Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Raft instead of a Village

“Are you CRYING?!”

My 15 year old son reacted in alarm as he happened to glance over at my face as I was driving. 

(The very fact that this is an unusual occurrence these days says a lot.)

“Yeah.”

“Why?!”

I struggled to put it into words.  I had randomly thought of a couple who had lived on a street we had just passed, a young couple we were friends with, no children, who had been on staff and in church with me at a very difficult time in my life when I was becoming single and going back to work with three young children.  Based on the relationship we had, I had specifically reached out to them and asked if they could be a temporary part of my support team in the absence of family to help me with my kids.

They had politely declined, citing busy work, school and life schedules.

And I felt embarrassed for asking, and went on without their help.

And now, I had made it, without them, and didn’t need that kind of help anymore.

Weird reason to cry, I know.  But suddenly it had all come flooding back, the memory of my desperate day-to-day struggle to find child care and help ten years ago, when my kids were too young to be left alone, when they couldn’t drive themselves places, when every day was cobbling together tiny pieces of life and support wherever I could find it.

Memories also, of another young couple from our church, also on staff and working in the same department and living very close to me.  More than once they walked right past me making endless phone calls seeking childcare, or struggling with small children and bags of groceries, or needing other practical assistance with my house, without offering to step in, and making it abundantly clear with specific statements and deliberate behavior that they did not want to get involved in helping me unless it involved pay.  I’m pretty sure they weren’t trying to be mean, but rather thought they were doing the right thing establishing healthy boundaries for their personal lives.

So I redefined what “friendship” with them meant, and went on without their help.

I went on, without parents, without other family, and without much practical help from a church “family” who saw me every Sunday teaching children’s church or in the nursery and never really ever got what I was going through the other six days a week.

‘Cause I put a brave face on it, as best I could.  And somehow, there was always just enough help to get by on.  Not comfortably.   Not consistently.  But enough to keep from going under.

And eventually, there were others.  A sweet lady in my church who babysat for a living and watched all three of my kids come for the price of what she usually charged for one.  Another acquaintance, not in my church, who had taught my daughter sewing class, and watched my kids a few times for free.  A boss that let me bring my kids with me to work.  One family who sometimes picked up my son from Royal Rangers and took him home afterwards. And eventually, a children’s pastor and his wife who were at our church for a brief year and truly lived and understood what the words “church family” and “community” and “relationship” were supposed to mean- after years of emptiness there was actually someone at my church who would regularly offer to come pick up my kids for events and either bring them home or have them spend the night at their home afterwards. They were also the first ones in my own actual church to make me feel like they saw me as real family, and liked to be a part of my life instead of performing a reluctant Christian service when I asked for help. 

This meant a lot because I spent so much of my time agonizing over asking for the simplest “favors”- like once or twice a year asking another family with kids in an event with mine to pick them up or bring them home when I was working.  And when they did, but didn’t say, “sure, no trouble,” or act positive, or offer to do it again, I would obsess over whether they thought I was needy or taking advantage or asking too much, or if I should have offered them more gas money. Even when people were nice, I was always worried that I had asked one too many times.

(I since have realized that if this kind of relational and practical support isn’t a personal value of the pastors in the church, you aren’t likely to find it consistently functioning through the rest of people there, or in the church structure.  It has to be built in by the leaders as an intentional value.)

I felt like I had to profusely apologize for every time I asked a person not related to me for even the smallest bit of help, whether it was kid related, car related, or home maintenance related.  I would offer to pay people, and then when they would sometimes take it, I would realize that indeed, they didn’t feel any obligation to me as a friend or a sister in Christ or a fellow church member or whatever, and I was expected to stand on my own two feet.

And so I did, though it cost me a great deal.

The struggle was real.  But now, a big part of that was over.  The reason I was crying was that I suddenly realized with relief that I had made it to a new stage of life, and had actually been experiencing and enjoying it for while without realizing I had arrived.

The random acts of kindness from scattered individuals and friends at inconsistent times had gotten me through.  God in His goodness made sure I never went under the choppy waves of life and single parenthood.  I never got a cruise ship to rescue me, but there was always a raft or a life preserver – or I was given the strength to dog paddle.

