Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Co-mothering: stress inducer or life saver?

I've long bored readers with my rants on the superiority of extended families when it comes to raising children.  The "it takes a village" adage is kind of a recurring theme of this whole blog. It's a cure for everything from bored children to overworked moms. It's the way we should raise our children and have for centuries.

So, I finally had a chance to test out this theory with my actual family.  Like many of you know, I'm currently back in the US visiting family, and staying with my parents. My sister has also moved in for the month with her 4 year old and 6 month old.  And we were also taking care of my brother's 2 year old for the days when his wife was at the hospital having the latest addition to this family.  So, that made 5 children under 4 and 4 adults.  9 souls in 4 bedrooms.  And that's about enough numbers for one paragraph, no?

Coming in to this arrangement I had a lot of ideas about how this whole co-mothering thing would go.  There would be a harmonious division of labor.  Someone would make sure the children didn't kill each other while swinging bats in the back yard, another would make everyone grilled cheese.  Babies would be passed around and easily soothed. Everything would somehow get done, and with a lot less effort than doing it alone.  It would be like that scene in Cinderella where the woodland creatures work in joyful and seamless choreography to make her ball gown.  That is if the ball gown were raising children. And the technicolor birds were us moms.  

Anyway, point is, no one would ever have to scream, "I'm on the phone, nursing your brother and making your peanut butter sandwich with my left foot, so you'll just have apply pressure until I can get there!!"   It would all get done but no one would have to do it all. At the end of the day, children neatly tucked in, we'd laugh over wine at the suckers who have to do it alone.

That's what I pictured.

But the reality was a different thing all together.

The reality was chaos.

Instead of a group of co-parenting moms reinforcing each other's discipline strategies and dividing all the work, there was just a lot more noise.  A lot of yelling and feet stopping and tantruming.  And our children didn't behave much better.

First of all, everything was a lot more ... schleppy, for lack of a better word.

Case in point: We planned one outing and it took us longer to get out the door than we actually spent at our destination.   Most of the out-of-the-door-getting was Tetris-ing the 5 car seats into 2 cars.  One child ended up in front (which we agreed to pretend was legal in the state of Illinois) and there just may have been an infant in a booster seat. I'm not sure.

Also, all the kids were out of whack - missing their fathers, adjusting to time zones, new beds and the prospect of a new sibling - so bedtime was total chaos with each kid playing us off each other.

One night, while trying to convince the kids to fall asleep in their new beds, Jesse introduced his cousin to the nightmare-inducing prospect that there might be ghosts in the house.  The next night Caleb lost his mind insisting his pillow be continually flipped over to the "cold side" and his water was not juicy enough.  This fit lasted... THREE hours, during which time I had to nurse his baby brother (no co-mom for that) and figure out how to quiet Caleb so he wouldn't wake the other 8 souls in the 4 bedrooms.

Each night we'd descend to the finally child-free living room around 10 PM, exhausted, craving liquor, chocolate or some other palliative, only to have a stray child wander down asking for something unproduceable like their father or a colder pillow.

It was shit like that a lot.  There never seemed to be enough adults to handle the concurrent meltdowns.  Of course, there were also adorable moments with giggling kids running around the backyard and babies being babies.  But also a lot of yelling and wondering who was was watching Elijah.

I literally had stress hives from the whole thing. I count them in the shower. It's a little game I invented to distract myself from being stressed.

But I'm not totally abandoning my conviction about extended family parenting.  And this is why:

It's since gotten a lot better.  The early kinks have been worked out. We've fallen into our rhythm, and the children have gotten over their various neuroses and become more used to living with each other.

And now we're approaching the utopia I had originally counted on. There does always seem to be a spare pair of arms to hold the baby or make some breakfast.  There's always another person to laugh with about the ridiculously funny stuff your kids say and to relish in the babies "firsts."  There's always a shoulder to cry on when your child pushes you to the breaking point.

After things got better.  This scene means another mom got to sleep in.  Or I got pancakes made for me.
The kids do seem happier to have constant playmates and the babies are getting a lot more smiling faces shoved in front of theirs.  And having more than one mom also means that someone can take an hour to herself every once in a while.  I've gone on two runs and to one yoga class this past week, which was more physical activity than I had managed in the entire year prior.  That is enough to join a commune of moms.

