It Takes a Village – But We Abandoned the Village a Long Time Ago
Why are we blaming society when we ourselves dismantled the village?
In the essay In the absence of ‘the village,’ mothers struggle most by Beth Berry, the author decries the loss of “the village” (by her definition, “referring to the way of life inherent to relatively small, relatively contained multigenerational communities”) and calls it an “injustice.”
The author writes that the loss of the extended family hurts mothers the most. Motherhood is, by all accounts, a lonely occupation, and an exhausting one. I wouldn’t know – I do not have children and have had, throughout my life, little inclination to motherhood. Yet I agree with her premise that the loss of an extended, multigenerational community does hurt mothers and by extension, children. Children who grow into adults.
I see the struggles that mothers in particular undergo to balance the needs of their demanding, growing families against their own personal needs for little things like sleep and personal hygiene. Motherhood, it seems, encompasses and swallows their lives, and if it is a joyful death, it is still a death of freedom for the gain of joy.
I grew up in a small town on the border of Queens, New York City. My grandmother, my mom’s mother, lived with us in a room on the first floor of the house, and I shared a bedroom with my two sisters. My two brothers shared the room next door. Living across town and a few houses down from my elementary school was my aunt and her brood of four kids, and one town over, my father’s mother lived in a small house in Bellerose. Great aunts and uncles lived close by; only one uncle lived out of state, and a cousin had moved to California to marry her sweetheart and pursue her career in the arts.
That’s the family I enjoyed as a child. Idyllic? Yes, in a way. We were a big, loud, and Catholic family. Faith and family were at the heart of everything we did, the underlying message that if you didn’t have both you had nothing. Everything was sacrificed to faith and family.
That included the message that you didn’t sleep around before marriage (you didn’t want to disgrace the family), you didn’t go away to college (we couldn’t afford it, and why would you want to leave the family?) and unless you went into the military, you didn’t leave home to pursue a career.
We even enjoyed a large, extended quasi-family in the neighborhood with Mr. Hoffman, our next door neighbor who was like an adopted grandfather, kindly Herb and Margaret who owned the candy store and looked out for the neighborhood kids, and even our church and school, where the sight of Sister Ruth, hurrying by our house on her way to catch a train one day, elicited cries of joy and an invitation inside for tea, and Sister Helen sent home a Thanksgiving craft she had made for my mother.
We were seen, we were known, and by this, we formed a village. A village of friends, loose knit families, a community built on church and village and ties both given through blood and chosen through friendship.
My parents gave up a lot to have that kind of lifestyle. My mother remained home with her children and mother until illness forced her to stay at home. My father remained at a stable job he didn’t like very much so that he could support the family. We weren’t the exception to the rule in the 1950s, 60s and 70s; we were the norm.
Then suddenly, the world changed. Many of my friends were encouraged to go away to college. To individuate. One of my mentors, a teacher who became a close friend, was aghast when I told her I had no desire to go away to college. “You’re too close to your parents” I remember her saying.
The message crept into our family and friends in the 1990s and burgeoned in the 2000s. To be fully individuated, you had to break all ties with family; you had to go away to college, live in a dorm, be your own person, have your own life. A job across the country? Take it if it meant more money. Sure, you’ll be 2,000 miles away from your family, but what does that matter when you’re young and single?
And parents.. parents know nothing, right? Why be close to your mother and father? Everything from modern pop culture (The Simpsons, Family Guy, almost every sitcom on television in the late 1990s to the present) supports the concept that Dad is a Dolt, Mom is the Brains of the family, and kids get their way.
Parents began giving up their lives for money so that they could give their kids all and send them to band camp, camp, scouts, music lessons, dance lessons, language lessons, buy them all the stuff they wanted…and the ties with family were weakened further.
The village began losing its heart, and society – those who participated in this change willingly in the name of individuation and individuality and giving the young opportunities and encouraging them to move away – they destroyed the village concept.
When families broke apart and one partner moved far away, we began tearing down the village.
When houses became so expensive that the children could no longer afford to move in and settle down close by their parents, we forced young families out of the village.
When grandparents were shuffled off to nursing homes…when people moved to condos in Florida for warm weather and sunshine rather than for the warmth of extended family and deep loving ties to grandchildren….we turned the lights of love off in the village.
When we became afraid our neighbors were child molesters and so cautioned our kids not to speak with them…
when neighbors preferred their neat lawns to childhood games that spilled over into multiple yards….
when we crammed our children’s lives with structure and allowed them to skip family events because they had football games, dance recitals, or other pursuits…
we gave them the message that the village wasn’t as important as their own interests.
You can decry the loss of the ‘village’ to support motherhood and mothers but we ourselves, the society, the generation who are now parents and mothers, we let ourselves destroy the village around us by destroying our weakening the extended family, by accepting the economic situation that made it impossible to live close by, and by putting the pursuit of careers, money, and hobbies ahead of family and faith.
Readers of my fiction know that family is an important theme in everything that I write. In my debut novel, I Believe You, the Majek family is a tight, multigenerational family whose love must overcome the worst tragedy a family must endure. In my novella, The Last Run of the 6:01, extended family plays an important role in the narrative. Even in my short stories, family is the key that unlocks the strong ties of love holding people back from the bring of evil: Rita in “Friday Night Visitors” loves Bob enough to prevent the Angel of Death from taking him to hell, the kids in “The Glove” must battle evil within the narrator’s family, and the sisters in “An Ancient Gift” must deal with hereditary family curses – or gifts if you prefer.
I do not dictate how you or anyone else define family. I cannot. I do not have a traditional family. I have a husband of 20 years who I love more daily, every day, and seven cats I’ve rescued. I have nieces and nephews I love, and grand nephews who make me laugh, and local teenagers I enjoy spending time with. I hope to be like Mr. Hoffman or “Aunt” Betty was to my childhood; loving adults, guardians of the past, sharers of the truth, friends to all young people without the kinship ties that bind and sometimes, strangle.
Bemoan the loss of the village all you want, but frankly, the generation suffering from the loss of the village is the one who helped tear down the structures that made the village in the first place.
For those who, like me, believe that the loss of the village concept is something to be mourned, build up the village. Be the auntie, the friend to the young, the one who shares stories. Be the mother, the grandmother, the friend to the young people. Bake pies and bring them to the neighbors. Make a meal for a young mother and offer to babysit – in her home – while she takes a nap. Be part of the solution.
To be part of the solution means to be answer to the question. If the question is, “Where has family and faith gone, the steel that build the structures of the mythical village that “it takes a village to raise a child” really and truly means…then you must cultivate both faith and family in your life. In everything. There is no other way to build it back into the fabric of society.
And if you refuse….you too have left behind the ghost town of a village that once supported young mothers like Beth Berry.