Building a Village

Bunmi Laditan’s article, “I miss the village” came out before we had a baby, but it recently resurfaced and no doubt struck a chord with a new generation of parents – or at least with me. When we lived in the US, we didn’t have kids but most of our friends did. We were part of a circle of people that were trying to live in a modern version of community – spread out in typical urban fashion, but interconnected and supportive. To myself as a childless person who felt like my life had no margin and kids would never fit, these friends made having kids look kind of possible. They organize weeks of meals for new parents, clothing swaps, volunteer opportunities, collaborative childcare, art shows, co-working space for parents, emergency financial support for friends, and care, support and space to share struggles. I knew it then too, but reflecting on it now, I realize just how beautiful it is and I’m so glad to be a tiny part of it, even while abroad.

Here’s the hard thing though – even while participating in and watching some of the best efforts I know of to create community and depth in modern life, I knew so many of our friends were still pretty exhausted, anxious and maxed out (along with us, but we weren’t caring for tiny humans). Even though there was always the babysitting coop for planned or last minute childcare, they still needed to bundle up their babies and get them across town to the family who was able to watch them (very possibly an hour round trip). Many families naturally chose to live in areas with good schools but correspondingly high mortgages or rent which kept them busy maintaining a high standard of living.

Watching my friends creatively find their own versions of the American dream, I am impressed. Our next door neighbors in MN constantly organized awesome themed activities and parties just for fun. Another couple is heavily involved in the biking and art scenes in Minneapolis and are both running small businesses. They are very successful but also paying more for health care than for their mortgage each month. All these people are badass and doing great things and creating community. The challenges associated with it are considered normal. After a few years outside of it though, the challenges don’t look normal anymore. There are a lot of opportunities in the US and you can accomplish a lot but you’re probably going to be very BUSY – the anthem of our age.

Back when we lived in Minneapolis, I got used to the idea that having kids one day would be a worthwhile but exhausting and often lonely endeavour. Even without kids yet, I too knew in my heart, I miss the village.

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We were traveling through Canada this spring with our friends and their daughter who is 4 months younger than Camille. We were both using disposable diapers for the trip and talking about cloth and I was saying it was in some ways easier to cloth diaper because it just fits into the flow of our life. Then I started describing how – you know, I just throw a load of diapers in the wash, go do some work for a while or play with the baby, then make some tea and hang them up on the deck while it steeps. Then I realized, of course it’s actually more work to cloth diaper – it’s just that life itself is much simpler in Thailand. At least the life we have here is.

Currently, we live on a rural property tucked between mountains and rice paddies with four houses on it – when we’re all around, it counts as a small village!

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I am so grateful for the difference true proximity makes, especially nestled in the country far from family where I’ll never be fluent in the language or ways of being. Our houses are between 15 and 50 yards from each other and we can rely on each other for childcare, random sewing projects, graphic design advice, occasional meals, workout buddies, errands, movie nights and more. But it still takes intentionality between the families – with one family it’s to build cultural bridges and break down language barriers, and with the two other families it’s about unwinding our shared individualist mindsets and finding ways to start relying on each other. We’ve found that it’s important to coordinate structured activities and overtly invite one another into them. Natural hangouts happen too, but it’s so easy to just fall into living separate parallel lives even though I know our proximity is such a gift.

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Neighbourhood Activities we’ve been trying:

– creating a google hangout group (or similar platform) to chat on and throw out ideas and invites
– inviting our neighbours into our simple but guaranteed weekly activities, like gardening hour
– gathering together and filming a rendition of happy birthday for a friend far away
– writing silly songs together and then performing them
– community soccer and frisbee
– planning a local playgroup time and contributing snacks or activities
– offering date nights to each other where we watch each others kids
– a front yard BBQ, fish fry, and campfire veggie bake in coals
– intergenerational arts and crafts time
– visiting as adults in the evening after the kids have gone to bed, because our baby monitor can reach their houses

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If I can give advice on building a village, I think the most important thing is to invite people into the things you’re up to, and to be consistent about it, even if no one comes at first. If your family likes soccer, make sure you are out playing once week at the same time and that everyone knows they are welcome.

I know I need old friends too, no matter how far away they are. I feel like I have knit together a web of moms and friends across the globe who I love and rely on, but still, I know I can’t offer my presence in the mundane and everyday challenges. We need both. It can be difficult to establish a village feeling in your immediate context but for us it has made all the difference. Especially if life is busy, proximity alleviates so much strain. Sometimes, especially in my adjustment into motherhood, I wish I could do more or see more people but when I shrink these goals down to my neighbourhood, it all fits in much better and my heart feels more at peace. Life is so much sweeter together.

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We don’t know how long we’ll live here, it’s so beautiful and really quite a dream, but it always feels temporary, between the visa juggling, the long haul trips between us and our families, and the smoggy burning season when for two months, the AQI air quality measure recommends that “active children and adults, and people with respiratory disease, such as asthma, should avoid all outdoor exertion; everyone else, especially children, should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.” 

We are still trying to figure out if and when we’ll resettle in North America. I fluctuate between fear of losing what we’ve found here, and being optimistic that we can build community wherever we go. We are planning to spend some prolonged time with family this spring in the US (leaving the smoggy months behind). At some point before then, we’ll have to decide if we’ll return to Thailand after that… or not. But wherever we go next, I know we’ll make sure there’s enough room and potential to create another village.

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