I often hear comments from people who know us in person about what a great support network we have. It is pretty crazy:
- Yaya, Joe’s mom, lives 10 blocks away.
- My mom lives two miles away, within the same network of neighborhoods.
- My grandfather lives 15 minutes north of us, and my dad recently moved there to be closer to us and to help him out.
- We know quite a few great babysitters, and can usually find one who’s available when I need an extra pair of hands.
- We have many wonderful friends, and a wide network of acquaintances.
- We’re friends with our parish priests, as well as with the amazing young nuns who are building a convent here in town.
This is a setup that’s been years in the making.
When Joe and I were engaged, we started thinking about what we wanted our family life to look like. We realized that people weren’t meant to raise families without the support of a community, and we whole-heartedly agreed with the old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child.” The problem was that we had no village. We were living in a downtown loft, we’re both only children, and none of our parents lived nearby. On top of that, Joe was on a career path that meant we’d probably have to move every few years.
The more we considered this issue, the more important we thought it was. In July of 2003, with our wedding just around the corner, we decided to make this our top priority. We set out to build our village.
It took a long time to get all the pieces in place — in fact, there were times when I thought that it would never happen. It was only recently, when I started thinking about the fact that our 10th anniversary is coming up, that I realized that we finally have it. Ten years later, I really feel like I’m living my life within a cohesive community.
I want to share some thoughts on what we did that made this kind of setup possible. But first, I’ll give you a snapshot of one of my weeks to show you what I mean by having a “village.” (I don’t normally do all this stuff in seven days — I’d collapse. I’m condensing a few weeks’ worth of stuff for the purposes of illustration):
A week in the life
I take four of the kids to a day camp run by a friend’s 18-year-old daughter. It’s half the cost of other camps, yet I’m more comfortable with it since it takes place at a friend’s house. Also, it feels good to support this young woman, who’s raising money for college.
When I get back to my house, I run into my neighbor from across the street. She’s a single mother, and we’ve been talking about getting her son in some of the same activities as our kids so that we can help her out by giving him rides. We bat around some ideas for making that work, and make plans to do dinner soon.
Our car suddenly had problems, and Joe needed to take it to the shop that morning, right around the time the day camp starts. I call my dad and ask if he can give the kids a ride. He says it’d be no problem — he’s been acting as the family school bus driver a lot this year, and loves that time with the kids.
Later that afternoon, I get the car back just in time to do the camp pickup. We’re friends with every other family whose children are there, and I’d like to be able to say hello to some of them. I drop my two youngest kids off at Yaya’s house so that I can chat with the other moms without a fussy baby and an overtired toddler in tow, and pick them up on the way back home.
I head up to my grandfather’s house to pick up a dessert he’s put together for our priests. Our parish has a meal ministry where families take turns making homemade meals for our four priests, and my turn rolls around once a quarter. My 99-year-old grandfather is a self-taught gourmet cook, and even though he’s not Catholic, it’s one of his greatest honors to be a part of this ministry. Back when he was 97, he used to prepare lavish dishes with homemade crepes and stuffed Cornish game hens. These days, I usually make the main meal since he’s usually only able to contribute a small dessert, but he’s still grateful for the opportunity to give back in some way.
I take the food down to the parish office. The kids wait at Yaya’s house since I’ll have my hands full taking everything in. While I’m there, I run into a friend and fellow parishioner. Speaking of people cooking meals for others, I thank her for the great dinner she brought us a few months ago. When I was in the hospital, our friends from church mobilized to bring our family meals for six weeks, and she was one of the many people that contributed.
In the morning, Joe grabs two containers of leftovers of our favorite jambalaya recipe to take to work — one for him, one for a coworker friend. His friend loves to have homemade food for lunch, and since he saves so much money on not having to eat out, he regularly takes Joe to lunch on days when I don’t send meals.
That afternoon, I have our regular babysitter come so that I can get a few things done. All the kids are delighted to see her, and her presence brings some much-needed energy to the house. She’s the oldest of nine, so she’s perfectly capable of dealing with the chaos that comes with having six young children under one roof.
After the kids get back from day camp, they’re all bouncing off the walls. I can’t get the baby down for a nap because everyone is being so noisy, and it’s driving me crazy. My mom calls on the way home from checking her business mailbox at the post office and offers for the two oldest kids to go to her place. She works from home, so she can’t have the younger ones there during business hours, but my seven- and eight-year-olds can usually behave themselves. I eagerly agree, and sent them out the door as soon as she’s on our block. Having two fewer children in the house makes a surprising difference, and everyone settles down.
When Joe gets home, my mom asks if we’d like her to watch the kids so that we can run out for a date night. We try not to openly cry tears of joy as we say yes.
We go to vigil Mass, and let the kids run around the grounds while we talk to friends afterward. We say hi to the priests, and I think once again how thankful I am to have them as part of our family’s lives. Not only are the intelligent, funny, and super nice men, but every time I was in the hospital earlier this year, one of them came to visit me and bring me the Eucharist. I think of that and am filled with gratitude every time I see them.
That night, we go to dinner at another family’s house. Their kids are the same age as our kids, and everyone gets along fabulously. As I watch our children play, I think of how lucky they are that these friends will probably be part of their lives for a long time, since Joe and I are close with their parents.
