Child Takes Village, Razes It
I fear there is much we still don't understand about this child-rearing business, despite millennia of parental head-scratching.
The "takes a village" meme, all the rage in the 90s, represented a modest step forward, I suppose. It's true enough as far as it goes: most parents discover pretty quickly that, by the fact of having a child, they've stumbled willy-nilly into a tight-knit community of folks with whom they have, all things considered, very little in common, apart from these tiny people with coincidental birth dates.
But the village metaphor is, to put it mildly, inexact. I can say this with some claim to authority because, like many Mainers, I live in an actual, physical village — a semi-rural town of roughly 2,000 souls — and the two situations are not similar at all.
There's an element of choice to actual village life. Most people live here because, at some point in their lives, they chose to do so, when they could equally have chosen to live someplace else. Las Vegas, for example. Or a commune in Costa Rica. And having shunned those paces in favor of Lincolnville, Maine, they can be picky about many other things, from the neighbors they befriend (or not) to the extent of their involvement in civic life. No one insists upon your presence at the Memorial Day parade or the annual town Christmas party (which does not, I should point out, require any actual observance of the specific religious occasion of Christmas).
Compare this with the horrible truth of parenthood: you have precious little meaningful choice about anything at all. Your kid makes a friend at the day-care center, or in kindergarten, or playing at the beach, and that's that. You did not have a vote in the selection of this friend. You do not get to design this friend's home or customize the appearance and other characteristics of this friend's family, as you would if they were characters in The Sims, a clever and addictive computer game which (unbeknownst to you) will eventually consume several thousand hours of your tiny person's life. You can try your hand at matchmaking, if you like, but it's pretty much like trying to decide what flavor of ice cream your kid is going to relish above all others. Good luck with that.
Welcome to your new village.
Now here is the thing. As the years go by, this fundamental process of friend-selection and flavor-rejection repeats itself in increasingly complex and inscrutable iterations. Your village expands in amoeba-like fashion, taking on contours more Byzantine than the most radically gerrymandered legislative district. It will probably make little sense to you. But you'll probably go along with it. You are probably wise to do so. (As with all aspects of parenting, you can never be quite sure.)
What I'm saying, I guess, is that it isn't the village that raises the child. It's the child — or rather, the children collectively — that raise the village, raise it in the sense of building it stick-by-stick, sleepover-by-sleepover, from the ground up. And if they choose, they can raze it as well, but let's go into this with a positive attitude, shall we?
I am typing these thoughts in a house momentarily free of teenagers. Some of these sloppy and awe-inspiring creatures have lived with us, in this Protean village, since they were barely out of diapers. Only one or two of them are actually related to me in a direct familial sense. But in another sense they are all deeply part of my life (not to mention my grocery bill) — and who in his right mind would have it any other way?
It is a privilege to become so entangled in so many lives — you have to keep reminding yourself of that. But you also have to remember not to confuse this unique situation with other aspects of life that possess at least some semblance of rationality. Your career, for instance. Your hobbies. Your religious or cultural or political proclivities. There is nothing reasonable about parenthood, I think. It's like that island on Lost: a basically insane little world that will never be mapped satisfactorily and cannot be located on Google Earth.
Within this little world, there are multitudes. And one day they all will be gone.
Novelist Richard Grant lives in Lincolnville and is a Down East contributing editor.