I don't believe there ever was a 'golden age' of the family, but I do believe that bringing up children was easier when families lived near each other and they could rely on the wisdom and support of the extended family. In our society, over the last fifty years, family life has changed immensely. Geographical distance, family breakdown, multiple caring responsibilities, and the long-hours culture have all contributed to there being less connectedness between extended families. Isolation and loneliness are increasingly the hallmarks of our society - not just for the elderly, but for many younger people as well. Half a century ago, if a young mum had a baby who wouldn't sleep, if a newly-married couple had the row of a century, or a child needed advice with a school project, there would most likely have been a grandparent, an uncle, an aunt or a cousin just down the road who would be able to give much-needed reassurance, advice and support. But today many are parenting without family or even friends nearby, and we are the poorer for it.
I know that in some ways we have more communication possibilities at our disposal than ever, but I also know through my work that many parents feel incredibly isolated in their role of bringing up children. One mum put it like this, 'I've got good friends and neighbours but I don't feel I can ask them about problems I am facing with the kids: I'd either feel that if I was a "proper" mother I would know the answer or feel disloyal for sharing the difficulty outside the home. It's never earth shattering stuff - and it's not that there's not loads of material in magazines or on the web - it's just having someone talk to - somebody to say, "This is not just you - you're doing a great job."
There is a lovely African proverb: 'It takes a village to raise a child.' African culture recognises that parenting is a shared responsibility - a communal affair - not just the concern of parents or grandparents, but of the extended family. Uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbours and friends can all be involved and all have a part to play.
As 21st-century families, we have much to learn from the people of Africa. Even if we do not have extended family of our own on our doorstep, we can be 'family' to others in our community, giving and receiving mutual help and support. Especially when the children are small, get all the help you can!
When each of our children were small, I sought out friends with children of a similar age, and arranged to spend time together. An unintended consequence was that our children benefitted from being part of another family and seeing how things were done differently. When the children were little, a local parent and toddler group was a life-line - especially when a few of us decided we'd had enough of the 'Mine's already walking/talking/doing calculus' routine. We started being honest with each other: what a relief to discover that tantrums, whining and foot stamping were normal - and that was just the mothers! We also made friends with those who had children just a little older than ours. They were able to give us the benefit of their experience through some of the ordinary, and also extraordinary, moments of family life - remedies for unexplained rashes and allergies; tips for dealing with a child who wouldn't eat anything green, or one who accidentally swallowed a button; and advice about which school to apply for and how to appeal when you don't get your first choice ... and so on.
Different people have joined our 'village' throughout our journey as parents, and no doubt there will be more to come - extended family, friends, godparents, single people, married people, pensioners and students. Our lives - and the lives of our children - and we hope their lives too - have been the richer for it.
The truth of all this is beautifully expressed by another saying from Africa - this time from the Sukuma tribe from Tanzania: 'One knee does not bring up a child.'
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