The Parents Trying to Make a Village Happen Far From Family
What do you do when you go into premature labor and your family is hundred of miles away? Amanda Stroud turned to her online community at The Bump. “They kept my spirits up. They helped keep me focused. They rallied around me — they were my village, almost more than anyone else ever has been,” she tells Romper. Having moved from her home state of Ohio to San Diego, California, she started building a parenting village from scratch with the use of the internet. She's one of many moms who, having been displaced by marriage, opportunity, necessity, or simply a desire for adventure, had to build a social support system from the ground up as a parent.
I’ve become increasingly interested in this community child-rearing philosophy as my own life has followed a path that has taken me away not only from my home town, but also my home country. An estimated nine million U.S. citizens are living overseas, according to the State Department, while the BBC has reported that around 1.3 million British citizens live in the U.S and Canada, and interstate migration levels in America are double that of the figures for international migration, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Moving — whether across the country or across an ocean — is a fact of life today, but creates a gap in people's lives when they become parents.
When Grandma and Grandpa are thousands of miles away, how do you fill that hole? How do people go about amassing honorary aunts and uncles or grandparents? And how do they pack up and transport those relationships when they inevitably move again? To find out, I spoke to three mothers who built a familial infrastructure out of strangers, and have found enduring relationships.
It’s a very transient city. Almost everyone living there eventually moves on.
“Around the time I got pregnant, two of my closest friends in San Diego moved away," Stroud tells me. "I realized that where we lived, not a lot of people are from there — it’s a very transient city. Almost everyone living there eventually moves on.”
Stroud had previously turned to The Bump for support when she had a miscarriage at age 22. The forums initially helped her navigate her experience of unexpected new life, and then loss, at a time when none of her friends were having babies. When she later began trying to conceive — and was met with five years of infertility issues and another loss — the forums were also a place of support and comfort where the in-person support of family is lacking.
The friends she's made from her expectant birth month forum on The Bump give her that and more. “They’ve really become my mom-tribe in the absence of the friends in real life around me everyday,” she says. “All different backgrounds, some with older kids, different philosophies of parenting, but we have that bond, because we met when we were pregnant, and we’ve been through a lot together.”
Living in different time zones is helpful, because even if it’s early in the morning for Stroud, it won’t be for someone one else in the group. This was a vital part of her budding village when she went into pre-term labor.
“Someone was available to talk to me all night,” she says of the first night in hospital. “They did an amazing job of being in my experience with me, but also being able to talk me down if I got too panicked or anxious.”
When her husband left the hospital to go home for a bit, and get some needed rest, these women sent video messages.
Six years ago, Denise Gomes and her husband felt the loss of familial connections when they moved from Brazil to Sydney, Australia, before having children.
“In the Brazilian culture — in Latin culture — the family is more important," Denise tells Romper. "More close together and [offering more] support. From what I hear from Australian friends here, I feel like they don’t have that much support from the family. Sometimes they’re at work and they’re not as available as they are in Brazil.”
'They really support mothers groups here,' she says. 'In Brazil, my friends, my sisters, they don’t have that, and they feel really alone in the first couple of years of motherhood.'
Having to forge a new family when you're so far from home can potentially add to the loneliness and isolation young families — especially new mothers — experience postpartum. But Gomes found that the neighborly Australian culture provided ideal support for her after birth.
“They really support mothers groups here," she says. "In Brazil, my friends, my sisters, they don’t have that, and they feel really alone in the first couple of years of motherhood."
There’s a group hosted weekly for the first month at the neighborhood health center for new mothers in the area — the same type of moms' group that was recently portrayed on Netflix's The Letdown. The women are encouraged to exchange contact details and continue meeting up after the program comes to an end.
Gomes has met other mothers from the groups she joined as a first- and second-time mother. She has also benefited from a volunteer organization that commits to coming out to new mothers’ homes every week for a few hours, and says it's something she’d like to volunteer for in the future. When your children are older, play groups are very common in the local culture.
“I find it easier that most women here don’t go back to work,” Gomes says. “Either they don’t go back at all or they go back part-time, usually three days a week. It makes it easier to have weekly playgroups or meet-ups and play dates."
It's a personal choice she's made as well. Full-time work, she says, isn't amendable to creating bonds with other families.
The need to connect with other mothers didn't bloom for Holly Victoria until her parents moved from British Columbia to San Francisco, California.
