“It Takes a Village” – This is Mine

This is my 93 year old grandma, Beatrice. She’s who I turn to when I need some uncomplicated advice and sound truths; her flat is where I take the kids after school when we need to change things up and get some fishfingers and chips in them with a bubble bath to boot; she’s the one that will coo over Abe endlessly and dangle toys in front of him whilst I can nip to the toilet or make a phone call, and who by the way, tells me every time I see him, what an absolute blessing he is, which is always so special to hear. She’s amazing, and she’s very much part of my village.

I’m sure most of us are familiar with the proverb “it takes a village” which likely has its roots in Africa, and refers to the notion that bringing up children is a communal affair and one that not only requires but flourishes through support of family members, neighbours and friends. I’ve been looking in to the phrase recently because it resonates so much with me, but also because since moving house and having Abe, establishing my village has been especially important to me. It’s these big life changing events that shake things up, that can shake us up, and that really require those extra doses of support and kindness (and cups of tea).

In doing so, I surfaced some fascinating research carried out in the 1950s. Apparently there’s a small town in Pennsylvania called Roseto which back then was inhabited entirely by Italian immigrants who, social scientists discovered, very rarely got unwell – in fact, nearby towns had an incidence of heart disease 3 times that of their Rosetan neighbours. After medical research showed that the residents displayed no significant differences in exercise, weight, genetic pre-disposition or environmental factors, it was concluded that the extraordinary health of this population could only be explained in terms of the unique social environment that they’d brought with them from Italy – the sharing of experiences, the developed relationships, the values of extended family and community. These findings were backed up when follow up research in the 1980’s found that there was a new generation in Roseto that had rejected the previous tight knit Italian ways whose statistics on heart attacks showed a rate higher than in neighbouring towns.

Jack’s school is all about gathering and community – that’s why we chose it and love it so much. This is last year’s annual camping trip

To elaborate a little, in his best-selling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that our success depends on a supportive foundation, not just an individual effort. He writes, “in transplanting the paesani culture of Southern Italy to the hills of Eastern Pennsylvania, the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world.” (Outliers, 9)

Since moving house and having Abe, establishing my village has been especially important. It’s these big life changing events that shake things up, that can shake us up, and that really require those extra doses of support and kindness (and cups of tea).

And pressures, there are. For me personally, flash back to Abe’s birth at the start of August. It was blazing hot, we had a newborn, a moth infestation, rats, and then we were burgled. Basically, a whole bunch of things happened. Having always decided against any sort of paid childcare help in the home, I realised we badly needed another pair of hands, just to help with those never ending dishes and *especially* if I was to return to work as I have now done. I somewhat reluctantly signed us up to Aupair world, and after a good few phone interviews with various candidates, we found Maria, our wonderful Italian au pair who came in to our lives at the end of last year and who is now firmly part of my “village.” Her support and kindness is so so appreciated.

All hail my sister in law’s epic home made granola she brought over shortly after Abe’s birth that kept us going for weeks

So who else is in my village? There’s my mum who’ll come over to take me to the hospital when I get an ear infection or dad who offers to do the school pick up the afternoon it’s pouring with rain so I don’t have to take the baby out. Or my mother in law who, aside from taking care of one of my children for one entire day every week, says yes on the spot to both older kids staying overnight, there and then, and single handedly teaches our 3 year old to spell his name and start to read words. Or my sister in law who dropped over platters of food after Abe’s arrival or my siblings who were so helpful in the early days and would take the older two boys or babysit from time to time to give us a break.

This scene of village life was painted on the wall of a northern coastal town in Mauritania.
AWL Images

There’s the neighbour whose door I put a note through promising I wasn’t a weirdo but just wondering a few things about her lovely looking home (& with a sneaky suspicion that we’d be friends looking at the hand painted ‘welcome’ sign wonkily hanging on her front door and buggy and wellies flopped on the porch). Sara, her name turned out to be, and she and her son have come to be firm local friends who pop in for dinner and for whom I save flower cuttings. And what about my local friend that dropped over a mini cafetiere of coffee and a brownie and the school mum who drops Jack home when I realised our car was out of action. Or the friend that lives further away, but who sends notebooks and kind words and you know would be there for you at the drop of the hat if you need her and the one who you regularly exchange whatsapps with just saying “WWLC” (wish we lived closer) because you both know you’d be in each others’ (wooden train and half eaten omelette filled) pockets all day.

Most of all, I am just so immensely grateful for the village I have around me. I know it will continue to evolve (I dearly miss a previous neighbour, the kind that lends you an onion because you really want to make curry that night) – and will keep doing all I can to ensure it stays vibrant and kicking (I’ll keep knocking on those doors!). I feel lucky to be able to live close to family and not have to, for example, travel far away for work. But it’s also a choice we have made. Knowing we are 15-30 minutes drive from my parents and Sam’s parents means so much to us, and brings us huge comfort, and much valued support. In fact, when we first became parents, we actually lived across the road from my parents (it was slightly accidental – we found mice in our flat and had to quickly find somewhere else. Also – so many vermin!) and just having my mum so so close staved off any loneliness and made those early days so much easier.

