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Practical Wisdom for Single Parents, Part II: Raising Your Village

Raising your village is vital for your self-renewal as a human, to your continuing education as a parent, and to nurturing your children as they richly deserve. Demonstrate love and caring for the community that is lucky to have you, and extend the chain of love and goodwill beyond your family.

© 1998, by Jay Ann Cox

Once you have done your homework and your self-work, you are ready to start reaching out beyond the closeness of your single-parent family. Naturally, you are probably already making a lot of contact with people who can nurture you and your children. But if you have even a rough plan in mind, you will make leaps and bounds of progress, and kick your single-parent life into high gear. The rest of this article will help you create and seek out the role models and networks of people that will populate your village.

Looking Up

Everyone has a role model. Growing up necessitates looking up to someone and emulating their qualities. In early childhood, this person is usually a parent or teacher; in adolescence, much to our parents' dismay, role models can be anyone from rock stars and football players to supermodels or peers. Role models have really only one requirement: they must be a character or person that you can connect with who has qualities worth our attention.

Often our role models are fictional. When I was a child, I held the Lone Ranger in great esteem, and pretended I was every lady rancher in every cornball western I used to watch. I also thought Jo of Little Women was very very cool. If you or your children have fictional role models, there is nothing at all wrong with you! Nurture your creative imagination and learn from your children's flights of fancy.

I once adopted TV character Jessica Fletcher (actress Angela Lansbury) as my mother, during a stormy period with my own mother. What's not to like about the star of "Murder She Wrote"? She is beautiful, successful, she's a writer, and she's got her own show! Discover who your role models are, wherever they are, and then study them closely.

However, characters in a novel or on TV can't talk back, even if you do read the book six or seven times a year, or never miss a show. Acquiring real-life role models is an important skill to learn, and to teach to your children. Make a list of the people around you that you admire. Ask yourself what parts of their lives do you want to emulate; the good part is that you don't have to aspire to be just like anyone. You can view it as a "role model buffet" and take little bits here and there, maybe seconds of something you truly admire.

Now that you've got a list of the qualities in these people you treasure, you might be able to approach them with questions, ideas, or requests for support. Ask them how they have pursued their life of excellence, and then model your own pursuit on theirs, giving yourself credit for being unique and having your own path to follow. If you are lucky, you might be able to have a relationship with your role model. Invite them to lunch or coffee and enjoy a relaxing chat. Remember that your role models are human, so don't be disappointed if there is a chink in the gleaming armor of your White Knight.

Be exhaustive in your search for role models. Without a goal ahead of you, your quest for your village is going to be a muddled and long one. Check in with your past role models, from college, another town, your childhood. Your recent parenthood is an excellent opportunity to make contact, or put them on your holiday card list. See if they still fit the idea of your village. If they don't, then you can take this difference as a measure of how you've grown.

Try as you might, not everyone will enroll in your idea of "village." People often grow apart, and parenthood is often the great dividing line between former friends. I had friends in graduate school who were my pinnacle of literary success and cutting edge wit. We used to laugh for hours during enjoyable encounters over the billiards table. When I became pregnant, I could feel the chill winds begin to blow. Sure enough, these friends drifted off into some arctic friendship zone. Perhaps they had always been distant, and I hadn't noticed, or perhaps the addition of a child to the mix somehow disqualified me as a member of "the club." I miss those people, and have sought their published works to read up and stay in touch. But I feel no remorse at all. People who have no room in their lives for me as a family have no room in our lives either.

Finally, be a role model. It sounds pat, but it works. If you become the role model for other parents, you have a certain standard to uphold, in your own heart. At times, this duty might feel burdensome, but by holding your own as a role model, you might be able to rise above the crabbiness that can keep you moping around the house in your robe some days, snapping at the kids, not returning phone calls. You are also a role model to your own children, who are watching your every move, like it or not. If you want to live with crabby, whiney couch potato kids, then go ahead -- live the couch potato lifestyle. But be prepared to accept the consequences!

