I Lost My Village—Here’s How I'm Rebuilding It
A new mother who grew up in Puerto Rico surrounded by family navigates life as a working mother in the U.S., where help is often hard to come by and the idea of “village” has to be reworked.
Support for new parents means something entirely different in Puerto Rico, where I grew up. There, unlike here, I had much more than my nuclear family to lean on—I had an entire village.
Allow me to illustrate. My mother, father, older brother and I all lived in an apartment that was part of a compound shared with my two grandparents, two aunts, uncle, and two cousins. They were my village. Mi familia. And they all helped raise me.
On a typical school day, my dad would drop us at school, and my mom would pick us up. My grandma would feed us lunch, help with our homework, and then take us to piano, ballet, and karate practice. My aunt would pick us up from these extracurricular activities and take us home for dinner with our parents. Or, if my mom was working in the hospital while my dad was in night school, we would watch movies at my uncle’s and enjoy dinner with the grandparents. They would then bathe us, read us a story, and tuck us into bed.
As a new mother of a one-year-old baby boy living in San Francisco, I can only imagine what putting together this carefully choreographed dance must have looked like on a daily basis in a cell phone-less era. Here in America, where I’ve joined the ranks of working mothers, I haven’t seen a similar scenario. The village seems to be long lost. And just like most of my peers, I’ve struggled to find the balance between my work and my domestic life, as my husband and I are solely responsible for the human we brought into the world.
Now more than ever, I have a profound sense of respect for my family, and realize that by coming to the United States as a first-generation immigrant to chase opportunity, I’ve left much behind in the way of support. And it’s only in rebuilding my village that I’ve been able to regain some sanity.
The importance of the village goes beyond support for the parents—it helps raise multifaceted people.
See, even beyond logistical support, the village is powerful for perspective and growth. Each individual unit in my own family fostered different traits and interests that gave incredible richness to my life.
For instance, my parents gave me a strong set of values, a moral compass, and an incredible work ethic (among many, many other things!). My grandma, an educator at heart, instilled in me a love for learning and self discipline. She also gave me a special sense of identity around my family legacy. My grandpa, meanwhile, strengthened my self-confidence and fostered my sense of optimism. One aunt kindled my intellectual curiosity, cemented critical thinking, and supported my every pursuit in the arts, while the other aunt gave me a sense of adventure and self-reliance. She also introduced me to photography, a current passion. And lastly, I can attribute my love for the arts and politics to my uncle. From a very young age, he showed me the richness the world had to offer beyond my island, as he loved to travel and would return with bags filled with presents, pictures, and stories from far-away places.
When the time came to go to college, the entire village pitched in. My uncle connected me to his long-term friend who was an art school admissions officer; my aunt drove me to afterschool art classes so that I could build my portfolio. My other aunt helped me set up a black-and-white photo developing and printing lab at home so I could refine my craft. My grandma reviewed my essays, and my parents helped me prepare for interviews, as well as apply for grants and financial aid.
Because of their collective support and help, I was awarded a scholarship to art school and an opportunity to come to the States. I am forever grateful to my family, my island village for all of it, and I know that my accomplishments have only been possible because of the foundation and ongoing support they provided.
I went from a system that seemed fail-safe to one that was completely frail.
I left Puerto Rico and this incredible support network in search of growth and career opportunities I could have not dreamed of having back home. I found them—both professionally and socially— and I am proud of what I have accomplished.
I started my own design studio, which grew into a fully fledged digital agency serving Fortune 500 clients in a range of industries. Additionally, I helped start an organization called SheLeads, dedicated to helping female designers achieve leadership positions. Once I got everything off the ground and started feeling settled in my career, I turned my sights to motherhood and had a rosy image of what balancing a career and family would look like. After all, that’s all I knew and had seen with the mothers in my life.
My mom worked as a doctor in a hospital, my grandma worked part-time into her 70s, and all my aunts who were mothers worked regular jobs. They all had families. They all seemed happy. My parents made it seem almost effortless. But it’s only now, working thousands of miles away from the tight-knit community I grew up with, have I realized that it was only doable because of the village and the extended support network my parents knew they could count on.
When raising a family, being away from these traditional support networks proves extremely challenging—particularly when you pair it with the rising cost of living, inflexible work schedules and mostly stagnant salaries. My husband and I work very hard to afford care. And even so, finding the right nanny or daycare situation is tricky. Even when you have it figured out, if you live in a household of working parents, you’re only one “the sitter is sick!” “school is closed!” “kid has a ear infection!” away from your carefully orchestrated balance spinning into chaos. Is there a back up sitter? Can you work from home? How many sick days do you have left?
As a result, parenting in the States can be beyond stressful, and particularly isolating. I’m not the first generation in my family to have two working parents and children to care for. But I am the first to attempt juggling it all without extended family readily available to help.