But you know what the most joyful thing about the concept of a “village” is? Everyone benefits. It brings my grandma immense joy to coo over Abe (the physical and mental health benefits of intergenerational care are well documented) and she so enjoys our company; just as it allows me to finally reply to those whatsapps over a cup of tea. If I can cook for Sara’s child and relieve her of that for one evening, then great. And ok, my mum might not find huge amounts of happiness in driving me to hospital in Harrow and back again, she knows that I would do the same for her in a heartbeat, and that matters.

You know what the most joyful thing about the concept of a “village” is? Everyone benefits.

My younger sister is looking for new areas to move to so of course I’m trying to recruit her to the area. “Honestly, living close to family is everything” I wrote to her, back in December, as mum and dad were on their way to watch the kids whilst I dashed in to town to collect Abe’s emergency passport we’d forgotten to get.

Do you believe in the concept of your village? Who’s part of yours?

Thanks so much for reading, I’m off to phone grandma.


P.S The One Thing about Motherhood that Baffles Me and Let Your Kids Be Bored


  1. Jenn
    March 2, 2020 / 2:01 pm

    So wonderful to learn about your village. My village is so small, but I’m working hard to grow it. It’s so, so important. We moved three weeks before my thjrd was born and the lack of friends is so difficult for my kids and myself.

    • Emma Ross
      March 6, 2020 / 2:30 pm

      keep working on it :)) it’ll come soon enough x x

  2. Sib
    February 20, 2020 / 9:33 pm

    Hi, I loved this article and I love community. As a live alone person I’d love your thoughts on a village for singles or couples:) xx

  3. February 19, 2020 / 3:52 pm

    I love this
    Have just gone from 1 to 2 kids and am building a new tribe.
    The loneliness of being an island is not the one

    • Sophie
      February 20, 2020 / 1:52 pm

      Same here Becca! It’s been a learning curve and the lonely moments seem weirdly even lonelier to me, even though there’s a whole extra new being at home!

    • Emma Ross
      March 6, 2020 / 2:37 pm

      good luck.. you’ll get there becca xx

  4. Kim
    February 19, 2020 / 1:41 pm

    I’m very lucky in that I share an address (not a house) with my mother in law and my mum only lives a couple of villages over. We work as a team and it makes life immensely less stressful.
    Our life is busy, my husband is the main farmer on his family farm and he works 7 days a week dawn till dusk (and then some). I’m a nurse and work long shifts day and night. Our son flourishes from going to work with his Daddy, on my days off we get stuff done round the house but also go to a lot of activities and he loves spending time with his Nanny and Nanna. I can’t afford outside of the family help and I think if I could I wouldn’t go down the au pair route, not a criticism at all I am just a firm believer in our home being a family space and don’t think I would like strangers (however lovely) spending a lot of time there. But nursery is definitely something I believe children benefit from and is an option I’m exploring (finances depending!). There’s no shame in accepting help, especially help that allows your family to be closer and cherish each others company rather than tolerate it because your tired and tetchy.
    I love the European family model, a village being a family and all pulling together to help each other sounds pretty bloomin idyllic to me!

    • Emma Ross
      March 6, 2020 / 2:37 pm

      love how all the generations are helping here – you guys sound like such a team! thanks for reading Kim x

  5. Gemma
    February 19, 2020 / 8:20 am

    Oh what a glamorous Grandma you have!
    You are so right about it takes a village, I live very close (sometimes a bit too close!😉😆) to my parents and 2 sets of my grandparents and they have all been there at a drop of hat if we have needed them over the years.

    We are also very lucky with our friends and neighbours and that all the children attended the same little school, (only 100 pupils in the whole school) so if anyone needed their child dropping off or picking up, a quick knock on a door or text and they just tagged along on the end of the rag-tag group walking there or back. My children are teenagers now, but that community feel is still there, if they miss a bus or get locked out, or find they don’t have quite enough change in the village shop, then someone will help them. As we would help out their children.
    I’ve never thought it weird to knock on our neighbours front doors to ask to borrow something, most recently it was to ask if they had any spare eggs, I was making a birthday cake and I’d knocked the box of eggs I had onto the kitchen floor and smashing them all! Mrs Next-Door to the rescue. I knocked the next day too, but that was to give her a bunch of daffodils and a box of eggs to say thank you. Xxx

    • Emma Ross
      March 6, 2020 / 2:36 pm

      ah this is the loveliest – makes me feel all warm reading about your village.. thanks for sharing gemma and for being here xx

  6. February 19, 2020 / 7:18 am

    Village is everything and I lived near my parents until a yr ago as we wanted to buy a home and London was expensive. We are an HR away and I miss my village so hard it hurts and I guess I need to make a new one. But those early days of motherhood … I’m so glad I was close to my parents. And my mama always drove me to the hospital, there’s no shame in letting your parents help because I think people find it odd in this society if parents are still there for you as an adult. My dad was raised by is grandma, great grandma and mother, but mainly the elders in Cyprus.

    • Emma Ross
      March 6, 2020 / 2:35 pm

      you’ll build your new one soon enough, just takes time… but yes to proximity to mama in early motherhood, for SURE xxx

  7. February 19, 2020 / 6:36 am

    This is so wonderful. We live far away from both our parents but have friends who love to step in when we need help. And family often come to visit to ease the pressure. I used to be worried about taking people’s time, but now we’ve had our second I can see that we need help and, like you say, it gives others so much joy to help out! Thanks Emma for sharing this x

    • Emma Ross
      March 6, 2020 / 2:35 pm

      ah so glad you’ve found your village Ines ! thanks for reading x

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