Hooking Up Your Network

Networking is the 90s term for hanging out, visiting, mingling, meeting and greeting, and making new connections with people. Many opportunities to network can be daunting if you don't have two of the business networker's favorite tools: a 10 word blurb and a business card. If you don't have a quick and dirty version of who you are, write one that includes your family and one or two ideas that spark conversation. Example: "Hi, I'm Jay and this is my son Charlie aka Cox & Son. Charlie is my junior partner in a family business of writing, consulting, and playing." Or "Hi, I'm Jay and this is Charlie who is 2.5. We just moved here from Texas and we need new friends!" This blurb gives someone the chance to say, "Texas! we have family there," or "My son is 2.5 too!"

A business card for the family can be easily done on your home computer: include your kids and their ages and your phone number, e-mail -- whatever information you feel comfortable handing out. You can hand this card to that busy mom you chatted with at the library -- you remember her, she's the one with the trampoline in her back yard who was looking for the best ice cream parlor in town? If she has your card, she might call you to bring the kids over to jump themselves silly some time! Be sure to take some chocolate chocolate chip just for the parents to eat secretly while the kids jump around.

More organized forums for networking with other parents exist, and can nurture your question for knowledge as well as companionship. La Leche League International is a 40-year old organization devoted to breastfeeding information and other family arts. Membership is low-cost, meetings are free and are held at least once a month in small communities, more often in larger cities. Other groups such as F.E.M.A.L.E., MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers), Parents Without Partners, Single Mothers by Choice, and Attachment Parenting International have local chapters and meetings. Some of these groups welcome children at meetings, other deem the meetings sacred space for parents to be adults.

Sacred space is also a good place to find like-minded folks to be in your village. Go to church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or prayer meeting. Visit the church nursery or playroom, walk with your children to their Sunday school classroom, be open to meeting other moms and dads. Most importantly, introduce yourself to the minister or religious education director. They are fine-tuned to answer your questions and welcome you. If you aren't immediately welcomed, go somewhere different next Sunday. If you are a longstanding member of the congregation, you might need to remind the minister of this fact, and look for ways to re-connect: serve on a committee, teach your child's religious education class, or hang around the water fountain!

More localized groups meet for play in the park, afterschool activities, or weekend potlucks. Check the community bulletin boards at your daycare center, preschool, school, church, or newspaper to find contact information. We belonged to a playgroup that met at a local park once a week. Even though most of us were either chasing our children the whole time, or sitting on a bench nursing the baby and watching the other mothers chasing children, it was often enough to know there was a couple of hours a week that we could connect, swap stories and hand-me-downs, and get some fresh air.

Old Family/New Family

Sadly, while not everyone can welcome their family or blood kin into their village, it's never too late to start resolving family issues (remember to honor your boundaries!) and building new relationships with family. By at least trying, you are telling your children how important family is as well as modeling clear communication to them. If family gatherings are awkward, keep them short and give the unsure children or relatives concrete ways to interact. Bring along your big box of tissue paper and glue to make collages, hats, a mess. Keep photos handy, and have funny and cute stories to tell. Older children especially love to hear their baby stories from relatives, as long as they are not being humiliated or embarrassed. Depending on the occasion and mood, resist countering every one of those
ex-mother-in-law or well-meaning but clueless and childless sister comments. Your actions scream, so your words can be gentle, funny, or few, and you can still make your point.

When raising your village, you must frequently ask yourself "Who do I really want in my village?" If there's a deadbeat boyfriend, a mooching ex something-in-law, or a cranky grandmother, change your environment (you can't change them -- you don't have that kind of time!). Your village is your sacred space, and you get to decide who populates it. Figuratively speaking, give out tourist visas, but be selective about who gets to buy a house in your village.

