It takes a village to raise a child.

–African proverb

Is your feed peppered with articles lamenting the fact that the village is gone? That utopic place where neighbors are available to drop in at a moment’s notice to watch your kids while you go to your dentist appointment. That dream world where your new baby is greeted with dish after dish of freezer-ready meals? That magical place where strangers are jumping out of the woodwork to load your groceries into your car?

Mine is, too. And I relate to every single one of them.

It’s so hard when you don’t have a ready-made village. We have always lived far from family. That was fine until we had kids. All of a sudden, our cozy little home felt like a deserted island.

Raising littles is hard, man. Hard on the body, hard on the emotions, really hard on the marriage. And babysitters are expensive! I know I’m showing my age here, but when I started babysitting, I was happy with four or five dollars… for the entire evening. (Granted, I was ten years old.) Nowadays, we have to decide between paying for dinner and paying for our sitter.

People weren’t designed to do this parenting thing alone. What do you do, then, when you live in an individualistic country and don’t have free babysitters (aka family) nearby?

So, one day, I realized that it was up to me to take the village back.

How to take the village back

1. Really see the people around you.

A few weeks ago, I was taking a short trip to visit family. Me, alone. No husband, no kids. Flying becomes a 5* vacation when you aren’t entertaining toddlers, doesn’t it? I had just settled into my window seat– headphones on, book in lap– relishing the upcoming three hours of me time.

Cue the crying across the aisle. Now, being a mom myself, crying children on airplanes don’t phase me. I’m pretty adept at tuning it out. This sounded like a little baby. It was that frantic, unsoothable, colicky cry. “Poor parents,” I thought empathetically. “Sucks to be them.” I settled back into my book, fully expecting the baby to settle down once they fed her on takeoff.

But she didn’t. Scream after scream pealed out, penetrating the cushion of my headphones. Long after reaching cruising altitude, the poor baby cried nonstop. I assessed the situation. The mom had moved with the baby to the back row of the plane, thankfully a fairly empty flight. The dad was sitting in the row ahead of them with their other child. Next to me was who I assumed to be the grandmother.

To bring back the village, first we must be cognizant of the people around us. Crying babies are hard to ignore, but people do it all of the time. Even if the situation is not so obvious, there is always someone who is crying out for help. The first step we need to take is to see them.

2. Make the first move to help.

I saw that exhausted mama and heard the pitiful baby. I remembered those days. Those evenings with our first colicky baby when it seemed that nothing would stop his cries. It would be so easy to leave them alone and let them handle it, but how would that benefit the village?

With a sigh, I took off my headphones and put away my book, relinquishing my evening of blessed solitude. Tapping the grandmother on the arm, I asked, “Do you think she’d like me to try to soothe the baby? I could hold her for a while.”

She replied, “Oh, the dad is right in front of her. He can hold the baby if she needs a break. Plus, this baby… she won’t go to anyone but her mom. I know it’s hard to hear– I feel bad, too.”

In the individualistic era that we live in, people are reluctant to ask for, or accept, help from strangers. It’s up to us to not only see the situation, but to have the courage to step up and offer help. If it’s brushed aside, it may be time to move to step 3…

3. Prove your sincerity by following up.

It would have been SO EASY to put my headphones back on at this point. Well– I did my duty and they don’t need my help (pats self on back). But, did I really? How many times has someone offered something to you, but you felt they only did it to be nice, so you refused? More often than you can remember, I’d wager.

People can be so damn polite, never saying what they really want or need. My gut told me that I should ask again.

“Well, I had a baby like this,” I told the grandmother, “and I may know a few tricks.”

tree of hands | text it takes a village to raise a child | Labor Mom“Really???” She immediately leaned across the aisle and relayed my words to the tired mama. About 0.5 seconds later, the baby was scooted across the aisle into my arms. That’s how you know that you are in the company of a parent of a colicky newborn. 🙂

However, had I not proven my sincerity by offering a second gesture of help, they would never have asked.

We’re starting to get a little out of our comfort zones here, opening ourselves up to rejection and even judgement. Vulnerability must precede change, though. For the village to return, we need to practice some openness with acquaintances and strangers.

4. Push past the boundaries of your comfort zone.

Going back in my mind four years to my eldest’s newborn period, I asked for a blanket and tightly swaddled the 3-month-old baby girl. I sprang into action with the 5 S’s from Dr. Harvey Karp’s The Happiest Baby on the Block. (Well, 4 S’s, to be exact, since they said she didn’t have a pacifier.)

I don’t know about you, but if I hold a baby that is not my own and it starts crying, I’m pretty quick to hand it back. No one wants to be responsible for someone else’s crying baby.

This poor baby was so worked up at this point that she just looked at me in terror and continued screaming. My rational mind said, “It takes time. Her fight-or-flight response is in full control right now, and it will take time to calm her down.” My safe side screamed at me, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU HAVE AN AUDIENCE NOW, AND YOU ARE CONTINUING TO ROCK A SCREAMING BABY THAT IS NOT YOURS!”

It almost won out. I almost handed her back. But I knew that I should keep going. I knew that my tricks would work once the cortisol left her system and her little body calmed down. I kept going, swaying and shushing until my mouth was dry. Little by little, I could feel the muscles relax, the little shudders of surrender. She was falling asleep, but wasn’t there yet. Every so often she’d tense back up and look around wildly, but would calm again with the continued shushing.

After ten or fifteen minutes, she was in a sound sleep. I held her for another 30 minutes while the exhausted mom slept. Then she nursed her and handed her to the dad, who held her the rest of the flight, looking like he was scared to move a muscle. I bet he was.

The whole family was amazed and so grateful. I felt like a superhero.

It’s so easy for us to stay silent. That silence may stem from feelings of inadequacy, fear of reprisal, fear of vulnerability, or even selfishness. This whole incident only took 15 minutes out of my day, but it meant the world to this family.

More than the time, it took courage to step out of my comfort zone and offer the help. To take back the village, it will take courage. It will take reshaping the societal norms of how we interact with others. It will take– God forbid!– putting down our phones and really seeing the people around us.

It will take a village. But it can start with you.

I want to add one more point. This story illustrated how we can see opportunities to reach out to others. What if you are the one who needs help? What if you are lamenting that the village is gone, and you are struggling so much?

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

When I had a two year old and a newborn, I had a frustrating splash pad experience when I was obviously struggling to help my toddler change his clothes while my baby screamed. I was surrounded by other parents, and not one made eye contact or offered to help.

I posed the scenario to my Facebook friends, and the responses were enlightening. Many moms stated that they felt uncomfortable offering help because when they had, they were met with suspicion, as if they had ulterior motives for asking.  

As we talked about in the airplane story, it takes courage to offer help to a stranger. We have no idea how they will respond, and that’s an uncomfortable feeling. If you are the one needing help, don’t look at the people around you as if they are unfeeling bastards, self-absorbed to the point where they don’t care what you are struggling with. Maybe they see you and empathize, but they are scared to step into your personal boundary and out of their comfort zone.

Ask them. Give them the permission to help you. You just might be surprised.

Rebuilding the village takes a village

It won’t happen in a day. It won’t happen with just one person. The butterfly effect holds true, though, and every little positive action will ripple outward.

See people. Be courageous. Ask for help. Be the village.

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