Village?

We have all heard the old maxim “It takes a village to raise a child.” To me, this saying evokes images of a society straight from the Continuum Concept; where mamas and papas go about their work as children play around them; where a elder gathers some older children to share some wisdom in the guise of a fairy tale; and one woman takes another’s newborn for a little while to breastfeed and cuddle whilst the tired mama sleeps.

So often as parents, we feel depleted. We feel our own energy just isn’t enough to be fully present and available to our little ones, and not being able to provide all they need, we berate ourselves. We get caught in spirals of self doubt, of reproaching ourselves and feeling resentment towards our child and those who do not provide us the support we need.

At the current time, the cultural norm is to parent our children completely within the family unit. A couple of decades ago, that meant, generally, a mother, a father and a number of children. These days, the familial norm is changing from “nuclear” to “unclear” with a wider range of family structures more commonplace. However, this isolation of the family unit has created stress on the individual members of the family in meeting the physical, emotional and social needs of each other- not least in families who endeavour to parent consciously!

However, it hasn’t always been like this, and the isolation of the family unit, when viewed in the context of history, is actually an anomaly.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the population was more decentralised, with many more people living in village type scenarios, wherein families were more fully integrated in community. On the advent of the Industrial Revolution, families were drawn to live in cities or larger towns, where specialisation of trade meant people moved out of the home or family farm to undertake work, often meaning the man went into paid employment and the woman stayed at home to cater for the needs of the household and the children. Being taken from the village into these larger towns, isolation began, and became the cultural familial norm[i].

The concept of nuclear family allows a stage for the expression of cultural hegemony. Read this from the Australian Senate Hansard in 1945:

“The safety of this country, like the safety of all countries, depends on private home ownership which gives a man a stake in his country, a place of his own in which to keep his wife and rear a family, and a place for his family to live when he has died.

A man whose home is his own has the satisfaction of knowing that every tree that he plants in his garden, every cupboard that he installs, every improvement he makes is his own. That is the attitude of almost every man worth his family.”[ii]

In this way family becomes the interpreter of cultural norms: in this example nationalism, patriarchy and capitalism.

So if family is the cultural interpreter of our times, what do we wish to express?

This is a chance to think globally, act locally. In the most local setting there is- your own family!

Firstly, how do we define family? Germaine Greer states: “…almost all discussions of the family flounder because of the difficulty in deciding what the family is, as distinct from what it was or what it will be, because families are always building up and breaking down, acquiring new members by marriage and procreation and losing them by estrangement and death.” [iii]

If families, in this fluidity and indeed in agreeing on a culturally accepted version of what family means, are so undefinable, we have an opportunity to define them for ourselves.

For me, I choose to define family as those who are in my heart, rather than specifically who is in my blood. Of course I feel a strong familial connection to my son and partner. But at this point, I also feel stronger familial connections to my friends and their families- living in a community that is wonderfully embracing of this tribal definition of family- than members of my extended blood family who I may only see once every year or less.

And in my personal definition of family, I have broken the ties of isolation of the primary family unit. Whilst my partner is out at work all day, I know there is always someone I can connect with for a chai, some emotional support or even help cleaning my house, whilst our children play together.

In my community, and my circle of friends, we have been open about our desire and needs to step out of the isolation that being a stay at home mama can entail, and share our lives with intimate joy, laughter, toil and sometimes sadness. We have found our village, and it is truly delightful.

And here I have another image, more real than the idyllic and quite possibly incorrect image from the start of this blog. A memory of an event that occurred only a couple of weeks ago: our community- including my circle of friends- gathered at our community garden for a communal picnic and music. Whilst my partner and some friends cooked woodfired pizza in the new cob oven, and various neighbourhood kids played among the vegies, I watched the duo on stage whilst cuddling a friends child, meanwhile my mother and son wandered around exploring the garden. Later, when my son was in bed and my mother sleeping close by if he awoke, my partner and I slipped back to the garden to enjoy some conversation with others, one mama with her child wrapped in our blanket, a dozing angel by the fireplace.

This is the kind of situation that I envisioned parenting-in-community to be…and something that took some vulnerability and intention to create for myself and my son, so that we can enjoy all the beauty of the primary family unit whilst being held by the community at large. Herein is my village.

How do you define family? Does the concept of family serve you? Do you reach out to the community at large, and are they open to you? Where is YOUR village?


[i] Holmes, D., Hughes, K., and Julian, R. (2003) Australian Sociology: A Changing Society Frenchs Forest: Pearson Longman

[ii] Hansard, the Australian Senate, 1945, vol. 185: 6455

[iii] Greer, G. (1984) Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility London, Secker and Warburg

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