If gift-giving and holidays are a real sore spot in your family, make sure you create space for your own family time, and begin preparing the extended family for what will happen as early as October. Make a list of the gifts you think your children will enjoy, and let everyone know you have a budget (even if you are in the chips, you should still make a budget for holiday gifts). One book I think every single parent must own is Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppack Staeheli. Here you will find great suggestions for creating a holiday that won't have you vowing to move to Bali before the next one.

If you are a natural joiner, or already have the extended tribe of family and friends, you might need to refocus and consider your family as the #1 priority. This notion is necessary, unfortunately, because our "tribe" has lost so much of its clanship, that we must constantly compare our needs as a nuclear family with those of the larger family and the community too. No one worth their salt will hate you for going to a Cub Scout meeting rather than an office Happy Hour.

Online and In Touch

And lastly, the best way to network is the Internet. Best, because of its availability (24x7), convenience (all you need is a modem and computer), the commute (just down the hall? across the room?), and required dress (are you really wearing that bathrobe again?). As with any
community-building tool, you can misuse the Internet, which can lead to further isolation and depression, but for the most part, it is a highly suitable tool for connecting with parents. I switched from real-time chat environments to e-mail when my son was born because I was frequently interrupted or away from the keyboard, which made real-time conversation maddening.

WARNING: Watch out for the Internet obesssion monster! If your children automatically look for you at the keyboard when they wake up or come home, you might be spending too much time there. Don't use the Internet to replace real live human beings, or you can suddenly begin talking in code while out in public -- very embarrassing.

But on those naked toddler days when the very sight of clothes and diapers sends them screaming back into bed, and you know the mention of getting into a hot carseat will send them into an emotional meltdown worthy of a soap opera cliffhanger, you can log on and surf the net, and throw out a lifeline to hundreds of invisible but real people with much in common.

If you need to break the ice, look for home pages and other web sites where there are bulletin boards. Write to the author of a page you admire, post a question on "Ask the Experts" here at The Entrepreneurial Parent, or register your own home page with a search engine. Join an e-mail list for parenting, your favorite hobby; read the newsgroups that engage and entertain you. A great resource for finding parenting, childbirth and related lists is http://www.netwalk.com/~moomin/link.html. After six years online (forever in Internet dog years), I have moved along and grown. My online friends form a varied and very different circle of support from my "real-life" circle, but both are meaningful and necessary to me. It took a while to learn the ropes of online relating, and I still make mistakes.

But I encourage you to just get online and enjoy yourself. Soon, you'll find the people behind the pages, or as I like to think of them, the people who live in your computer. And you will get to know them and even like them.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that your village is only as good as the people attracted to it, and people can't even see your village if you don't tell them, in some fashion, that you are looking for friends, connections, support, and kinship. After 2.5+ years of hard work and lots of rampant crabbiness, Cox & Son have dear friends who get the Charlie news hot off the press, who remind me that runny noses are not fatal, and that I am a warm and loving mother. A recent child care crisis was bearable because of the combined forces of my online and real-life networks: the information, support and critical analysis of the situation assisted me in resolving it with a minimum of trauma to the family.

Raising your village is vital for your self-renewal as a human, to your continuing education as a parent, and to nurturing your children as they richly deserve. Demonstrate love and caring for the community that is lucky to have you, and extend the chain of love and goodwill beyond your family. As philosopher John Lennon wrote, "The love you take is equal to the love you make."


Jay Ann Cox PhD works with entrepreneurs, women and families to improve the family-work fit. Her home-based business, Sarabi Consulting, offers tele-conference workshops on a variety of topics as well as individual mentoring and coaching. A single mother by choice since 1995, she has a lively home page, is a member of several online communities, an active volunteer at her church, and attends regular LLL meetings. She also has an occasional day of grumpy, robe-wearing hermitism. Jay is an EP Coach and our Single Parenting Expert. You can reach her via e-mail, , or her web sites, http://www.sarabi.com, http://www.apbiz.com, http://www.familycoaching.com

 
 
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