On plants, villages, and community parenting

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Hey yall, happy Monday!

When I think of the famous African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” I think about my childhood. I had the privilege of being raised by two parents, and an endless roster of uncles, aunties, older cousins, family friends, teachers, neighbors, and members of the church I was raised in. When my parents weren’t around, someone else was there to step up and guide me, take care of me, and show me the “right” way.

I always joke that when I have a child I’m going to pass it off to my parents and let them raise it for the first year or two. My mom is totally into it. This idea that a village or a neighborhood protects a child, no matter whose child it is, is a concept that raised a lot of us from the diaspora. Being disciplined or scolded by someone other than your parents is not new to us.

However, in the US, as hate and cultural division grows, I worry about what that means for this concept of community parenting writer A’Kala Chaires discusses in this week’s essay. If it takes a village to raise a child, but the members of the village hate each other (or don’t even consider themselves part of the same village)—what then happens to the child? As trust amongst our neighbors dwindles, the concept of a village collectively raising a child up seems like it’s drifting further and further away. But A’Kala’s essay shows that people like her mother are the gems keeping this concept alive.

As always, enjoy this week’s essay!

Take care,

Anayo Awuzie
EIC of Carefree Mag

It Takes A Village

by A’Kala Chaires

In the plant world, there is a little green plant called “mother of thousands.” From its branches, grow hundreds of smaller plants (thous if you care for it well). They look towards the main plant for all sustenance, without it, they can’t survive.  

When she was laid off from her job as a social worker in the city jail, my mother became an Adjustment Counselor. On any given day, she is managing learning plans for kids with disabilities, connecting pregnant youth to community resources, mediating arguments between youth and teachers and family members, breaking up student fights, and talking suicidal kids off the ledge. Many times throughout the year, she is the point person for major crises in the city; redirecting services so that the students in her building are able to process the grief and sadness that is often a part of living in an urban area.  

That isn’t all of it. It isn’t even close, but she tries not to let on to how much she does on a daily basis. In the middle of her jam packed day to day, my mother scoops up children that have been consistently swept through and ignored in our schools. They look to her for wisdom and guidance. She writes them recommendations for programs and colleges and finds them mentors. She is more often than not the bridge between them and opportunities after high school.

Jobs, clothing, food, you name it and she finds a way to make sure they have it so that they can walk in the building as their best selves. She lifts their spirits and when they’re ready to move on, they bring in more kids. Her office is never empty. Youth sit with her and eat lollipops (she always keeps a stash) while updating her on their drama and their accomplishments. They tell her their fears and unload their trauma. On more than one occasion, she’s welcomed youth to our home for dinner, holidays, their own birthdays too. Her only expectation was that they always try their best and to find her when they needed help. 

If you ask her, she’ll tell you she was never the person people thought would make a good mother. She is brash, and brutally honest when you don’t want her to be. She can never stop moving and is the life of every party. I’ve always compared my mother to sunshine and sunflowers. So big and bright and demanding of attention.  Once she’s in the room, there is no ignoring her. My mother is the person that everyone in the city knows. Even if they don’t know her personally, they’ve heard of her. A mother of thousands that is profoundly unaware of her impact. There is nowhere we can go where a student won’t run up to her and fill her in on their lives. Before they leave, they thank her. They hold her hand and smile and promise that they’ll come back and see her soon. And they always do. 

The concept of community parenting is not a foreign one to us. My grandmother was raised by her grandmother. Her mother left the south to find work and her father well… he was close by, but child rearing wasn’t his strong suit. Mama Minnie took in many of her grandbabies. She raised them to be independent and sent them to school. They had a home with her. My mother’s paternal grandmother was one of her closest friends. The person that understood her when no one else did. My sister and I knew our grandparents better than many of our peers did. When my mother contracted had cancer, they raised us. Took us to hospital visits and brought us to school. My aunt dressed us in the morning and made us lunch and dinner. There was always someone to help, someone to reach in and supplement when immediate parents just couldn’t. 

