Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Yearning for Tribal Times

Welcome to the May 2012 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Parenting With or Without Extended Family

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how relatives help or hinder their parenting. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

One evening several weeks ago, I was standing at the stove cooking mac & cheese with beef & peas, a version of one of my family's go-to meals when I don't know what else to make for dinner. It's a delicious one bowl meal with four of the food groups represented, and it's fairly simple. Anyone who has made a cream sauce knows, though, that if you don't stir it often enough, you'll either burn the milk or end up with a lumpy, inconsistent mess.

That day I had just happened to ruin Daniel's nap by going on an errand in the morning, and he had slept for a total of maybe fifteen minutes in the car. My brother Matthew (who lives with us) had also decided to spend the afternoon out of the house. He had planned to be back in time for dinner prep, but later called to say he would be coming home around dinnertime instead.

So there I was, juggling taking care of a cranky toddler who wanted to eat all the uncooked macaroni, while also sauteing beef and peas, boiling pasta, and making a cream sauce. As I was failing miserably at multitasking (and my sauce was getting lumpy) I started to think about how different it was not to have my brother around to spend a few minutes with Daniel: keeping him from starting the dishwasher, pulling the knife off the counter, and pulling my pants down as he demanded asked sweetly for more juice.

Dinner got on the table over an hour later than planned that evening.

Perhaps very appropriately, I had been watching the show "Cake Boss" that afternoon. Do you know the show? It's about a Hoboken, New Jersey baker named Buddy, who makes elaborate high-end cakes. Much of the show's plot revolves around his large Italian family and their antics and drama. One of Buddy's sisters isn't very skilled at cooking and the rest of the family is always picking on her for it—but really, because of the proximity of her extended family members, she doesn't really need to know how to cook. Just like in a tribe or communal living situation: each individual has her strengths, and no one person has to do everything.

Most of us, however, live (relatively) alone. We have to either be experts on everything or create our own tribe to help us get through. When we lived in communal situations, not everyone had to be good at cooking. An at-home (in-hut?) parent didn't have to worry much about her children getting scalded (or eaten by a wild animal) while she sat at the fire cooking dinner, because other parents and older children would be looking after her little ones.

As I stood at my stove stirring the sauce (and hoping for the best) while Daniel unloaded twenty pounds of juicing apples onto our dining table, I thought about how exhausting it is to be caring for someone else and not be able to care for myself fully all the time. I was unshowered (having planned to shower during Daniel's nap, which then never happened) and I was hungry. I was still giving-giving-giving to my family, even though my tank was on empty. I felt frustrated. The only way I've been able to fully, effectively care for myself in the past two years is by asking for and accepting a lot of help. I realize that our situation is a bit different from the average family because of Daniel's special needs but still—I know I'm not the only one struggling with balancing family obligations and self care.

In the tribe though, each member's strengths are utilized, and her weaknesses are made up for by the strengths of others. If nighttime parenting isn't your forte, the night owl would take a shift with your colicky infant. If cooking isn't your niche, the grandmother would make food for everyone. If you're not the best at organizing, your neighbor could tidy your hut while you watched all the kiddos!

I long for this kind of living situation, where we can all rely on each other to give and take equally. Where I would get a shower and some alone time on a regular basis, in exchange for doing the meal prep for others who don't enjoy it.

I've cherished the alloparenting moments since my brother has been with us, because it takes the pressure off of all of us. That's what I see as the beauty of the tribal model of living: no one person has to be everything to everyone; no one has to stay patient and calm with a screaming baby while also doing ten different things.

I only wish we could all have a little more of that relief in our lives!

Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
(This list will be live and updated by afternoon May 8 with all the carnival links.)
  • Dealing With Unsupportive Grandparents — In a guest post at Natural Parents Network, The Pistachio Project tells what to do when your child's grandparents are less than thrilled about your parenting choices.
  • Parenting With Extended Family — Jenny at I'm a full-time mummy shares the pros and cons of parenting with extended family...
  • Parental Support for an AP Mama — Meegs at A New Day talks about the invaluable support of her parents in her journey to be an AP mama.
  • Priceless GrandparentsThat Mama Gretchen reflects on her relationship with her priceless Grammy while sharing ways to help children preserve memories of their own special grandparents.
  • Routines Are Meant To Be Broken — Olga at Around The Birthing Ball urges us to see Extended Family as a crucial and necessary link between what children are used to at home and the world at large.
  • It Helps To Have A Village – Even A Small One — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama discusses how she has flourished as a mother due to the support of her parents.
  • The Orange Week — Erika at Cinco de Mommy lets go of some rules when her family finally visits extended family in San Diego.
  • One Size Doesn't Fit All — Kellie at Our Mindful Life realizes that when it comes to family, some like it bigger and some like it smaller.
  • It Takes a Family — Alicia at What's Next can't imagine raising a child without the help of her family.
  • A new foray into family — As someone who never experienced close extended family, Lauren at Hobo Mama wrestles with how to raise her kids — and herself — to restart that type of community.
  • My Mama Rocks! — Kat at Loving {Almost} Every Moment is one lucky Mama to have the support and presence of her own awesome Mama.
  • Embracing Our Extended Family — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now shares 7 ideas for nurturing relationships with extended family members.
  • Doing Things Differently — Valerie at Momma in Progress shares how parenting her children far away from extended family improved her confidence in her choices.
  • Snapshots of love — Caroline at stoneageparent describes the joys of sharing her young son's life with her own parents.
  • Parenting with Relies – A mixed bagUrsula Ciller shares some of her viewpoints on the pros and cons of parenting with relatives and extended family.
  • Tante and Uncles — How a great adult sibling relationship begets a great relationship with aunt and uncles from Jennifer at True Confessions of a Real Mommy.
  • Tips for Traveling With Twins — Megan at the Boho Mama shares some tips for traveling with infant twins (or two or more babies!).
  • Parenting passed through the generations — Shannon at Pineapples & Artichokes talks about the incredible parenting resource that is her found family, and how she hopes to continue the trend.
  • My Family and My Kids — Jorje of Momma Jorje ponders whether she distrusts her family or if she is simply a control freak.
  • Parenting with a Hero — Rachel at Lautaret Bohemiet reminisces about the relationship she shared with her younger brother, and how he now shares that closeness in a relationship with her son.
  • Text/ended Family — Kenna of A Million Tiny Things wishes her family was around for the Easter egg hunt... until she remembers what it's actually like having her family around.
  • Two Kinds of Families — Adrienne at Mommying My Way writes about how her extended family is just as valuable to her mommying as her church family.
  • My 'high-needs' child and 'strangers' — With a 'high-needs' daughter, aNonyMous at Radical Ramblings has had to manage without the help of family or friends, adapting to her daughter's extreme shyness and allowing her to socialise on her own terms.
  • Our Summer Tribe — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger shares a love of her family's summer reunion, her secret to getting the wisdom of the "village" even as she lives 1,000 miles away.
  • My Life Boat {Well, One of Them} — What good is a life boat if you don't get it? Grandparents are a life boat MomeeeZen loves!
  • Dear Children — In an open letter to her children, Laura at Pug in the Kitchen promises to support them as needed in her early days of parenting.
  • Yearning for Tribal Times — Ever had one of those days where everything seems to keep going wrong? Amy at Anktangle recounts one such day and how it inspired her to think about what life must've been like when we lived together in large family units.
  • I don't have a village — Jessica Claire at Crunchy-Chewy Mama wishes she had family nearby but appreciates their support and respect.
  • Trouble With MILs-- Ourselves? — Jaye Anne at Wide Awake Half Asleep explains how her arguments with her mother-in-law may have something to do with herself.
  • A Family Apart — Melissa at Vibrant Wanderings writes about the challenges, and the benefits, of building a family apart from relatives.
  • First Do No Harm — Zoie at TouchstoneZ asks: How do you write about making different parenting choices than your own family experience without criticizing your parents?
  • Military Family SeparationAmy Willa shares her feelings about being separated from extended family during her military family journey.
  • Forging A Village In The Absence Of One — Luschka from Diary of a First Child writes about the importance of creating a support network, a village, when family isn't an option.
  • Respecting My Sister’s Parenting Decisions — Dionna at Code Name: Mama's sister is guest posting on the many roles she has as an aunt. The most important? She is the named guardian, and she takes that role seriously.
  • Multi-Generational Living: An Exercise in Love, Patience, and Co-Parenting — Boomerang Mama at The Other Baby Book shares her experience of moving back in with Mom and Dad for 7 months, and the unexpected connection that followed.
  • A Heartfelt Letter to Family: Yes, We're Weird, but Please Respect Us Anyway — Sheila of A Living Family sincerely expresses ways she would appreciate her extended family’s support for her and her children, despite their “weird” parenting choices.
  • The nuclear family is insane! — Terri at Child of the Nature Isle is grateful for family support, wishes her Mum lived closer, and feels an intentional community would be the ideal way to raise her children.


