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.
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.
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.
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.