When my sister and I were growing up, my mom would line people up for us to meet. Coworkers from her previous and current jobs, church, and programs she’d worked in became some of our most trusted confidants. They did things we were interested in and gave us one on one attention when she wasn’t able to. We had connects before we even knew what connects were. Those people employed us with our first jobs and helped us move into our college dorm rooms. They were there to celebrate our accomplishments and to remind us of how amazing we were when everything seemed to be falling apart. We were very rarely without someone who could offer a solution or some resolve or a different perspective. Whether they knew it or not, they were parenting us in the same way that later on, my mother would turn around and parent the many students that would walk into her office on a regular basis. 

Our concepts around parenting have shifted to one where the only parents that exist are the immediate guardians. For mothers specifically, the pressure is insurmountable. We are expected to do everything alone and when we break, it is our own fault. How many times are we told that we should not need rest? How frequently are we shamed for taking a spa day or hiring help when we don’t have a community that will step in? Questioned when we need space? A little sleep? 

When my mother and I first began fostering my goddaughter, I wanted as little outside help as possible. I was worried about who was going to be influencing her. I wanted to build up her confidence and teach her all of the girl power and Black is beautiful lessons that I could, before the world began to intervene. My mother was working hard on building up a unique community for her, much in the same way that she had done for us. She reached out to members of our church, mentors, and community members that had had a relationship with my sister and I and asked them to welcome our baby. I encouraged those relationships, but was still on the fence about letting so many people get close to her. I can acknowledge now that I was probably more protective of her than I needed to be. So many difficult things were happening in her life and I didn’t want anyone else to step in and hurt her.

In November of 2020 (right before her birthday), everyone in my house got Covid-19 except for my nugget. Wanting to keep her safe, we kept a 6ft distance from her at all times and wore our masks when she was in the room. She was lonely and desperately missing her hugs. As much as I wanted to, there wasn’t much I could do in the form of entertainment while I maintained a safe distance. When I reached out for help, my friends and the community my mom had built for her responded with a quickness. Her “Auntys” (some of my closest friends) made consistent Google meets and Zoom calls with her to keep her distracted from our sickness. They sent her birthday gifts and wrote her letters. Our community brought us groceries and dinners. A man who once sat behind my mother and my baby in church, took her for bike rides and other fun activities almost daily while we rested. There was no shortage of hands that reached out and picked up where we left off. 

There is magic in communal parenting that I couldn’t see until it was my baby that needed more than what I could give her. More than what my mother and I could give her combined. She has people now from all walks of life that encourage and lift her up. Folks that correct her when she’s in the wrong, that will fight for her. A family that will push her to go after what she wants and will pick her back up when she falls. A community that wants to watch her grow and will be cheering for her from the sidelines for the entire ride that will be her life. 

My hope for all parents is that we step away from the idea that we can or have to do it all by ourselves. Parenting can be exhausting and draining without breaks or assistance. I often wonder how many lives we could change if we began to reach out for assistance and guidance when we needed it. Could we stop the funnel from our communities to the foster care system and to prison if we lifted up each other’s babies and raised them together? Could we better address our own trauma if we shared the responsibility and gave each other time when we needed it? Without the judgment or the harsh attacks that often come with being a parent but needing help. We may not be able to change the way that the greater world sees and views parenting (let’s face it, someone is always going to be out there judging everything that we do),but we can change how we as parents view parenting. We deserve support. We deserve community. 

My mother is a mother of thousands. As was my aunt, my grandmother, her grandmother too.  As they age, I’m able to see the impact they’ve had on lives in real time. People are still able to come back when they are stuck and they are able to roll out solutions to help them continue to grow. That is the beauty of community; once it’s built, you can always come back to it. As I learn, I would like to scoop up children on my own branches and become my own mother of thousands. Someone will need it. I hope that those children’s parents know that I am more than happy to carry them with me. 

A’Kala Chaires is a 26-year-old writer from Massachusetts. She specializes in personal essays that focus on Lesbianism, womanhood, motherhood, Blackness and their intersections. She’s the mom of a very fabulous 8 year old little girl and she hopes to expand her writing into other areas very soon!

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