I'm sitting on my friend's couch, pillows supporting either side of my very pregnant tummy. Three other mothers are scattered around the fire-lit living room as we welcome another, along with her sleeping 3-month-old, into the safe space my friend has created for us. She calls it a relaxation circle. Last month, all our kids were running around upstairs as we tried to get on with our tea and conversations. This month, we're meeting in the evening so we can actually carry out a guided relaxation followed by some connection time whilst we share what's in our hearts. It's an effort to find a mom tribe so we don't have to do this parenting thing on our own.
It's not supposed to be like this. According to popular characterizations of millennials, we should be wallowing in narcissism; living lonely, shallow lives, obsessed with individualism. But after speaking to six millennial mothers (see my previous look at the ad-hoc parenting communities of women miles from family) about their self-made cooperative parenting communities, I'm convinced that we have millennials all wrong.
Whether living far from home — my own experience included — or just intentional about making community work even within their hometown, millennial parents are engaging with other parents through exchange of services, meals, childcare, emotional caregiving, and advice. This is the stuff of socially conscious, slow-living dreamers, not self-absorbed, withdrawn critics. Meet the real millennials.
Village parenting for Katy Lockey from Folkestone, England was first birthed out of the decision to breastfeed her firstborn. She was a 21-year-old with a boyfriend giving the family thing a go. After the birth, she was invited to a breastfeeding group, which she hated the idea of at first for fear of being looked down on by older, more “planned” mothers for being so young.
But she ended up relating to these women anyway, especially connecting with a mother 15 years older than her. “She was running the NCT [National Childbirth Trust, a UK charity] meetings — she had a beautiful house with a garden," Katy reminisces about her previous life over video chat with me. "I was living in a grotty flat. She would say, ‘Come and sit in my garden and look after your baby.’ We both smoked cigarettes then,” Lockey tells me. “So that was the thing we had mostly in common. It was like, ‘You watch them. I’ll go out and have a ciggy, and then we’ll swap over.’”
The village can see who you’re going to become not just who you are at the moment.
She also made friends with a teen mom who’d had her first child at 15 and her second at 17. “I discovered almost for the first time in my life the real richness of female friendships that was specifically female,” she says, referring to the inherently feminine act of growing, birthing, and breastfeeding a baby human.
By the time her son was 2, she split up with her boyfriend. Lockey went on to university and graduate school and moved past the title of "single mom at a young age." She was able to focus on her own interests at art school and even begin dating again, but there was something missing she'd had before: a village. Consequently, she was intrigued by a local church-hosted family fun day event after seeing a leaflet about it in her son’s backpack.
From there, she found people who saw her not just as a single mother with a new boyfriend, but as a family unit of three. She discovered a community where motherhood and family spaces were nurtured, a vast difference from the circles she was running in as a university art student where her son wasn’t seen or known and where he was largely perceived as a hindrance to her ability to go places or do things.
“The village can see who you’re going to become not just who you are at the moment,” Lockey tells me. She’s talking about how the people you surround yourself with in your village can actually end up parenting you as you parent your child, because that’s just what a good parent does — sees the child where they’re going to be not only where they are now.
Having her first child at 21 planted a seed for that need for a female village for her second child 10 years down the road with the husband she’d met at university, but there was now a new “been there, done that” mindset that crept up before she began watering that seed, especially as she now already had a good support network. But she found herself needing breastfeeding assistance with her second newborn and was yet again invited to a new mother’s breastfeeding group.
A new trepidation to attend another mom’s group came over her, but she did it. And she was there from that point 7 years ago until just recently. “That turned into my day job,” she explains. “So I was there every week until I trained as a volunteer, and then I was the volunteer running the group while I was training to be a breastfeeding counselor. Then they gave me my job, and I’ve been doing that the last three years.”
In the middle of that time, she had a third baby, and had even more trouble breastfeeding him. That's when she turned to Le Leche League (LLL), and after opening a successful LLL chapter in her own town, the high of creating that village for herself went beyond just her need for it. “I often have women coming into my house, and their babies are all a few weeks old, and they don’t know each other,” she tells me. “Watching them get to know each other and being able to give them this forum where I know in six months time these guys are going to be best friends walking that journey together is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
This is what spending years investing into a community looks like — there’s room in your heart to give back after what you’ve been given, and it's how many mothers create villages.
Like Sophie Lazarski, originally from England, who married a Frenchman and transplanted her life to Paris seven years ago before having children. She’s video-chatting me from her small apartment where she runs her minimalism and family lifestyle blog, along with her new food delivery business in which she and her husband deliver fresh homemade meals to new mothers. “If there aren’t people constantly putting in effort to help new mums,” she tells me, “then you’re not going to get the effort back.”
We’re talking about a give and take that has come up in so many of my conversations with these village-building parents. "If you have the opportunity to provide [help] for another mum, then you should. Not out of a sense of obligation, but just because that’s literally how communities work.”
She used to not give me my vegetables until I had given her the correct masculine and feminine for each of the vegetables, and I hated her. But she’s, like, one of my best friends now.
The French community where Lazarski got married and began building her life before she could even speak the French language has become one source of her village. “My actual village where I live is an area of Paris a bit like a town; we have a market, people know each other here, and it’s quite family-oriented. It’s called Batignolles,” she tells me in now-polished French pronunciation whilst she spells it out for my non-acquainted ears.
