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  • The "world's toughest job" can't be done alone—yet few parents find the community support they need. Tweet This
  • Today's self-selected communities can be a great help, but they also mean more scheduling and driving for parents. Tweet This
Category: Parents, Family Life

I woke up this morning tired. And I snapped at my husband, which I shouldn’t have, because he was up even earlier than me in response to our two-year-old son’s pleas to build the track for his Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends set. Meanwhile, I slept while our one-month-old (finally) slept soundly. We had been up until 1:30 a.m. or so, and then there were the night feedings, and the early morning diaper change. Given the way I’m feeling today—blurred vision, mind slow and foggy and yet paradoxically jumpy with adrenaline—I can see how it is that some researchers have found that the effects of sleep deprivation are similar to the effects of drinking too much alcohol.

As Jennifer Senior points out in All Joy and No Fun, which I reviewed here last month, the meaning parenthood brings to our lives is sometimes obscured by the daily grind. And this morning threatened to be one of those mornings when the “no fun” overshadowed the “all joy.” So imagine my delight when in scanning my Facebook feed over breakfast I saw this video, created by a Boston agency that posted a fake job listing and recorded the interviews with the few brave applicants. The job requirements of “the world’s toughest job” included:

  • Standing up almost all the time
  • Constantly exerting yourself
  • Working from 135 to unlimited hours per week
  • Degrees in medicine, finance and culinary arts necessary
  • No vacations
  • The work load goes up on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and other holidays
  • No time to sleep
  • Salary = $0

Of course, you can see the joke. The job is that of being a mom. The video is an ad for a greeting card company, just in time for Mother’s Day. And yes, I’ll admit that it made me cry.

But seriously, the incredible amount of work and energy it takes to be a mom or a dad means that community support is essential. Since the birth of our son a month ago, we’ve had friends from church bringing meals three times a week; my mother-in-law staying with us for a week, often rocking the baby to sleep late and getting up early with our older son; another woman from church visiting once a week to do the dishes or laundry or watch the kids so I can nap; gifts and diapers arriving in the mail from family and friends; my parents, who live fifteen minutes away, willing to help with errands, babysitting, dinner. We are thankful to have such a strong web of social support. But I get the sense that what we have is increasingly rare.

In a mobile society where family is often far away and friends don’t have enough time to become much more than acquaintances before the next big move, how do parents manage? As Senior documents, parenting expectations and pressure are at an all-time high. And yet community support is at an all-time low. There is no village to raise the child. And parents are struggling with the demands.

In my town, I hear the older folks talk about how everyone used to leave their doors unlocked and the kids would bike around town unsupervised and the mothers felt safe in letting them do so. Extended family was close by: cousins, best friends, aunts and uncles like extra parents. Contrast that to the mother today who has her kids locked safely inside the house, trying to entertain them while she makes dinner and checks work emails on her smartphone, the multitasking making her stressed and unproductive. Despite our church community and my parents living close by, I feel like that mother all too often.

There is no village to raise the child. And parents are struggling with the demands.

My husband and I often ask, “How can we give our children a childhood lived in a robust community, around people they know and love and trust, around people who share somewhat in the load of raising them?” Not only does this seem good for our children, it seems good for us as parents. We have found this in our church. We might have found it at the YMCA or a Meetup group for parents, or some other civil society organization.

Which is great. But as Senior also points out, the problem with these kinds of self-selected communities is that unlike communities of place, dictated by geography or the lines of a neighborhood, self-selected communities take a lot of scheduling and driving. (Translation: extra work for the already stressed parent.)

We knew a group of families in Astoria, Queens that had been college friends, and years later they bought a beautiful old summer home in the city and shared living space so that their kids could grow up as friends. We’ve dreamed about doing something like this with many of our college friends, who are now scattered across the country. But of course the logistics are daunting, and it’s unrealistic to consider it a mass model for creating a strong community for your children.

More realistic, perhaps, are the possibilities of the New Urbanism and the emerging popularity of village style living. While it surely wouldn’t solve all the problems of parenting, developing our neighborhoods in ways that are conducive to community might just make “the world’s toughest job” a little bit easier.