I take the girls to pray Vespers with the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, and run into a friend of mine who is there with her daughters. As always, I feel filled with energy and inspiration after spending time with the Sisters.
How we built our village
Again, my normal weeks have a lot less activity and a lot more sitting around the house, but that sample does give you an idea of how our “village” functions. You can see that we have a lot of folks in our lives whom we know and trust. They help us both in emergency situations and with the day-to-day challenges of raising kids, and we also have opportunities to give back to them in ways that work with our crazy schedules.
A large part of our setup is simply due to good fortune — we’re very, very lucky to have the kind, generous friends and family members that we do. But I do think that there were a few choices we made that allowed our lives to be more conducive to being part of a close-knit community, and, looking back, I think they’re some of the most important decisions we’ve made in our marriage:
1. We made career sacrifices in order to put down roots.
I moved around a lot as a child. That lifestyle had its advantages, and I enjoyed the adventure of exploring new cities, but it left me with a keen awareness that true communities are always geographically based — in order to be part of a village, you have to stay in the same place.
When Joe and I were engaged, we loved the vision of asking our mothers to come live near us once we started a family…yet Joe was climbing the corporate ladder in the high tech world, which meant that we’d almost certainly have to move as positions were cut or bigger and better opportunities came along in other cities. We realized that we had a choice: we could follow our current plan of chasing jobs around the country, or we could have family live near us. We couldn’t have both.
We decided to choose stability over career, and it involved making huge changes. Obviously it all worked out, but at the time it was scary to have Joe get on an entirely new career path and make a bunch of financial sacrifices when we were expecting our first child.
2. We pitched the vision to our family
We wanted to have family live near us, and so we started telling them about our vision for building a community where we all supported one another. That sounds like an obvious move, but it wasn’t obvious to me at all. It seemed a little untoward to suggest that we knew better than our parents where they should live. But Joe pointed out that we couldn’t expect them to divine our plans through ESP — and, besides, they could always say no if they didn’t agree that the benefits of living near one another would outweigh the sacrifices of moving.
So we pitched our vision to them, a key part of it being the assurance that we would not move. Sure enough, they were as excited about the idea as we were. Not only were they delighted about being involved in their grandchildren’s lives, but they saw that we’d be around to help them if they needed assistance when they got older. It took nine years for everyone to get in a position to make it happen, but now Joe and I, his mom, my mom, and my dad all live within a few miles of one another.
3. We made location sacrifices in order to live in an area accessible to everyone
When we were first married, we assumed that we’d live in one of the charming neighborhoods in central Austin once we had kids. We pretty quickly realized, though, that that wasn’t going to be an option if we wanted to build our village: now that he was off the corporate track, we couldn’t afford houses in those areas. Even more importantly, our parents couldn’t afford to live there. We ended up moving to a suburb where there’s a wide variety of housing available, which meant that both of our mothers could find houses nearby that they loved and could afford.
4. We found a thriving church and lived near it
Okay, this one was not a conscious choice we made — God totally hooked us up when we were in the process of conversion — but it’s made a huge difference in our lives to be part of a busy parish community. Coming from a nonreligious background, I’ve been amazed at how strong the bonds are between people who go to our church. In the secular world I had moms’ groups and community organizations, but their membership was ever-changing and I didn’t really have anything in common with the other people. It was a fascinating experience when I first started meeting new people at parish events and realized that, by virtue of the fact that we share the same faith, we actually knew a lot about one another and had at least a few basic things in common.
As the years have gone by, our parish community has played a big role in our lives — and it gets bigger every year. Our kids are involved in many of its classes and programs, like Mother’s Day Out, religious ed, American Heritage Girls, the annual Christmas pageant, etc. The parish grounds are our home base for most of our activities, and so we run into the same people all the time. Joe has made a lot of friends through the Knights of Columbus. I’m on the email list for the moms’ group, which is a great source of information and camaraderie. We’re flooded with friends bringing meals any time we have a baby or experience a crisis, and we bring meals to other families in those situations as well.
It’s funny now to remember that when I converted to Christianity from atheism, I thought it was a purely intellectual decision. I could have never imagined just how much being part of a church would be critical to our vision of being part of a village.
5. We waited
Five years into our marriage, I felt like this whole community-building endeavor was a failure. Only my mom lived near us, and while she was a tremendous help, she was also busy with her full-time job. We’d been members of our parish for a couple of years, but I hadn’t really met many people. Any kind of socializing was difficult with two toddlers and a baby, and I didn’t even know my neighbors. What I didn’t understand then is that true communities don’t pop up overnight — or even over the span of a couple of years. It takes a lot of time, but the wait is well worth it.
. . .
Not everyone can do what we’ve done — a lot of folks don’t have parents who are in a situation to live near them, or they have to move regularly, or they have some other circumstance that wouldn’t allow them to follow this same path. I would simply suggest that people do whatever they can to be part of some stable community, even if the situation isn’t perfect. As I look back on our ten years of marriage and compare our lives then to our lives now, one of my biggest takeaways is that life is a whole lot easier when you live it in a village.
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