  1. So well said! I tend to like my space, so I don't always see the value people place on the tribal ideal, but then I wasn't raised in a tribal society myself. I can absolutely relate to the need for balance between self-care and care of a family, however, and now that you mention it, I think I could really get used to living among a tribe of my own! The situation with your brother seems like a beautiful thing for all of you - a nice start!

    1. I like my space, too, which is why I feel conflicted about the idea of a tribe, because the way it plays out in our modern culture seems to always involve meddling, guilt, and lots of obligation. I don't know if there's really any ideal living situation where everyone gets their needs met, but I'm hopeful that I'll figure it out (for myself) someday!

  2. Wow – I’d never really thought of having a village in this way before – in trading through strengths. I guess my concept of a village has always been kind of ethereal – this vague notion of “help.” But having never truly experienced it, I’d not fathomed that I could cut out those parts I’m bad at (planning ahead! Choosing recipes that use up random perishable food!). Now I want more than ever to start that commune!!

    1. Yes--let's do it! I do like to think about it in terms of strengths, but I'm not sure it would actually play out that way (with the way we're taught to place high value on independence, and all). It's nice to dream about an ideal "tribal" arrangement, though!

  3. I agree and often wish for a more tribal time as well. Or a more tribal mindset within our current time, as other countries seem to have. I think parenting in our modern times (especially in the USA) is the most difficult parenting has ever been because we have to be present for and the experts on EVERYTHING - from our children's healthcare to their nutrition, from playtime to sleeptime. Combine that with the cost of living and (in my case) both parents having to work and little-to-no maternity/paternity leave, there's an exorbitant amount of pressure on parents.

    Like you pointed out, there's just no relief like there would be in villages or closer communities. My family is over an hour away, my inlaws an ocean way, and my own mom deceased. About a month ago I was so very ill and caring for an equally ill child, with no one to help me. It can be very difficult.

    But I try to be grateful for what I do have, which is my husband, financial freedom in case of emergencies, a circle of friends ready to listen and support. We are at the point of having to create our own tribes, and also have a unique opportunity to model resiliency and prioritizing for our children.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Carrie! I totally agree with you that it's partly (if not mostly) a societal problem in the US: with lack of adequate parental leave, childcare, and plenty of other outside support, families just aren't set up to succeed. =( I wish I knew how to change that!

  4. My husband's sister and her husband lived with my in-laws before during and after the birth of their 2 children. In fact, my SIL never had to be solely responsible for the care of her children because Grandma was always there to swoop in. For those children, they have the best relationship with their grandparents because they have always been close. The people groups who are known for multigeneraltional living really have something... I don't know that now I would be able to do it since we've been on our own since the beginning, but sometimes, it would be so wonderful to have another adult to come in and spell me if I were too worn to think calmly.

    1. It has been an adjustment for all of us, having my brother move in with us, so I can definitely relate to your thoughts about doing it on your own since the beginning and how difficult that change could be. I'm not sure I (personally) would want someone available to "swoop in" because working through the difficult times more alone has strengthened my confidence and resolve as a parent. ...But, looking back, it would definitely have been nice to have some available respite (in the form of a close relative) during the hardest times.