(Lots of dog-paddling.)

And now.  Now my kids are 15, 17, and 18.  The need for child care and transportation help is totally past. Two are graduated from high school. The oldest two drive and I own two vehicles.  They are all supportive and helpful when I need it. 

The tears my son asked about were those of a mama had been paddling her little raft through the storm for years, and suddenly realized the waves had subsided and she had come into port.



This was a bit hard to put in words for my 15 year old.  But I tried.

He was silent a minute and then said, “Wow, okay.  That’s deep.”

Yeah, it was.  Thank God He brought us through the deep waters, and used those willing to be used.

Just want to shout out to those of you still in the choppy water of single parenting or isolated parenting with littles.  Hang in there.  God is good.  You will make it. Keep reaching out.  Some people will be there for you when others aren’t.  Forgive those who aren’t- it may seem like they are selfish (and maybe they are) or maybe they are just oblivious, or have their own private crisis you are unaware of.  And move on. Do your best alone when you have to. Keep looking for your tribe. If one person or one group of people lets you down, I promise, ask God and He will make it up to you, somehow, even if it is giving you the strength to dog paddle for a little while until you get to the next raft of support.

It does eventually get easier.  And on that note, another BIG shout out to the good people who were/are there for me- you know who you are.  I love you deeply and this blog is not in any way meant to minimize the help you gave and still give.

Beyond this, I have been interested to gradually realize that I am not the only one to experience the isolation and challenge of raising kids without a family, a tribe, or a village.  (In the Absence of a Village, Mothers Suffer Most.) It is an American phenomenon, affecting all demographics, and both two parent and one parent families. Most of us don’t live near extended families, don’t live in small close knit communities, and don’t interact much with our actual neighbors.  Most of us pay through the nose for decent childcare from people not related to us. Most churches don’t address or provide for this need for community and practical support.

Although I survived with sporadic support, and lived to tell about it, I am aware of how desperate it can get in the trenches. I don’t have any mind-blowing solutions except that as best we can in our fragmented culture we need to try to lend one another a hand.  Even if you can’t be someone’s everything long term, you can probably offer a ride or two, or take someone’s kids to the park once a month, or bring a sick family a meal or help someone move, or offer to help a single mom friend with car maintenance.  Whatever your thing is, someone would probably very much appreciate it. If you notice another family going to all the same events you do, offer to car-pool or ride share.  Moms with littles are desperate for household help they probably can’t afford- consider sending your tween or young teenage girls to be helpers for a day.  Or how about calling another mother with small children for a “mom date” at Chick-Fil-A while your kids all play?

Because even a little bit of help can be someone’s life preserver or raft when they are tired of dog-paddling.

It made all the difference in the world to me.





2 comments:

  1. Yes, this is very true. I've been there, where the water was over my head. And very few people in my life noticed or were helpful. Oh, but the ones who were!!

    I've also failed others miserably. Many times, that's when the water was over my head. But not always. Thank you for the grace you extend to those who didn't help!

    May we be people who love God by loving one another in practical, thoughtful, and glorious ways! All praise to God who delivered you to today!

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  2. So true, that our modern lives make community so very hard. Just as you've said R, we've all failed others and been let down ourselves, and sometimes keeping up our own boundaries (out of sheer survival) can feel like heartlessness to another. Also hard is when you see someone really struggling, and want so much to help. But either their own personal or religious pride won't let them (especially if they disapprove of you - and people in legalism are indocrinated to regard others as less godly etc) or sometimes sadly - their husbands or whoever is controlling them won't let them accept help. Because sometimes, keeping them practically collapsing under impossible burdens is part of the way of keeping them under control. So assistance and support is actually not desirable, and often rejected. And then you just have to watch them suffer from a distance, maybe sneak a stray smile or a hug, and hope to heck they one day make it or get free. Needing help and not getting it is hard. Wanting to help and being rejected is hard, too. Both ways, it's women who seem to catch the raw deal, although I believe men are grossly undersupported in this toxic culture too (and I mean religious culture too, not just wordly culture).

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