The triple batch of lentil stew fit in the largest pot I owned, but only barely, and I needed it to boil. There had been something of a schedule mix-up between the Meals for New Moms coordinator at our church and me, and I was feeding two families in addition to my own that evening.
I borrowed a pot from my upstairs neighbor and finished cooking a little later than I’d planned. I hurriedly loaded the stew, rice, and molasses cookies into a laundry basket, carted it out to our car, and then sped off to the first family, just outside of town. Their newborn was adorable and their three-year-old was delighted. From there, I drove to a little family’s apartment in town. The newborn was five pounds and doing fine, though the new mother was not. Her mother-in-law greeted me at the door and thanked me profusely for bringing dinner.
Between Meals for New Moms and the women's group at our church, anyone with a new baby, car accident, surgery, or other routine-disrupting life events receives at least three meals a week from parishioners.
But socializing in our community isn’t restricted to this. Last night I went to a book club meeting with six other women, all wives, most mothers. The whole point of the book club was to hang out with other women. There's a larger group of women that meets weekly or monthly for margarita night at a Mexican restaurant. A crowd of parishioners, mostly parents, showed up recently at a local city council meeting when an issue they were concerned about arose. There's Wednesday evening soccer, Sunday afternoon Frisbee, and a whole slew of informal get-togethers. I've been to at least three birthday parties for toddlers where the birthday was mostly an excuse for the adults to hang out, and the moms tell me their kids’ “play dates” are as much for the adults as they are for the kids.
So I find myself scratching my head when I read studies that show marriage is bad for communities. In a recent study, Christopher Einolf and Deborah Philbrick found that while 22% of women volunteered before marriage, only 16% spent time volunteering after marriage and the average hours they volunteered dropped from 36.1 to 14.1 .
Einolf and Philbrick recognize that their study only considers the short-term effects of marriage, that women may return to volunteering when children are older. And they don’t make the claim that marriage is bad for communities. But the basic finding concerning volunteering agrees with previous studies. In their study Marriage: The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy, Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian found that married people tend to withdraw from the community, declining to ask for practical and emotional support from extended family, friends, and neighbors. "Marriage and community are often at odds with one another," they write in the study. "Instead of bolstering community involvement, marriage diminishes ties to relatives, neighbors, and friends."
Gerstel and Sarkisian do find one exception to the rule: “Children help involve the married in networks of friends and neighbors.” Parents looking for childcare, for example, will reach out to friends and family and are more likely to offer childcare in exchange.
In my own experience this is true. I found myself delivering lentil soup to strangers because they had both just had babies. And I had only signed up to help with Meals for New Moms because I knew the coordinator—I had babysat for her a few times when I needed some extra cash. In fact, most of the adults I know in town I met, one way or another, through their children. I tutor homeschool students, and my name spread quickly because many area moms are connected to each other through their kids, whether through various homeschool networks, carpooling to co-ops and extracurriculars, or just getting together for play dates.
Children, it seems, have a way of bringing people together.
But Gerstel and Sarkisian see this as a limited form of community. "Help is only one kind of interaction," they write. Cooking dinner for families with newborns, tutoring the older kids, and carpooling all fall in that "help" category, which they consider different from friendship. "Single and married parents alike,” they say, “‘hang out’ less with neighbors and friends."
That may be true, but I don’t know that “hanging out” is the right yardstick for measuring community. As one mother in my community asked me, “Why is it not considered community-building when a friend drags herself out of bed in the middle of the night to come watch my daughter so I can go have a baby? That doesn’t make sense.”
What makes my town different? How does its strong volunteer network seamlessly flow into a community of friends? I suspect it has something to do with the understanding that children are part of the community. Parents may log fewer volunteer hours at the soup kitchen than single people, and they may make fewer midnight ice cream bar runs. But they make dinners for families with newborns and don’t count the hours, and they laugh together during their children’s play dates.
“Help,” which Gerstel and Sarkisian seem to treat as a second-class form of human interaction, is often where community begins.