I’m sure by now you have all heard something about the gorilla Harambe, who was shot and killed by the Cincinnati Zoo when a 3 year old boy climbed into his enclosure. The story has evoked outrage, and a good deal of that anger has been directed at the boy’s mother for not monitoring the boy close enough. I have to admit that, when my friend first told me the story, without knowing any details, my initial reaction was also one of, “Where were his parents?!”
I’m not going to go into theories about what should or shouldn’t have happened there. My opinion (which is just an opinion) is that a) accidents happen and 3 year olds are QUICK little suckers b) those 10 minutes were most likely the most terrifying 10 minutes of that poor mother’s life and c) yes, as sad as it is for that gorilla (and the poor staff who had to shoot him), child trumps gorilla.
That being said, my initial gut reaction of “Where were his parents?!” makes me feel ashamed, but also points to a larger problem.
Where was the “village” that we always talk about when it comes to raising children? If it “takes a village”, then why don’t we all have one?
Much of our culture here in the United States is not supportive of new parents. Besides perhaps a meal train that ends a few weeks after baby comes home, and a baby shower full of gifts, most new parents find that the tangible help tends to dissipate within a few weeks of baby being born. Many people do not have their families nearby to help in a capitalist society that is increasingly moving more and more towards an autonomous way of living. In an incredibly contradictory way, parents are expected to establish breastfeeding and bond well with their new babies, but are given almost no support for that. Beyond FMLA (which essentially says that, if you work for a company that has more than 50 employees, you get the “privilege” of taking up to 12 weeks off, but without any pay), most companies do not provide any formal leave policies. And most families cannot afford to take that much time off from work without pay, and often have to go back within a few weeks. The research has shown over and over again how detrimental that is to so many determinates of health, including breastfeeding, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, development of and bonding with baby. Not to mention that, once those parents are back at work, they are basically working for child-care, which is increasingly more and more expensive.
Sigh. I could talk ALL DAY about how much our leave policy and early childhood support stinks in this country. Especially for poor people and people of color. But that’s been done.
What I’d really like to discuss is that support. What would a “village” feel like in our modern society? What supports are we really missing? How do we get back to that feeling of having a nest around us when we become parents, and as the years go by?
To answer those questions, I reached out to a very biased, non-random sample of people- some trusted parenting friends. The answers I got had some running themes that I’d like to share:
● They all unequivocally wished that there had been some more support. Whether they were stay at home parents or went back to work relatively quickly, many felt that, after the initial visits and meal trains were over, the support just disappeared
● There were many different suggestions for what added support would look like, including:
- When out in public, strangers doing little things to help, like holding the door. Or keeping a child from jumping into a gorilla pen. One parent makes a point to always tell strangers how appreciative she is of their help.
- Visitors actually doing something, rather than just holding the baby (although one mom did point out how physically exhausting holding the baby got). I.e., washing dishes, walking the dog, doing a load of laundry, holding baby and "loving on him" while the parents napped or took a quick shower, playing with an older kiddo.
- Visitors and meals continuing well after those first few weeks of “awwww, isn’t he/she cute?” One parent mentioned how she wished she had more "adult time" throughout the week, even just meeting up in a coffee shop.
- Babysitting! This came up a lot. From the very beginning, to years down the road. A sort of, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back deal. As one mother put it, “[Something helpful] was friends who offered to babysit for 30 min, 1 hour, etc soon after [baby] was born so [my husband and I] could get a cup of coffee and just detach for a minute”.
- Beyond babysitting, another parent mentioned how important it is to feel like her neighbors will keep an eye on her children when they’re out of the house, be someone their children can go to for support, and not be afraid to step in to help if they see something wrong. This requires reaching out to your neighbors, and forging bonds that can potentially last throughout the child rearing years.
- Some parents mentioned how nice it would be to have more activities/events geared towards working parents. It seems that every meet-up is at 11am on a weekday, which many folks just can't do.
- For some friends of color, they mentioned how frustrating gentrification has been, and how it's becoming more and more difficult to surround their children with other children who look like them. As one friend put it, "The residuals of gentrification, racism and capitalism make it hard to feel connected to the people on my block, and community is continuously disrupted". Because of that, she makes sure to surround her little one with other activist parents, books with children that look like her child, and family members she trusts.
- Some parents mentioned how nice it was when friends or neighbors who don’t have children would offer to hang out at the parents’ home, instead of asking them to meet out. Although it’s also nice to get out, especially when feeling a bit trapped in those early months, sometimes it’s just so much easier to stay home where all the supplies and comfort are. Sometimes the best question is “I want to see you, what would be easiest?"
- Some parents talked about how nice it was to hear other people’s experiences, including the really difficult moments, like infertility, child birth stories, or breastfeeding challenges. As one parent put it, “Mostly I like knowing that I’m not alone, there are others having the same experiences, fears, and successes as I am.” A few mamas mentioned how nice it was to get text "check-ins", so they could respond when they felt ready to, and had the feeling that they were being thought about.
● On the other hand, there were definitely some suggestions about what was not helpful. For example:
- Offering unwanted advice. I know there’s a tendency to want to “fix” the problem, whatever that may be, and I’ve definitely been guilty of this one. I hate seeing a friend suffer. But sometimes it’s so much more helpful just to offer an empathetic ear, maybe share your experience if they ask, but not try to problem solve too much. As one friend put it, “I have google too”.
- Or even worse, telling a new parent what they are doing is “wrong”. Look people, there are 10,000 ways to do everything, from feeding your child to getting your child to sleep. And they’re probably all wrong. So let’s just come from a place of support. If you can’t do that, then leave it alone.
On a final note, there was an additional running theme that seemed to show up for several parents. In almost direct contrast to the above suggestions, and perhaps a reflection of how pushed towards independence we have become, many parents feel awkward about accepting any support. As one friend eloquently put it, “[it’s] also me not always feeling comfortable asking for help (ie. with friends, neighbors), because of a sense I have that the helper may feel inconvenienced”.
I’m certainly guilty of this as well. I remember feeling guilty that my parents were staying with me for the first week my son was born, cooking, cleaning and doing laundry, while I got used to the tiny adorable terrorist taking over. I'm not sure I could have done it without them, to be honest. Look people, we all clearly want, deserve, and NEED the help. Raising kids is tough. So why don’t we put down our pride or anxiety about inconveniencing others, and start accepting it? Like I said, I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.
Have something to add to the discussion? We’d love to hear it! Write a comment below.
Ariel Shumaker-Hammond, MPH/LCSW is a therapist at Porch Light Counseling specializing in infertility and perinatal mental health.