It's a win-win-win.  For now.

There's probably another post in me about the difficulty of melding different discipline strategies and not silently judging each other's parenting choices. But for now I'm going to focus on enjoying the company, the break from doing it alone and the constant companionship for the kids.

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Hanging out with yeahwrite again this week.  Just about the most supportive and talented group of bloggers you'll find on the interweb...



15 comments:

  1. love the honesty of this as well as the hope. i think after the initial shock wears off and you get settled into a routine, this can work. i'm convinced no matter how many parents though, there is never enough to spread all the work around :)

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    1. Agreed! And unless the parents are on the same page (boundaries, discipline etc...) more is definitely not always better. But we are settling into a really good routine here finally!

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  2. Oh I can hear you so loud and clear! Even when married I parented as a single. I've never been shy about wondering if it wasn't actually a wife or a sister wife I needed!

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    1. Oh, my husband and I joke all the time about how awesome it would be to have a co-wife. Mainly for the domestic help, but lord only knows what my husband has in mind... ; )

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  3. I had hives just from reading that!!!! I am just now sitting down form a playdate that I thought would be a great distraction for Edem, so the lovely other mom and I could bond and nibble on the pretzels that cost a freakin' fortune here in Bali. But NO.... My son chose to be the worst version of his sweet self, and I, dazed and confused by his ridiculous behavior, barely got a sentence in with the other mom before I heard my devil child- I mean sweet angel- yelping about some menial thing or other. Oy.... So well done for finding that balance!! I hope it continues to find the harmony that the villages always seem to have.

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    1. Oh, I've totally had those days. And it's often been when I'm trying to catch up with an old friend who I rarely see.

      I'm starting to think that the root of so much maternal frustration is just expecting anything will go as planned. As soon as I let go of that I'm so much more able to enjoy things. Again, I think Kenyans are much more adept at this than we are. If you don't expect a certain sleep schedule or set of behaviors than there's nothing to be disappointed about.

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  4. Kenya could feel like paradise by the time this is over, but ten bucks says the rhythm will continue to improve and the kids will really benefit from the communal living as it goes on. Hopefully!

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    1. From your mouth to god's ears (as my grandma used to say)!

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  5. So, I live within walking distance of my mom, 3 aunts and 2 sisters. I love the support and the fact that I rarely have to drown my paranoia in liquor and hire someone to watch my kids...BUT...I hear what you are saying. I also think that with multiple adults, kids have multiple audiences and somebody is going to be a sympathetic ear. If they haven't found her yet, they just haven't screamed long enough.

    Great post on a neglected topic.

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    1. You're totally right - kids will play us off each other unless we can get on the same page. There are a lot of pros and cons, but on balance I think this is the way to go. And I'm incredibly jealous of your proximity to sister/aunts! It's what I miss most about living abroad.

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  6. I will be visiting my mom and sister for a precious few weeks this summer... but my daughter is that precious first grandbaby, so she will get spoiled rotten and I will have it so much easier. Once my sister has her own, though, I imagine I will experience much the same thing as you've described. You think it's going to be great, but each extra kid doubles the chaos. Glad to hear you all found some kind of routine, for now.

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  7. Having 5 kids under 5 in the house reminded me of my own experience - 3 kids under 3. Here's what I have observed. The kids are getting used to being together. Behaviors are rubbing off on each other - for the kids, the Moms and Grandma. I hear myself saying more and more, "good choice, bad choice" or "you are welcome to do this as long as...," "you put back my energy by helping me with this." I love waking up in the morning and seeing two blond-haired boys sneaking in my bedroom, and I miss it on the mornings they don't. I see that despite different parenting styles, your approaches are fairly similar. You are loving, and animated with your children and are trying to set boundaries. Despite the initial chaos, I have loved every minute of it and wouldn't have it any other way. For kids who are growing up in different countries, in different parts of the country, I think we have all adapted pretty well and quickly.

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    1. Funny how our toddler-ease is rubbing off on one another. Probably not a bad thing. I've loved this time together too mom. It's going to be hard to leave...

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  8. I had stress hives once for an entire 6 months ... I never thought to count them to reduce the stress. Did that work?

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