Follow Samantha and her family this summer, as they embrace the “village” model since her sister and baby nephew moved in:
The night before my sister and her son Charlie arrived to live with us for the summer, we had yet to make any space for them in our home. Our daughter had agreed to give up her bedroom and move in with her two brothers, but first we had to declutter her room, removing intricate Lego sets, homemade paperbacks, and other trappings of a young innovator. Overwhelmed, I offered to leave this task to my husband and make dinner instead.
When I emerged from the kitchen, my husband had commandeered a near clean sweep of our new guest room, except for the bits of scissored paper scraps that had dropped like glitter, all over the floor.
After a date with our vacuum cleaner, I discovered that all we had for our daughter to sleep on during this new living arrangement was an old blow-up mattress. This was a problem: even when you’ve said no, children jump on these beds until they spring holes like cheap swim floaties. We’ve awoken before to a sore, embarrassed houseguest, lying in the middle of a collapsed blow-up bed like the victim of a circus catastrophe or the veritable loser at a sing-song, parachute-flapping camp activity. My daughter needed a proper mattress, so I schlepped off to Ikea in the pouring rain.
Despite all that harried preparation, the next afternoon when the sun came out and my sister and Charlie arrived, I was relieved. They were ours, and they were home. My sister and I tucked into each other easily—for once, we didn’t have to hold back or anticipate that our time together would be over too soon. My kids bounced up and down the hallway like pogo sticks, leaving me to wonder if they’d been hiding in the pantry guzzling chocolate milk all morning.
We gushed over the size of Charlie—he had changed since we’d seen him six months earlier. My 3-year-old was unable to keep his hands to himself—he rubbed Charlie’s arms as if exploring a touch exhibit, a living specimen of a child smaller than him. He stood back and pointed skeptically, as if he had been duped:
“He’s not a baby anymore!”
My sister let Charlie loose in the kitchen.
“Gog…gog…gog…” Charlie rapped, robotically tracking our 12-year old family dog, who will one day be crowned the patron saint of handsy toddlers.
In no time, I remembered that 18-month olds are like loyal retrievers who venture off and then return, presenting you with things you didn’t know you had.
“Oh look, a box cutter!” someone said. Perhaps I should have baby-proofed my kitchen drawers.
“This is new,” my sister said quizzically when Charlie began screeching. “Feel free to tell him not to do that,” she continued. I shrugged. He was just participating in the bedlam he saw before him. We took Charlie out back where he could use his outdoor voice and he climbed up onto a patio chair.
“Be careful,” my sister cautioned, “that’s a long way down.”
“Well,” said my 7 year-old son, “if he were the size of an eyeball, it would be a really long way down.”
Our first group activity was a trip to the grocery store. We took our places in my minivan and my sister announced the first rule of summer: each child would be assigned a number to be hailed in numerical order after entering the car. This sound off, she explained, was how we would account for everyone. My kids embraced their new, playful co-captain by singing their numbers in jolly falsetto, and off we went.
At the store, our obsession with Charlie’s size continued. Could he fit into the rocket ship shopping cart? Could he sit there without reaching for the cantaloupes and falling head first onto the floor?
This preoccupation developed into a structural renegotiation: there was a new youngest child in the bunch. My 3-year-old climbed into the cart, jockeying for his berth as Charlie’s keeper. My 7-year-old walked along, unsure of his role until the younger two began squabbling—then he walked off confidently to collect a gallon of milk. My 9-year-old daughter played up to the adults, fetching and elaborately showcasing her favorite items in store: whipped cream, chocolate chips, and gouda cheese.
“She’s acting just like Vanna White!” my sister said.
“She’s trying to convince us to buy all that stuff,” I explained.
Our first days together slipped by—my sister and I had entered into a common stream with little effort; we were living an ongoing meta-parenting discussion with real-time illustrations. I was both content and distracted—I yelled less and laughed more.
One afternoon, my sister and I were feeling punchy. I clicked on my workout playlist and we hand-danced in the front seat of the minivan for three songs before she turned to me.
“Hang on,” she said, “You play the explicit versions of these songs when the kids are in the car?”
“Oh,” I said, “I forgot.” My 7-year-old son interjected from the way back: “Usually, my mom just yells ‘whoops!’ and raises her hand in the air to bleep out any bad words.”
“Like this?” my sister asked, performing a spot-on impression. (Drama teachers are experts at this sort of thing.) “Exactly!” my son and daughter snickered.
That night, my kids lay patiently in their beds like tidy little sandwiches.
“Can we say goodnight to Aunt Jojo?” they begged, but before I could answer, my sister waltzed in and kissed each of them goodnight. It had been building for days, but in that moment, my sister affirmed the signature of village life: you reach out to others’ children to love and guide them as if they were your own.
My daughter saw this, too.
“I don’t want to grow up,” she whispered wistfully as I finished tucking her in.
She was beginning to understand that as the oldest child, she would be the first to leave our tight little tribe someday. Sometimes, you look around and notice that without meaning to, you’ve moved one spot forward on the game board, leaving behind a space you cannot take back.
After the kids were asleep, my sister and I sat on the couch while my husband opened a bottle of wine. “This is awesome,” my sister said. “It’s so much better than being at home alone all day. We should do this every summer.”
My husband smiled, filling our glasses. I laughed and nodded, unwilling to commit. Still, after my first taste of the village life, I have a feeling she’s right.
Samantha Shanley is a writer and editor who blogs about parenting at Simtasia and tweets @SimShanley. She is a D.C. native who now lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children. And, temporarily, her sister and nephew.
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