The Alt.Family were fortunate this week to spend some time with our good friends at their farm community in beautiful Herefordshire. Alt.Father was enthusiastically wheeling compost in the vegetable gardens, while Alt.D1 and her friend ran around in the sunshine kicking footballs, riding bikes, picking up stones and generally getting grubby. Alt.D2 worked on her sitting-up skills, and for me it was a chance to catch up with a good friend who I don't see nearly often enough.
I have heard it said that the friends you make while you are breastfeeding are often some of the closest. This is apparently because of all the oxytocin and other love hormones going on in your body. While these are supposed to be primarily for the benefit of your relationship with your baby, there are side-effects which reach out and intensify the other relationships you are forming at the time.
When Alt.D1 was born, I began to appreciate how far away geographically Alt.Father and I actually are from our extended family. Grandparents and great-grandparents are upwards of 2 hours travel, and the nearest siblings about the same distance away. Our children would be growing up without Aunties and Uncles and cousins in the next street, or even the next county. Although we have email and phone and skype, we would have to find our own way through the parenting minefield without the constant presence of the former generations of our family. I can see how those distances might not seem far to some, but to us, it was and still is, far enough to make a difference.
As a mother, I found myself on the circuit of mum and baby groups, classes, coffee mornings and get-togethers. Throughout my year long maternity leave, I was drawn to people with similar ideas about parenting, and from them I started to learn more about myself. Although we were getting on with the parenting part of life, other things were taking a back burner. Jobs around the house and garden that were impossible to tackle with a baby on your hip were filed under "A" for Another Time. Alt.Father suggested that what was needed was something like an old style community, a tribe, where the mothers would get together to carry out the daily tasks while the big kids watched the little kids and everyone helped each other out... he might have been being a tad idealistic, but was he wrong?
In the rose-tinted past, before we created methods of communication that made it easier to be further apart from each other, families stayed local. Sons and daughters learned from their parents and other elders in the community, and were often able to rely on friends and neighbours for support. Do you know the names of your next-door neighbours? How about the people either side of them? Or the ones that live opposite? I know my immediate neighbours, but not many more than those, and I am slightly ashamed to admit that.
If you look to developing nations where tribal living is still commonplace, you can see the benefits. You don't hear of problems with breastfeeding. Support and encouragement for that, as well as all the other aspects of being new parents (both mother and father of course - this is about so much more than just mothering, and not all about breastfeeding) is readily available. I'm not saying it's all great, but there must be a reason that our ancestors chose to live in tribes.
These days we are in a fortunate position that we are able to choose our own tribe. Our neighbours might not be our first choice, but some of the mothers I have met in the first four years of my parenthood have somehow come together to make a new kind of community.
A while ago I read an article by Teresa Pitman entitled "Finding Your Tribe". The author echoed Alt.Father's words about old fashioned communities. I got together with a group of local mothers, to talk about parenting, to carry out tasks and to offer each other some support. A little tribe was forming, and it is in no small way thanks to those women that I made it through some of the difficult challenges I faced as a first time mother.
I have been thinking about the ways we reach out for new tribes in our modern daily life. Whether it is through neighbours, toddler groups, or internet forums, mothers at least are drawn to each other. Teresa Pitman says:
"We truly are social animals; we need to be with other people to feel good, whole, and happy. It's worth the effort to create tribes, however small and imperfect they may be."
Sadly, most of the families in the little tribe that Alt.D1 and I belonged to have moved on in one way or another. But sitting with our babies on the grass in the sunshine in Herefordshire this week, as my friend worked on a decorating project, I was reminded of how it had felt in those days. Our first-born babies were tiny little things, and it had been their arrival that had caused us to seek out likeminded people for support.
My friend and her family are now part of a bigger tribe in their farm community, emphasising to me the need of human beings to be part of something.
No man is an island, and nor is any family.