or Why it actually does take a village
A fantastic substack writer I follow, Anne Helen Peterson, has been writing about how different kinds of labor have been distributed and redistributed over the past few years, particularly childcare and eldercare. She calls this an Infrastructure of Care.
My infrastructure of care is my quarantine family turned non-creepy commune. A couple with two kids who went to the same preschool as my tween (Habibi’s Hutch for Life!), we’d hung out pretty regularly on weekends before Covid with the shared goal of “tire the kids out while not losing our goddamned minds.” Parents of young children are lucky to find a compatible family as you all have to not hate each other and hopefully enjoy each other’s company. We were slowly building friendships with both parents while engaging in the shared-child-ignoring-weekends-at-places-with-food-and-playgrounds when the pandemic hit. I requested that we create a shared quarantine and they agreed, after a few weeks of realizing that this goddamned virus was going nowhere. The first time our kids hugged after several weeks of quarantine I almost burst into tears. The early days of the pandemic were surreal and freaky, and the sensory deprivation from other humans was intense. But what started out as a way to get our kids some social time that wasn’t online has turned into a co-parenting extended family kind of thing that I am so freaking grateful for.
When my husband was hospitalized with Covid complications last fall, I called them first. Both our tweens hit puberty during lockdown and having more parents in the mix was incredibly helpful. Our kids squabble occasionally but generally get along really well, and for me, it’s just the sheer relief of not being alone in navigating raising a kid during a pandemic combined with very cool friends with compatible interests and values who are interesting to talk to and also fine with blessed silence.
The nuclear family is a fucked up thing. White culture prizes independence over interdependence, which isolates us and is terrible for our kids, relationships, and mental health. That said, our increased ability to move based on jobs, wants, and needs means extended family may have to be found and built, not born. Increasing complexity in our culture means our biological families may not have the traits or skills that we need to help socialize our kids — or we may just live too far away.
I teach Human Development and I know a lot of data about how social isolation affects long-term health and wellbeing. But I didn’t really understand it on a personal level until the forced isolation of Covid necessitated a new kind of family for me, my husband, and my kid. We just kind of fell into it, but it fundamentally changed the fabric of how I live my life. I have two other adults who know my shit and tolerate my baggage, and who may be more interested (or tolerant) in hearing me complain or brag than my husband does at a given time. TWO MORE PEOPLE. Think about that. That is a lot more people when we are encouraged to be our spouses everythings all the time. Our families have spent about two afternoons into evenings a week together since sometime in June of 2020 and it shows.
It’s hard to describe our relationships, as I didn’t have a schema for them before this all happened. It’s kind of friends/nonromantic secondary spouse/siblings but different. Because we’re navigating relationships between seven people, counting the kids, there are boundaries like “don’t go completely ham about your husband to your quarantine wife because it will cause conflicts of interest” but also “it’s totally okay to bitch about your kids as much as you need to as long as they aren’t around.”
I teach family systems theory, which posits that relationships in families often consist of triads with two people having an intense relationship and a third person who is affected but less engaged. In my nuclear family of three, it is always the same. I might feel closer to my kid or my husband on a given day, but three people = 1 triad. Seven people = a fuckton of triads. I may spend some time with one of their kids, redirecting their energy away from the primary parent so they can breathe or go to the bathroom or something. We may take their kids overnight so they can have a date night and then I wrangle any disputes between the three kids (who are mostly self-sustaining given a wide variety of streaming services and video games). I may just be the listening person when one of the other parents is having a hard time with family, or work, or whatever. Sometimes the other dad cooks with all the kids while the other mom and I play video games together. Or they take my kid on a non-school day and I get several hours of pleasant silence or lunch with my husband.
The main feeling that comes up from all of this is that I have a bigger safety net. I feel safer. I have someplace I can drop my kid off if my husband or I have a medical emergency. I have people I can send snarky parenting memes to at most hours without worrying about being overly weird. It’s also just more people to process our collective trauma with. The last few years have been varying levels of weird and hard, and having another soft place to land is so much better than going it alone. I have no idea how I thought I could adult in a vacuum. When we go to their house on Fridays or they come to ours on Sundays I feel like I just audibly sigh and relax a few degrees. I’m a little bit less alone, less isolated, and less fully responsible for everything that happens around me at all times.
Because we live in Texas, I have seriously considered moving back to California over the past year. This is not a great place to raise kids or to teach anymore. But there would be no replacing what we’ve built with our chosen-extended-family within the few years of my kid’s childhood that remain, and that sucks. Like with my nuclear family, I have chosen to have this relationship with these other adult humans which means that we have more agency and less baggage than relationships that we are born into, and helping each other out comes easily, perhaps again because it’s by choice rather than obligation, and it’s trust that has been consciously built brick by brick.
I’m not some crazy explorer who happened upon this whole new realm; I know chosen families have always been a thing and that community has always been a thing. I just think my own life had become very small and isolated, partly due to the nature of my job being so hyper-social, and partly because I live in the suburbs in a city with very little public transportation infrastructure. My husband is an introvert and I’m about 50–50, but we definitely bring out each other’s introverted tendencies. I think maintaining and building friendships was hard because of the amount of emotional labor I willingly do on behalf of my students and my kid. But everything changed in March of 2020 and this bit I would not take back.