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The saying–it takes a village to raise a child–is beyond cliche, but if there’s anything new parenthood teaches you, it’s that it speaks truth.
Or, if it doesn’t, it’s likely because there’s no village available. To the parents who raise children without that village: I applaud you, I salute you, and I have no idea how you survive.
What Does It Mean to Have a Village?
In a society where very few of us live in actual villages anymore, what does this saying even mean?
In this context, when I say “village,” I refer to a community of support surrounding a person or group of people.
I refer to the people who have shaped mine and husband’s lives, and who will shape Jack’s life.
I am talking about the people who helped raise me. The ones who continue to influence me. Those who helped me through an incredibly rough period of recurrent miscarriage, pregnancy after miscarriage, and crippling postpartum anxiety and depression.
And I wonder how we can use this construct–this idea of a village that surrounds emotionally, even when not physically–to better our children, and ultimately the world.
My Childbirth and Postpartum Village
When I talk about my village in the context of the insane weeks surrounding Jack’s birth, I refer to so many people who intervened in my life in wonderful ways.
Preeclampsia and Renovations
We were still finishing a home renovation and unpacking from a move when I was told I was at risk for preeclampsia.
My blood pressure was high at one of my checkups. At the same moment, my mom was at the rental house helping movers load the trucks to return to a home that was still under construction. I insisted the high reading was circumstantial, but I promised to monitor my blood pressure 3 times a day and alert the OB if there was a single high reading. I warned the contractor (who was definitely part of the village) and moved on.
Blood pressure mostly okay but not feeling my best, I stayed as sedentary as I could while my parents and husband unpacked our entire house, construction still going on outside.
The News No One Wanted
When my blood pressure became erratic, my OB sent me back to my high-risk specialist. I expected a shoulder shrug and a “We’ll monitor you a few days a week.” Instead, at my Wednesday appointment, she said this.
You’ll check into the hospital on Sunday night for induction. You should have the baby on Monday when he’s exactly 37 weeks.
Wait…WHAT? “Can we push it back just one day?” I begged. “Just one day would give me more time to get ready.”
Nope. Sunday it is. And of course, we need to check your blood pressure on the way out.
That was the highest blood pressure reading of my life, and it had nothing to do with preeclampsia.
They gave me steroid shots to help Jack’s lungs develop. They sent me on my way, on modified bedrest, my house and all my preparation plans in shambles.
(For more information on the importance of monitoring for preeclampsia and taking it seriously once diagnoserd, see “Maternal Mortality: How Far Have We Really Come?” and “Home Birth or Hospital? For Victorians, this Question was Life-or-Death.”
And check out the Preeclampsia Foundation.
Chaos, a Baby at 37 Weeks, and a Village
We had a baby shower in our newly renovated home the day before I was induced. Guests were arriving as workers finished laying sod. I sat in a chair on modified bedrest in a massive haze.
I wasn’t expecting a baby for another 3 weeks, but he was coming. I was neither prepared, nor mobile enough to do anything about it. In the background, my friends worked diligently to make sure the party was perfect. I saw none of it; I was confined to a chair (which, admittedly, is kind ideal for a borderline-introvert at a large function).
In this time, it truly took a village. Let me tell you about some of my village in these days, which consisted of all of these people, and many, many more.
- My parents, who spent the entire week before Jack was born unpacking my house and running my errands
- The tremendous group of friends who managed the baby shower
- My in-laws, who filled our freezer with food, brought supplies to the house as necessary, but also allowed us space when we needed it
And some intensely hardcore villagers who deserve seriously special mention.
Who moved us home, unpacked our entire house with my husband and dad, dog sat during labor, and then spent every second or third night with Jack so I could sleep.
Given my outrageous levels of postpartum anxiety, this was the only way I could sleep. Without that help, I slept for 15 non-consecutive minutes a day. I’m not exaggerating.
It’s not that my husband wasn’t an amazing caregiver; it’s that my brain simply would not allow sleep any other way. I’ll talk more about that another day.
Who left her 2 kids in North Carolina, drove 5 hours to Atlanta, and spent the week of Jack’s birth making my life function. She showed up and took over. I couldn’t wrap my brain around all there was to do, and I couldn’t leave the couch to try to figure it out. Having a very similar personality, plus 2 kids of her own, she figured it out for me.
Tessa swept in and took charge. She found homes for items, made lists, delegated tasks, put away baby gifts, and basically annoyed the crap out of everyone else by barking commands so that I wouldn’t have to figure out what needed to be commanded. She did all of the physical and emotional labor I normally would’ve done. I don’t know how I’d have survived without that exact help.
When Jack was 3-weeks-old, Emily left her 2 children for a Saturday to be everything a new mom needs. She showed up to my house early, cleaned our kitchen, did our dishes, washed our laundry, emptied our diaper pails and trash cans. She made me muffins, ran my errands, held my baby while I pumped, cleaned my pump parts, cooked dinner for husband and me, and left–Jack in bed (for a little while, at least) and the house spotless.
Mary used the weekly childcare she had previously arranged to work on her dissertation to instead sit and hold Jack while I pumped and showered. She arrived, with lunch, every Thursday, like clockwork. After a shower, I would walk back into the living room with wet hair, and she’d say, “Nope. Go dry it.” Then I’d come back again. “Did you put on lotion, she’d ask?”
