The highs and lows of parenting without support
"It takes a village to raise a child" they say...
And I think "they" may have a valid point!
Humans are social animals by nature. Our ancient ancestors lived in tribes, working together as a team, and that's where we formed the social habits we still have today.
For generations, it's been the norm for young couples to set up home close to where they grew up. Parents and siblings just round the corner. Plenty of cousins for the kids to play with. Childhood friends having kids at the same time.
But for the millennial generation, migration is much more the norm. Many move away for university or go travelling around the world. Relationships are formed with partners from far-off places and many make roots in their adopted cities or countries. For those who go on to start families there, parenting can be a much lonelier journey.
My partner Darren and I did exactly that. We live in Leeds in the north of England, but we’re both southern imposters. I moved here for university 20 years ago, found a great job after graduating and never left. He moved here with an ex girlfriend at a similar time, set up a business and settled.
20 years on, we've bought a house here and started a family. Subsequently, the majority of our little girl's relatives are all hundreds of miles away.
My dear mum - who definitely would have travelled to offer us some support - sadly passed away 5 years ago, before Lula was even conceived. Her other grandparents aren’t really the “regular sleepover” type and even if they were, the 500 mile round trip is a wee bit of a stretch for a child free night!
As a result, we're very much going it alone.
Of course there are pros and cons, but from my experience, and many others I've spoken to in the same situation, the negative effects are felt daily...
1. No Day-To-Day Support
Held up at work when your child needs collecting from nursery? You're on your own! There's no one else to pick them up, give them their dinner and keep them entertained until you're free to collect them. When your child gets ill you have no choice but to take the day off too.
If you're in need of a break, there's no one to take them out to the park for an afternoon or have them overnight so you and your partner can have a little "us" time. In fact, if you fancy letting your hair down on a Friday night, it's always overshadowed by the fear of dealing with any night-time wake ups while drunk and, worse, entertaining little ones while hungover.
2. The Lack of Moral Support
If you're having a rough day, you can't pop round to your sister's house for a cup of tea and a natter, offloading while the kids play together. There's no dropping in at Grandma's at the weekend and letting her cook a meal for you all while you unwind after a stressful week.
Sure, you can always jump on the phone for a chat or have a video call, but it's never the respite you desperately need. Any time we do get a proper night with close friends or family, I usually end up an emotional wreck due to the relief of offloading!
3. No Child-Free Events
Any special occasions where kids aren’t invited generally means one of you is missing out too. We recently got invited to a family wedding with a "no kids" policy. A dream come true for many parents who've got options for overnight care.
For families like us though, it means one of us simply cannot attend, so they're stuck at home for the weekend while the other travels solo, stays at a hotel alone, acts as gooseberry on the night, which is all pretty depressing.
4. The Cost of "Free Time"
Whether it's nursery, playgroups, childminders or babysitters, getting care for your little ones is so expensive it’s often just not worth the cost. Many parents find they're actually worse off going to work and paying for childcare than they'd be if one of them just quit their job. It's certainly not do-able for us, so we've both become stay-at-home-work-at-home parents.
Nights out are insanely pricey as well. A few months ago, Darren and I had our first night out together since Lula was born - a visit to a local restaurant to celebrate his birthday. Once we'd settled the bill for the meal and drinks, taxis there-and-back and paid the babysitter, we were about £160 down! Very expensive for a few hours alone together!
When it came to my birthday a few months later, we opted instead to go for a family lunch, bringing Lula along. No time alone, but at least we weren't left skint for the experience.
5. The Lack of Family Relationship Building
The sad fact is, when you don't see much of your family, it's very difficult for your children to build a close relationship with family members.
Even when you do your best with Facetime, speaking every weekend to help build recognition, there is always that shyness when it comes to meeting in person. That awkward first hour of "this is grandad...remember?" while your child clings to your leg, staring apprehensively at a disappointed face.
For us, this has also resulted in an inability to leave Lula with anyone overnight, even if we were up for the long drive. She just hasn't built a strong enough relationship with most of her family to be comfortable saying goodbye to Mummy and Daddy for a weekend. The idea of getting away for a couple's retreat is just a pipe dream.
6. The Feeling of Envy
When you don't have any help, it’s very hard not to feel envious of those who do have strong support networks nearby.
When I'm at the park or a playgroup with Lula, I can't help but feel a pang of sadness when I see lovely older couples playing with their grandkids. When mum friends tell me about their parents looking after their toddler for several days each week for free, while they go to work, I find myself smiling insincerely while thinking " you jammy beggar".
Feeling bitterness towards others for others for things they have that you don't is horrible and can put unnecessary strain on relationships.
Of course it's not all doom and gloom!
Reframing your perspective and focussing on the positives can help and there are some...
1. No Interference or Judgement
When I was doing baby led weaning with Lula it shocked me how many mums on BLW Facebook groups were going through huge stress dealing with the opinions of their parents and in-laws. Some of them would point-blank refuse to follow their chosen feeding methods when the baby was in their care, which must be incredibly difficult to deal with as new parent.
We've never had any interference with, or judgement of the choices we've made for Lula. No one telling us we're doing anything wrong. If family have disapproved, it's been from afar so we've been blissfully unaware!
2. Fewer Obligations
There's no polite-but-awkward entertaining of your in-laws on a Sunday who popped round when you were just about to cosy up on the sofa for a movie.
If you don't want to go to a big family do, you don't have to. No one is judging you for not turning up to little Suzie's christening when it’s a 10 hour round trip and £200 hotel bill.
Darren and I pick and choose the events we go to, and make the most of the ones we do attend, but if we feel like doing nothing, we can, and often do (as an introvert, this suits Darren just fine!)
3. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
When you only have each other to rely on, you have no choice but to work as a team, even when you don't want to. Of course all parents have to do this, but when there is no else around to pick up the slack occasionally, it becomes even more essential.
Plans have to be discussed and reshuffled regularly. There's a lot of give-and-take to help each other out which encourages empathy and understanding. There's no room for selfish pursuits - it's teamwork or nothing.
4. Pride in Your Achievements
There is a certain sense of achievement that comes from bringing up a healthy, happy child without relying on anyone. As hard as it may be, the knowledge that you’ve managed it all by yourself reassures you that you are stronger than you know! Even if you feel like a weak, crumbly mess a lot of the time, you gain a lot of strength from overcoming the additional challenges.
But I don't think any of these advantages could ever replace the comfort and security of having a supportive family network around you.
For those of you shouting "quit moaning and move house already!" - you're right! It was our choice to move away from our home towns. No one forced us to live here. We're both from down south and could move closer to relatives if we really wanted to.
But the problem is, the more roots you lay down, the harder it becomes to leave. You make friends, get a job, buy a house, set up a business, have kids and get them into a school they love... until moving "back home" just becomes too much of an upheaval.
Plus, when you've lost a parent, "home" is never really the place it used to be anyway.
That’s why my biggest piece of advice to younger couples who intend to have kids, but haven’t yet laid their foundations, is just to give a little consideration to the realities of parenting without a “village”.
I’d never want to dampen anyone’s adventurous spirit, but I do think it’s important to appreciate the additional challenges of doing it alone.
Parenting is already hard AF. Doing it without a tribe can be one of the most isolating experiences in the world.