Without the village as a fail-safe, the feelings of guilt and inadequacy start to well up. And in my experience, these remote extended families can be the first to feed those fears with inappropriate comments regarding how much time kids spend under the care of a non-parent, or how one fell short in a homemaking chore like organizing or making dinner. If you can’t afford any domestic help, we are left, for the most part, solo to deal with it all.
As a result, I and so many mothers I know feel ill-fit, in part, because we are trying to fill too many roles at once. No matter how hard I try, I as an individual will never be able to fill the void left by so many different players. Acknowledging this is an important first step to asking for help. That’s what I’ve taken it upon myself to do.
By getting organized, finding unexpected resources, and figuring out what I could offer, I’ve started building a new village.
In trying to raise children alone, we’re not only doing a disservice to ourselves, but most importantly, to our children. Beyond the much-needed break extra hands allows parents, the benefits of our children being continuously exposed to different adults has long been documented. To gain some sanity in your life, I encourage you to build your own village.
1) Find your people
The first step is to take stock of your life. Who are the people in your life right now? What type of relationships do you have with them? Of those, who live close enough to actually help? How deep are your bonds with them? What could you do to strengthen those relationships? Have you invited them to your house? Have you showed up when it matters to them?
I started by asking myself, of those currently present in my life, who could understand this new stage and have the means (and empathy) to help? Beyond my family, my shortlist was initially made up of friends who were parents, but it soon extended to include friends who are educators and neighbors with small children.
2) Identify where you need help
Secondly, identify your gaps. This can be quite humbling, and it is best to be very sincere and vulnerable. Get as specific as possible: Do you need help with child care? Do you need help with routine elements like school drop-off and pick-up? Do you need some more self-care/me time? Are you having trouble dealing with X or Y and need better strategies to address it?
As a mother who is also a business owner, my biggest challenge was sorting out child care and being able to consistently get a certain amount of rest by the time I had to come back from maternity leave. I had no idea where to start, so I asked my close friends who are parents for their insights regarding nannies, nanny shares, and daycare waitlists. When I started touring daycares, I asked my educator friends what I needed to look for. When I had to interview nannies, I asked my friends who had worked as nannies what to ask. To help establish a routine and hence a more predictable sleep pattern, I turned to my friends who are working mothers for advice regarding sleep-training.
3) Identify what you can trade
Third, identify your strengths and what you are willing to give. Would you be willing to swap child care with a family nearby so you can do date nights twice a month? Do you have a large enough car to help shuttle neighboring kids to practice? Are you adept enough in a sport to coach the neighborhood league or assist with practice?
Also, know your non-negotiables so that you can set clear boundaries. Make sure you are consistently communicating what you are (and what you are not) willing to give to those in your village.
Relationships are about giving and taking, and everyone hates feeling abused, so establishing clear rules of engagement from the get-go is crucial. Keep an open mind and an open heart. Some of those you’ll reach out to might not be up to the task, but hopefully that will open the space for you to meet the right people who will. If this is feeling emotionally tolling, trust that the outcome is absolutely worthwhile.
Personally, I love sharing knowledge, connecting people, cooking, and playing with small children particularly if it involves the arts.
As parents, friendships and other relationships in your life inevitably evolve. I personally felt very vulnerable taking this step, so I started with small things. For example, during my pregnancy I curated a list of friends who were parents and reached out regarding anything from nursery items to know-how. Those I never heard back from I simply removed, but those I did hear from I started fostering as a community. Because I love organizing things, I started assembling knowledge I had gathered from disparate sources in navigable format. I’ve shared those documents with those in that community and beyond.
4) Get organized and create structure
Fourth, establish the infrastructure to support and maintain the needs of your village. What makes it easy for you to coordinate activities? Create a shared calendar, start a group message, or leverage online collaboration software.
Is there a practical way to share knowledge pertinent to those helping with childcare? What are you doing to create and deepen more meaningful relationships with your village? Are you hosting meals or arranging for a group activity once a month to share with all of them? Have you created a space and a place for candid feedback?
When we were expecting, I went out of my way to meet neighbors who are parents or parents-to-be. We made new friends and have developed a special relationship with a couple who live in our same building and who have a daughter a year older than our son. With them we have established rituals, such as breakfast every third Sunday, where we alternate homes and both our families share an early meal. We have a group message through which we communicate and use calendar invites, which make it very simple to remember and plan.
These are just some ideas to get you started with rebuilding your village. It might seem like a lot of work, but it’s likely very close to the workload you are balancing regarding your kids. Share the love and reap the benefits. Do you have any additional ideas? Please share in the comments and help strengthen this village in the making.
Sylvia Vaquer is co-founder of SocioFabrica, a digital agency based in San Francisco, where she helps brands such as Nespresso, NTT, Ross Stores, IBM and StubHub improve their digital experiences. Outside of work, yoga, traveling and cooking with her family keep her sane.