Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On parenting and support networks; a theory

So, I have this thing I keep thinking about, because I had a little inkling about it once upon a time and then I kept seeing situations that reminded me of it. Over time it's matured into a theory, but there are probably aspects of it that I'm not considering. Maybe you'll point them out to me in the comments. The gist of the theory is this:

Presently, our society is set up in such a way that most [American] families are living with one set of parents (or just one parent) in a household raising their kid(s) essentially by themselves. Contrast this with at least millenia (all of recorded history, and conceivably much further back) where households were usually multi-family or multi-generational, and where raising children was of necessity a more communal affair. It is only in the last couple of centuries that any sizeable proportion of households anywhere ended up in a situation where a mother (or a mother and father, or a father) ends up being the only adult spending time with their little kids for most of the day, most days. And frankly, I don't think we're built for it.

In particular, I've watched my sisters and other women I know and care about struggle with the challenge of having multiple preschoolers or infants at the house during the day with them. They find it difficult to make time for themselves, or to have their own friends or social contacts. The price of our privacy and personal domain is that a caretaker left with the children faces isolation and sometimes depression. Even so, it is a price many are still willing to pay (or risk paying). Society expects that if you have the means to do so, you will live in a dwelling with just your family during childrearing years except in unusual circumstances.

In the past, many families wealthy enough to have their very own households would also have been wealthy enough to have servants or other help to see to the raising of children or the affairs of running a house. Most farms (again, my supposition; feel free to dispute) have been multi-family or multi-generational, and until the advent of the automobile towns and cities were places where everyone walked everywhere, meaning you encountered the people you lived next to and a household member who 'went to work' didn't go all that far. Contrast that with a society where people commute to work alone in their cars, while young children stay at home with just one parent, or (like our kids) go to a care facility where they may get the chance to socialize with other children and to a certain extent adults, but not in a home and not with a member of their family or household.

For the next six weeks, Michelle and I will have a third child in our own two-adult household. A friend of ours who is a single mother has to return to the States for some military training until November, and may not bring her 5 year old daughter (Isabel - expect pics soon). So since she goes to the same school as our daughter and the same before-and-after care, we decided to volunteer as possible guardians for the time being (other options involved her being out of school and travelling to the states to stay with family). Tonight is the first night she's spending in our house. As a realist, I know there will be hard moments for her, for our kids learning to share with her, for her mom while she's away, and for Michelle and I. But of course I also know that it will often be a lot of fun, and she's a sweet kid that we are looking forward to spending more time with. Other friends have stepped up too, offering to help transport her to or from school if her bus pass situation doesn't pan out like we hope it will, or having her over for a few nights. It all makes me think about this same thing; the necessity for community in childrearing. Nobody ought to try it all alone - we're just not wired that way. You need family, or a village, or a supportive church or playgroup, or good friends, or something to make it work and let you keep your sanity and expand the kids' horizons.

I am by no means advocating a return to multi-family or multi-generational housing. I very much like having the privacy and space that living in a single family home provides. But when I see a woman struggling to raise children by herself for hours out of every day, and see the strain that produces for even the most sane and well-balanced people, I think about this idea and wonder how different it would have been only a few hundred years ago. Not that the women of the 1500s or whenever had lots of, y'know, freedom to go have book clubs or opportunities to advance themselves or whatever, but they at least had other women to talk to and probably didn't have too much trouble finding someone to watch the little ones for an hour or two while they ran a few errands at the market. Or, going back millenia to when humans settled exclusively in family/tribal groups, you have to imagine that prettymuch everyone in the village takes responsibility for raising the little ones in one way or another. I think we're still programmed that way (and so are the kids).

Sorry to go all "It takes a village..." on you. Let's hear your thoughts on the matter.


Anonymous said...

I think another key fallout of this 'privatization' of the home is basic trust.

The truth is that the scariest thing about letting my kids (if I had any yet) go out with other parents, or other families, or even to daycare sounds scary just because I've been raised to pretty much think that I can't trust strangers.

They can't raise my kids correctly. They can't teach the right values. They can't love my kids like I love my kids.

Granted, none of that may be true. The average person that I see at church, or work, or even in my neighborhood is a good, wholesome person who would just make a kid better overall.

But we've been taught to not trust people as much as used to. And that makes it all that much harder imo.

Unknown said...

This may apply to older kids than you're talking about, Dave, but even as recently as 20-30 years ago I don't think parents spent anywhere near as much time with their kids whatsoever. These days parents constantly cart their kids around to playgroups and soccer practices, and their kids are under constant adult supervision. A generation ago, I think kids where pretty much left to their own devices, to run around the neighborhood unsupervised, or supervised by the other kids. Today's child-rearing lifestyle places a much higher burden on parents then the olden days.

Anonymous said...

I don't even think it was as long ago as Rob describes - that was certainly my childhood, I was a latchkey kid and so was my sister, which ended about 15 years ago.

I know my wife and have discussed that if we have kids we may have her mom move down to be closer to us. In talking with friends who have children, the ones who have at least one set of their parents nearby have it far easier (in terms of day care options) than those that don't.

Shells said...

I have been thinking a lot about this too, the change of society's role in helping to raise families. Of course, my thoughts were spurred by you talking to me about yours. I feel like a pretty conscientious, caring parent, but I recognize that we can't do it all alone. We need help. I am happy that we can help out for someone like this. I have been touched by all of the people who have offered to help us and Isabel and Amanda. I wish that I would have been more thoughtful on this subject years ago, and looked for ways to help people instead of waiting for them to ask.

Just Katy said...

I've thought about this a lot too. Why? Because of Alice from the Brady Bunch. I don't remember Mrs. Brady having a job but it was obvious that she needed Alice around to make the household run smoothly (unless the plot demanded otherwise). You go back just a generation before us and it was accepted that you either lived by family or you had "help."

I think a lot of the change can be attributed to the de-valuing of domestic management. Don't get me wrong, I'm no Holly Homemaker but before it was much more recognized that running a household was a full-time job. (And it really was since mothers sewed a lot of the families clothing, baked all the meals, did laundry by hand etc along with the majority of parenting)

Now you rarely hear the term home maker. It's been replaced by "stay at home mom/dad" which I think sucks. It makes it sound like they're just hanging out at home while everyone else drives in to the office and does a real job. And if the stay at home parent is "just staying at home"=not really working, then why should they need help and support? They're already on permanent vacation.

I think that unrealistic attitude feeds the isolation, lack of respect and support that parenting gets.

Lyf2.0 said...

Maybe our polygamist ancestors had the right idea...