Previously, says the mother of two, “I didn’t really connect a lot with the other mamas around, because I didn’t need to, because my mom was always there,” she tells me.
After her mother left, being deliberate about making connections became necessary.
“It was just a case of going every week," Victoria tells me about joining a family home group out of her church, hosted by another new mom of a similar age. "Being really intentional about connecting with her, and then trying to do things through out the week,” was key, she says.
Victoria has become highly involved in the lives of her fellow moms, who often take turns babysitting. “That’s been a lifesaver,” she says, recalling the time a friend looked after her kids while she and her husband worked on their basement renovations.
Her friendships comprise an ongoing point of contact, says Victoria, “even if it’s just like, ‘Come over for coffee,’ or I’ll go there [to another’s house], or we do things together with all the kids."
I have a ‘second mum’ here who moved from the UK to the same town we did. I’d love that for my girls to be able to grow up with people, other mothers, who they can turn to if they need.
She says her mother had the same approach during her childhood. “My mom was really good at making a village, so I’ve always grown up with these friends that are like family but are not family, and I definitely see the benefits of that in my own life,” she says.
“I have a ‘second mum’ here who moved from the UK to the same town we did. I’d love that for my girls to be able to grow up with people, other mothers, who they can turn to if they need, because sometimes you don’t want to talk to your own mom about stuff, but I know they’re going to have strong other figures in their lives.”
Over time, friendships naturally wax and wane. Stroud and seven of her closest and most active Bump forum friends migrated to a private Facebook group, where they have found ways to translate their virtual support for each other into a real-life prescence. They’ve sent toys to each other’s kids, and share resources through the mail, Stroud explains. It’s the real deal, just online.
A recent move from San Diego to New York has meant that she’s been able to meet up with two of the mothers in her group in person, and begin to make her online village a physical reality. “I really think we’ll seamlessly blend into real-life friends,” she says. “We’ve found not just people in the same place, but people that we’d want to be friends with anyway.”
Back in Sydney, Gomes has been able to find a piece of her home culture in her adopted city, where she is now an administrator for a Facebook group of 200 Brazilians. She organizes a Brazilian playgroup each week that focuses mostly on their native language and the culture of Brazil, celebrating festivities in the Brazilian holiday calendar and so forth. In tapping into the Brazilian diaspora, she has created an analog for her home country.
The key to building these communities has been a directed effort at connection, says Victoria, who is naturally introverted. “I’m more willing [after becoming a mom] to put myself in situations where I’m going to meet other people,” she says. Holly says that her child’s need for playmates her same age has also gotten her out of her own shell.
“It’s very tempting to just stay at home, and be a hermit, but it’s doing it for [my daughter] and less for me, I’m finding, a lot of stuff I do now as a mother.” Things like taking her daughter to a swim class recently — not something she’d ordinarily want to do.
Sometimes, I expect too much, because I give of myself too much. I’m trying to lower my expectations.
Still, bespoke parenting communities aren't a complete replacement for family. “People are difficult,” Gomes confesses. “Relationships are hard to maintain. Sometimes, I expect too much, because I give of myself too much. I’m trying to lower my expectations.”
She talks about having realistic ideas of what people can help her with, and of recognizing the changing needs of her family through different stages of childhood.
“I’m learning to be OK with just us — as a family — without other people. A couple of months ago if I didn’t have a playdate everyday, I couldn’t just stay at home with my son by myself, because he’s super active. I needed that support and to see other people [almost too much]. And now if we do meet people, that’s fine, but if it’s just the three of us, it’s fine as well. We enjoy spending time as a family more,” she tells me.
So how does she wrestle with the tension that her village is sometimes conditional, in that her friends have full, busy lives, just like most modern families?
“When you lower your expectations, you don’t push that much," she says, "so whatever they give you is good.”
Becoming more grateful for what the people around her can give instead of having an attitude of “gimme gimme” is the key, according to Gomes.
Ongoing companionship and support are a bonus, the women say. Gomes thought she’d find it hard to make friends when she moved to Australia, as she describes herself as not very social back in Brazil. “I don’t know why, but it was the opposite. Motherhood brought out a different side of me,” she says.
Stroud describes going into labor prematurely as a pregnant woman’s worst fear. Being connected with other pregnant women gave her an emotional lifeline, she explains, because it could have been any one of them.
“I have one friend in particular who any time I talk about that whole thing, she cries the same way I do, because she was in those emotions so much with me."
In a world of constant movement, finding herself in the moment with another mom made all the difference.