“I literally have this village now, because of sheer persistence and making people talk to me,” she confesses, her youngest son cooing in her lap now having woken up from his nap. “Sometimes it was hard — well, sh*t, frankly — because it’s difficult and it’s tiring doing everything in your second language and feeling like you have no friends, but now I’m super grateful." She’s able to walk into town and chat with all the shop owners and feel known and connected.
“There was a grocer here,” Lazarski begins relaying a story to me. “She used to not give me my vegetables until I had given her the correct masculine and feminine for each of the vegetables, and I hated her. But she’s, like, one of my best friends now." In one aspect of her village-building, Lazarski, a modern, millennial mother, has resonated with the relics of the village lifestyle of the past, translating it into her 2018 world.
Maintaining these relationships are much harder, because being vulnerable with people you know are going to leave doesn’t always feel worth it.
For Hailey Jo Holcombe, creating a village meant choosing positivity. She and her husband, along with their 5-month-old daughter, also live away from family in Sacramento, California. On top of that, they found themselves having their first child in a city a few hours away from the community they spent time investing in when they first moved to California.
“I chose my tribe based on people that I knew would speak hope and celebration into my life; I’m going to listen to them more than the people who have a negative perspective,” she explains from her bed with her new baby in her arms, starting the morning together.
Honorary family members seem to come along with the territory of village-living parents. Holcombe tells me when she’s describing to her daughter what their day will look like, she often uses the word "auntie" or "uncle" attached to her friends’ names when she’s explaining which people they might see that day. Incorporating this sense of a wider family is more than just a cutesy way to identify people to her baby. “My heart is actually for my daughter to recognize — I want her to believe — that people are safe and trustworthy,” she tells me.
Sometimes this connection to people will be enduring, perhaps, but other times, it's a fleeting transaction. Lazarski's online-turned-real-life village from an English-speaking mothers in Paris Facebook group, which she describes as the most active online group she's ever been a part of, is much more transient — with folks coming and going to and from France on work contracts — even though she has no plans to leave.
“Losing your friends every six months is draining,” she confesses. “But it’s an exercise in letting go. It also spurred me on to make permanent connections.”
She says maintaining these relationships are much harder, because being vulnerable with people you know are going to leave doesn’t always feel worth it. “But it is where I put most of my effort at the moment now, because I want to be the village for other people. I feel like I owe something to the community more than I’m getting out of it,” she tells me.
On this topic, she talks a little of the personal growth that building community brings. “Being away from your family makes you more reliant on other people,” she tells me. “But also more aware of what you have to offer as well.”
The building of a village can lead to social change, as I learn from Katy Lockey, who, along with a friend, got creative with their desire for community. “We didn’t have small children anymore,” she explains. “But we still wanted to meet as women and to give people the space to just be together and talk about things that were interesting, and there just wasn’t really anything about. So we started the Folkestone Women’s Forum.”
It’s a local free, monthly event she heads up with a headlining speaker and projects for local women to champion (#WomenEmpoweringWomen) that is currently holding attendance of 40 to 50 women at a time.
Lockey tells me she now has a long-term goal, potentially funded by donations from the women attending the monthly forum, of opening up a women’s center that addresses the needs that other social programs in her area, she’s noticed, aren’t able to appropriately attend to. She envisions a safe space with a wide range of services from finding an advocate for women’s mental health to getting help filling out a complicated housing form to supporting a teenager needing to take a pregnancy test.
Lockey's influence on her community is a living example to her children on how to effect change in culture, a benefit of building a village to her own kids and their generation. It's what all these women have in common: hopes that these connections they've made don't serve them alone but their children also.
I’m trying to demonstrate they could go anywhere and build a community around them.
Lazarski's hope is for her kids to learn not to be afraid of letting someone into their home. “Yeah, they might stay all afternoon, because they're miserable, and they don’t want to go home, but so what?” she admonishes.
Essentially, she's teaching her children selflessness and openness, real tools for change. “I’m trying to demonstrate they could go anywhere and build a community around them where they’re looked after, where they feel confident in being able to go and get what they need from people, not being afraid of people, especially if those people are different from them,” she says.
For Holcombe, the intended benefits appeal to her daughter's sense of self. “I want these people to be a part of my children’s lives, not just when they’re babies but through the entirety of life to speak out their identity.” It’s solidifying a place for her children to be nurtured outside of just her and her husband. “So that it’s not just me and her dad who are her biggest fans but other voices echoing what we see in her,” she tells me.
She explains that having a village alleviates the weight of being the best mom. “I appreciate that for the sake of myself but also for the sake of my daughter, so that she doesn’t feel this pressure to be the best child, because 'mom put her identity in me,'" she says. "That’s the last thing I want her to feel — that she needs to be someone for me or give me something that she’s not responsible to give me. I want her to feel freedom to be her.”
How these women have the energy for the exchange that takes place within a village framework comes down to a confidence they've learned in the process. “I’m a huge advocate for asking," Holcombe says. "Because I feel like I’m pretty good at receiving love, and I count that a victory; I don’t think that a lot of people have the ability to do that — I believe I’m worthy enough to receive love.”