She continued this habit every week until she found herself pregnant with baby #2, my darling goddaughter who Mary swears Jack vibes made happen. She’d have continued this weekly habit even past that point if not for being hit with crippling HG. I’m telling you, this woman is badass.
When I talk about my village, I refer to so many more people, who did so many more things, but these examples best bring us to my major point.
The people who made up my village took time out of their busy lives to help me when they knew I needed it most. That’s what villagers do.
My Village Taught Me Empathy
This group of people who surrounded me when and after Jack was born showed me how important it is to make space in your own life for helping others. I’ve tried to take lessons from them, and I’d be lying if I said it weren’t a constant struggle. I always wish I were doing a better job.
Jack already has a village–a sprawling village–and there are lessons to learn from everyone in it. But our villages will continue to grow, and as mine, husband’s, and Jack’s grow, I hope we can grow them to intentionally highlight such selflessness, compassion, empathy.
I don’t know about you, but one of my primary goals as a parent is to create an empathetic human being.
Creating Global Villages
A few weeks ago, we had the delightful privilege of spending the evening with some people who epitomize what it means to have a village in the more traditional sense of the word. Husband and I travelled with Jack, my mom, and Kiki (Jack’s nanny, who is part of our family now) to Italy (and Switzerland for a minute). One night, when we were staying in Lucca, we left Jack in the care of a babysitter and travelled outside the walls and into the countryside to the home of Antonietta and her husband, Piero.
Antonietta and Piero
Antonietta is everything I’ve ever imagined the perfect Italian nonna to be. She is a loving wife and mother and a brilliant chef, known throughout the countryside for being the best cook around. She has no formal training. She learned from her mother and grandmother, who learned from the mothers and grandmothers before them.
Unlike Antonietta, Piero is like nothing I have ever imagined. He is delightful, hilarious, welcoming, caring. He brings an unimaginably happy and comedic aura to the evening, and probably everywhere he goes. Piero is obsessed–and I mean obsessed–with the idea of the old American West. He has seen every American Western film that has ever been translated into Italian and practically has them memorized. And he has converted the family barn into what he calls his “man cave” (two of his few words of English). It is the most amazing tribute to the ideal of the American West I’ve ever imagined.
The closest I’ve ever seen to a Western film is Back to the Future: Part 3, so I have absolutely nothing in common with this man, but I loved him instantly. I loved his family instantly. I loved their warmth, kindness, eccentricity, and how truly welcome we all felt in their home. We will go back and take Jack with us when he can stay up later–I think they’re among his grandparents, somehow, though they’ve never met.
A True Italian Village
Antonietta and Piero live together, with their two adult sons, on a small parcel of farmland with their horse, Doc (named after Doc Holiday) and dog Buck. You see the theme here.
On what was hands down the best night of our trip, Antonietta gave us a pasta making lesson, while Piero kept us filled with wine and snacks and laughter. The translator, Lucrezia, kept us appraised of all the jokes, lessons, and general goings on.
Lucrezia is a college student who lives across the street from Antonietta and Piero. She grew up with their sons. When they were children, Antonietta and Piero were friends were Lucrezia’s parents. The same story for their grandparents. On these same pieces of land.
This is a village.
Living For Each Other
Piero is a farmer and a school bus driver. Antonietta is a housewife who teaches cooking lessons to tourists in the most authentic fashion. Lucrezia is studying languages, so she gains translation experience by working with her close friends and neighbors. She also allows them to provide a service they couldn’t offer without her help.
Husband, naturally, became an herb chopping master.
Because larger groups make far more pasta than they eat, Antonietta dries the pasta that isn’t used and gives it to friends and neighbors.
A Barter System Among Friends
Some of the friends who receive Antonietta’s pasta are in Lucca. Others are in what Lucrezia delightfully called the “nearby hills” of Garfagnano, and the larger, slightly further city of Modena. The wine and olive oil we were served were made by the friend who lives in Garfagnano – it appears they trade; delicious pasta for wine and oil. The balsamic vinegar came from the farm of a friend in Modena, exchanged on a similar sort of barter system.
This is how a village works. Generous. Loving. Self-sustaining. Where the food that didn’t come from the farm came from the herb garden, and what didn’t come from the herb garden came from the local butcher (also a friend who gets dried pasta). Or the friend with a vineyard. Or the one who makes olive oil. Or the friend who makes balsamic vinegar. It’s like the rest of the world could disappear, but if northern Tuscany remained in working order, these people could exist together. It’s what they’ve done for generations.
The Local and the Global
While what makes this community so idyllic is the way in which everyone seems to coexist and help support a good lifestyle, what’s important here is also its accessibility on a global scale. Because Antonietta opens her home to tourists who want a more authentic Italian experience, we get to briefly join this village, learn from them, love them. We get to return to them with our children as they grow, and let them listen, learn, and love.
And we can do it anywhere. So, to be fair, my point is not actually that I want Jack’s village to be Italian.
It’s that I want Jack’s villages to be global, diverse, welcoming, and empathetic.
I want his villages to teach him things he could never learn only in Atlanta.
I want them to help him understand how others live, whether they’re down the street, on the other side of the city, or across the world.
I want them to help him understand why others live the way they do–what about their backgrounds and circumstances have created their lives and the people they are.
I hope his villages to teach him to embrace others, difference, humanity.
Admittedly, though, there are a lot of perks when part of that village is Italian.
Note: This is not a sponsored post, and I receive no kickbacks for any bookings. It was just a truly amazing experience. If you want to have it, as well, you can book here.
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.