There is wisdom in the cliché that it takes a village to raise a child.
It’s a polite way of saying if a parent doesn’t have help from friends and/or family, their brain will trickle out of their ear-holes thanks to exhaustion and the unshakeable sense that they’re doing a crappy job of everything. Everything. Crucially, it acknowledges the reality that children benefit from being nurtured by a generous range of people.
During this lockdown, I’ve been attempting to educate, stimulate, feed, console and referee two small children at the same time as trying to prevent the house from looking like that trash compactor in Star Wars. All this, in addition to the trifling matter of earning a living as a freelancer – I should add that I have a fantastic husband, who shares the load equally, and I can’t begin to imagine how tough this must be for single parents – has left me dreaming about how family life could be more manageable once this is all over.
I’m now ready to admit that I’ve been imagining some sort of modern and pragmatic version of a commune. I’m not talking about patchouli, sex cults or compulsory mung beans, you understand. I’m talking about pooling time, skills, care, common space and other resources.
Imagine living in a neighbourhood where everyone has similar values and where everyone likes and helps each other. Allow me, if you will, to describe this silly notion.
First of all, everyone would live in their own homes and have all the privacy they desire. It’s important to respect this. It shouldn’t be a compound. Individuals can even stick a little ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the front door if they don’t want unplanned pop-ins – something I’m not a big fan of.
Ideally, though, the houses would be built on shared land; everyone would have their own little private garden, but there’d be a large patch of communal greenery where children could run free and wild, safe in the knowledge that everyone would always look out for them. In our normal lives, not many of us can afford a massive garden with decent play equipment, but perhaps if resources were shared these kinds of things could be affordable.
Children would, of course, attend their usual schools, but extra learning would always be on hand. If one of the grown-ups was good at, say, carpentry, baking, music, art, star-gazing, growing vegetables or whatever, kids could join in and try something new, or keep at it with something they already enjoyed. Frightened of maths? Struggling to explain the point of a grammatical rule? Maybe there’d be neighbours who loved those sorts of thing and could help out. I’m useless at most things, but would happily volunteer to be the person who does a bunch of crafts with the kids.
I think it’s really important for kids to have pals of all ages, and I include friendships with adults in that. While some children are lucky enough to have relationships with aunts, uncles and grandparents, many don’t, and I reckon it would be lovely for proxies to be on hand if they ever need to talk through their problems with adults who aren’t their own parents.
For obvious reasons, parenting burn-out is an aching problem at the moment. But even before the pandemic struck, a lot of people were over-stretched, either because they didn’t have a natural network to help, because they couldn’t afford childcare, or because they had to work like crazy in order to afford it. Wouldn’t it be lovely for childcare to be shared in a more fluid way, with more scope for spontaneity and a stronger sense that we’re all wanting the best for each other?
In this idealised world I’m dreaming of, older people would be welcomed and valued too. We’re always hearing about enlightened arrangements in Scandinavia, where younger, poorer people get to live rent-free with elders in return for help and company. I really do feel that we can all be the best version of ourselves when we feel valued as part of something bigger.
When the pandemic is finally behind us there’s a good chance that a lot more people will be working from home – or at least more flexibly – than they were before, so it would also make sense to be able to share some relevant resources to make this function more effectively. Instead of a bunch of households struggling with their shitty, cheap printer, for example, why not club together for a decent one and let everyone use it? Or create a shared office space that people can use when things are too noisy at home?
And how about saving money by buying basics in bulk and splitting the cost while cutting down on waste? Or taking it in turns to do batch cooking so your pals could have the occasional night off kitchen duty?
Sharing the load
The whole idea is fraught with risks, of course. Anyone who’s ever shared a home will know that someone always ends up feeling taken advantage of when it comes to labour, and there’s always someone who definitely takes the piss.
Anyone who’s ever lived in any sort of close community will also know how easy it is for tiny gripes to grow muscles: some folks might get too bossy while others can’t be bothered, and people – their priorities, tastes, values and relationships – change. How do you make allowances for these potential shifts? Do you begin with a committee and a code of conduct, and end up hiring someone to act as a sort of manager or factor?
Or do you simply do what I’m doing right now: just dream about it, acknowledging that you barely have the wherewithal to get on a group Zoom call these days, let alone plan a lifestyle revolution? Perhaps we should all just start with promising ourselves we’ll make more of an effort with our neighbours…