  5. You are speaking to me, with this post. All of this you are describing is what prompted me to create A Living Family. I figure, if I can't have my family, for whatever reason, then I can create a family for my children, a tribe to grow with. I love your focus on strengths. This is precisely how I envision things as well. We are just starting up an Urban Homesteading Coop with a Life Learning Coop to follow. I think as A Living Family grows and so does my family that I will begin to feel my tribe a bit more. That is my hope, at least....
    Thanks for sharing,

    1. What a gift you're giving your family by creating your own tribe, Sheila! I'm working at it, too...a little at a time. =)

  6. So very true. I wish we had a community like that, though of course I've made my own decisions not to have one. I do love the idea of not needing to be adept at all things (because, heaven knows, I am not), and of course, I looove the idea of not needing to be the only one caring for my kids all the time. It's lovely when people are visiting or we're at a party and I can let my kids go off with someone or other without any guilt or worry. I wish that sort of thing could happen more often. I also wish, incidentally, that we lived nearer to you!

    1. I wish our families lived closer together, too, Lauren! <3 I second everything you've said, really, and I feel sad that this isn't easier to come by for people who want it.

  7. Yes! The idea of a tribe is certainly appealing and lacking in our society! I too have been outnumbered by tasks and children and just feel so done...and I can usually rely on my mama to help out, but not always...she has a life too! We are moving four hours away next month and I sure am gonna miss her!

    1. Aww, that transition will be challenging for everyone, I'm sure! Four hours isn't that far, though--definitely not too far for visits. I hope your move goes smoothly!

  8. Hey, my brother recently moved in with my family too! He's quite a bit younger than me, got laid off from his job, and just needed a safe place to land while he sorted out his life. We already have a housemate, so my three bedroom house now contains four adults, one toddler (and one fetus, due to be born in late July), and two dogs. Whew!

    I have to say, I spend about half of my time bemoaning the fact that I have NO PRIVACY (like, I can't even have a nice, normal marital spat with my husband without it being totally public, arrrgggghhh) and the other half of my time wondering how other parents, who don't have two other adults in the household to step in and help out, manage it!

    Living in more of a community like this ... it has its benefits and its drawbacks. There are, um, a LOT of interpersonal relationships to deal with, if you know what I mean. Lots of potential for conflict and passive aggressive behavior and all that fun stuff. But then, we also have free babysitting (with people that my little boy Joe, who is very shy, really trusts and gets along with), lots of people to entertain and dote on Joe, and the generally convivial atmosphere. Of course, it's not my brother's job or my housemate's job to look after Joe - that's still our job as parents. So sometimes we get tired and there is no one available to help out. But many other times, it can really make the difference. Like when I'm trying to make a cream sauce.

    I actually grew up on a commune, and I think that had similar benefits and drawbacks for my parents, although I remember only the positive. But living with so many people now, I don't usually romanticize "tribal" living, because there is some actual work involved in getting along with so many people at close quarters, that I think gets forgotten when you live in a nuclear family and you're pining for better times. Like all things, it's a mix of good and not-so-good. But I know I would miss my housemates dreadfully if they left.

  9. I can definitely relate to trying to get everything done (food, baby laundry, household, etc) plus look after a super active toddler. It sounds so much like our life at times! I have had the comment, "You should wash your hair more often... look after your appearance a bit better..." (track pants have little ones porridge all over them). I just have to say, "Yeh, when I have time, energy, and motivation!"

  10. This is incredibly true! I would also love to have some people closer to me in proximity who are willing to help out. Most of my friends do not have children or even have friends with children, so when they are around I feel guilty asking them for help even if I am making a meal for them! This "independent, self-sufficient" mindset not only causes us to have to do it alone, but there is a sort of requirement to have to learn it alone too. And that's just inefficient. Great post!

  11. This is a great post. I could feel what you described. I agree. And now that we've got this magical way of connecting with like minded others.. it's a bit more frustrating. If only we all could live closer.
    I hope you find ways to get those showers and maybe some other comforts for yourself.

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