I Think My Village Is Hidden In The Mist, Like A Parenting Brigadoon

Sometimes I walk around our neighbourhood and I see toys on windowsills and trampolines in gardens and I think, "Who are all these families and why don't my kids and I know them?"

When I do meet local parents - in the park or through friends or at the monthly library singalong - they all say the same thing: they tried the community centre toddler group a couple of times, but there was nobody else there so they never went back. I hear the same story from other parts of town. Or the toddler groups have folded completely.

Those parents with cars sign up for baby massage at an out of town cafe instead. Those with cash for buses sign up for a city centre baby sensory class. ​The rest put on CBeebies.

Well, we all put on CBeebies, but some parents can afford to switch it off a bit more often than others.

It's not the financial side of things which bothers me, though (thanks in no small part to my mum paying for my kids to go to classes). It's this:

We're told we need a village to raise a family, but we don't have a village - we have a city of sprawling suburbs where we commute to see our friends.

Our friends - both with and without kids - are flung far across the city map. They're great friends and greatly valued, but you don't just drop in on someone who lives a 40 minute bus journey away. Especially not with kids in tow. We schedule in an hour or two between jobs and dance classes and bedtimes and vomiting bugs; we meet for specific activities at specific locations; we plan when we'll meet and we know when we're going to part. And that's all good, some of the time, as some of our social life.

But there is value in having somebody nearby who you can turn to when you're having a bad day - several somebodies; enough that you know this person works then and that person works those days and you still have a number to call. There is value in having somebody who will swap babysitting favours and look after your kid in emergencies.

There is value in having somebody nearby whose garden you can plonk yourself in on sunny days while the kids splash around in a paddling pool. There is value in having somebody who will come by for impromptu tea and biscuits and to be each other's spare pair of hands for rainy day toddler painting sessions.

People talk about this sometimes, in online parenting groups, about feeling isolated, about lacking local friends and support, about how achingly, echoingly empty their weekends can be if they're a single parent or their partner's at work and their friends are all busy with "family time". There are so many parents feeling lonely out there, whispering about it into the internet, but not knowing what to do next.

This ability we have, to connect online, is helpful. Our freedom to travel across town to the current trendy kiddie class is helpful, too, and the structure makes it less daunting than going to a toddler group - our children are less likely to run around wild, exposing our poor parenting skills to the other (equally paranoid) adults. We can hop in a car or on a bus or onto the internet and find some way of filling a day - if we have the money.

But we need to bring some of our connections closer to home. We need people we can text the word "Tea?" to, people who will meet us in the crappy local park when we're at a loose end, people who will mind our kids while we pop to the shops. We need to know who we can call when things go wrong (and to be the person they can call in return). Our kids need to see us chatting in person, not typing into our phones.

Our kids need days of unstructured play, of inventing stories and experiments with friends, of nobody tracking their progress or turning everything into A Learning Experience. And, if we need them to get their minimum recommended amount of daylight and exercise, we need somebody to keep an eye on them while we nip inside to the loo - the five minutes when I pop indoors to put the kettle on might be the five minutes when the little one learns how to unlatch the gate.

It's getting easier, as my eldest gets older. We have four and a half years' worth of accumulated connections. We can't walk down the street without chatting to a neighbour; we bump into friends in the park; we know half the other families at the singalongs. You might think the two days a week of full-on peer play at nursery would help, too, but she still spends the other five days asking if we're going to meet her friends - and, more often than not, we are.

We're not there yet with my youngest, though. On days when my eldest is at nursery, it's just the little one and me; we don't know any toddlers nearby. And, second time around, I still don't know how you find them.

We do go to one local toddler group now. Even on the weeks when I really don't want to, we go, because it's something to do and because there are so few other families there, I'm scared that if we skip it too often, it will cease to exist.

Every week, on the way there and back, we pass other parents pushing buggies up and down the streets, blank, tired expressions on their faces, and I wonder where they're going; I wonder if they know the group exists; I wonder if they're looking for some friends.

Because I can't be the only one wondering: who bounces on all those trampolines?

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