by Karen Swan

Anyone who grew up in the 1970’s will recognise the title of this article as a catchy tune from the much-loved “Sesame Street”.  As it played on constant rotation in my head the other day, I got to thinking: “Who are the people in my neighbourhood?”

More like a child of the 1990’s, rather than the 70’s, I immediately went to Wikipedia where a neighbourhood is defined as:

“…a geographically localized community within a larger city, town or suburb. Neighbourhoods are often social communities with considerable face-to-face interaction among members…a set of social networks…the personal settings and situations where residents seek to realise common values, socialize youth, and maintain effective social control.”

It was this last sentence that struck me as an idealistic view of neighbourhood. One where residents know each other by name, where kids play is halted only after hearing the call of “Dinner’s ready!”, and people pop over with meatloaf and tea cake if you are feeling unwell or have just had a baby. Neighbourly utopia. In Australia, 2017 does this utopia exist?

Having spent the better part of the last 8 years being in my neighbourhood (rather than the paid workforce), I’m certain that it doesn’t fully exist anywhere near me – and we are certainly worse off for that fact. The research shows that strong and cohesive neighbourhoods have better overall social outcomes for their residents with lower incidences of crime, improved opportunities for children and better physical and mental health for everyone.

For most (all?) new mothers, the role of a strong neighborhood becomes vital in tackling the feelings of isolation that comes with the arrival of children.

When my son was first born, the good quality services, classes and programs were the ones that, to some extent, provided me with some tools for being a connected and responsive parent. Better services were the ones that gave me a reason to leave the house in the morning, to meet with compassionate listeners, and to hear the stories of other mothers. For me, the best (and most rare of) services and programs were the ones that provided the seeding ground for relationships that would evolve into friendships and, eventually, connected me to a mothering community at large. These valuable services were the ones that lay the foundations for my ‘mothering neighbourhood’ – still in existence long after the service or program finished.

There are good quality services to be found, and they are imperative for many mothers …but what about our communities closer to home? Right over the back fence? Or in the apartment next door? We all know the name of the latest celebrity baby  but few of us know our neighbour’s names, let alone feel that we could knock on the door to ask for the proverbial cup of sugar, to borrow the lawn mower, or for a bit of adult company right at the time we feel we can’t go on. As mothers I wonder if perhaps we feel that we will be judged by our neighbours (or services) for the way we parent or the state of our homes, and we don’t strike up conversations or reach out as a result. And even if we wanted to, I’m not sure that many people of my generation would know how to begin building these relationships with our neighbours. For many women from privileged backgrounds, our communities are alien to us. Since youth, we have been absent from our communities as we busily compete in the workforce, leaving little time to hone our skills in neighbourly interactions or to build the foundations of the relationships that will matter to us (and our kids) when we become parents. And I’m not sure that there’s even much point. Because once we develop the courage it takes to go and knock on someone’s door – in many neighbourhoods it’s unlikely anyone would answer you.

Many of the suburbs in my city are completely empty, with all our Elders in retirement living, adults in the workforce, children in school, and young people wherever it is that young people get segregated to (shopping malls? skate parks?). I have friends whose closest neighbours are a three hour drive away, and yet somehow they have a stronger sense of community than those of us who are surrounded by people. Yes, I know I am generalizing here, but I’m taking some license to illustrate a point which is: it’s  not just that we’ve become “too busy” for community. What I see is we have become so wary and intolerant of the rich diversity that is required to build the sort of community capable of supporting parents, socializing children and young people and buffering us against physical and mental illness.

Many adults work unrelenting hours for the benefit of the corporate economy (I’m only assuming this because everything I have read suggests the economy of Australian families is not benefiting from the sheer workload and massive amount of unpaid overtime done by Australian workers), yet the one thing we need most – our neighbourhoods – are in a state of neglect.

When I became a mother, I was astounded at how few places there were for me and my son to just go and be with other people. As a new mum I discovered my options were to

(a) go to a “program” that I had to “participate in” with other mums – whether or not we had anything else in common,

(b) go to the mall/coffee shop and endure the dirty looks of people as I fed my baby (whether you breastfeed or bottle feed, someone always takes issue with it),

or (c) go to the local children’s park where there was no-where to actually sit down. Gone are the days where every community had a well-cared for commons, a hall or a patch of green belonging to the whole neighbourhood. A place that is not splashed with the faces of outlandish cartoon characters or a sponsor’s corporate logo. A place where new mums and dads could get reassurance and mentoring from older adults who had “been there, done that”, where little kids can play with and learn from older kids, and where – under a half-watchful eye of the neighbourhood adults – our teenagers can begin to develop skills in empathy and patience and leadership they will require when they eventually become parents themselves. Places where relationships between diverse people can be formed and solidified, so that when we need them in our crisis we know who to go to and that it is safe to ask for help.

My consolation is that I am fortunate enough to have a wonderful elderly couple living next door to me. I look forward to the daily tap on the front window when Margaret comes to check all is OK with me (yes – I am deeply grateful for this daily interaction, even when she catches me with my jeans down around my ankles, chasing a toilet-paper-wielding toddler around the house). Once my son was old enough to walk, her husband Len collected him every day and showed him how to feed their fish and chickens and they have a “man-to-man” dig in the veggie patch (even though we live in suburbia, not on acreage!) Our lives are richer as a result and I feel safe knowing that in an emergency they are a mere five steps away. Margaret and Len are surrogate grandparents for my child and play a big part in his development. For now, they care for us and provide an anchor in a period of our lives that is challenging and complex.

For my son, growing and learning at such a rapid rate, Len and Margaret provide him with social and play experiences that I never could provide all on my own. They are gentle with him (and with me) on the days we are a bit overwrought and vulnerable. However as they become more frail, I envisage my son will gradually take on the responsibility of caring for them – collecting their eggs and helping around the yard as the years pass on. What this means is that, as a young toddler my son feels nurtured and safe, but because of his relationships in his neighbourhood he will also gain the chance to learn how to nurture and protect others. I am deeply grateful for this because, from what I can tell, young people in our communities are rarely afforded the opportunity to experience the incredible joy that can come from caring and taking responsibility for the well-being of others.

So, how do we bring back the good old fashioned neighbourhood? A brief look on the internet reveals hundreds of initiatives all over Australia designed to turn us into happy neighbours. But I suspect the answer lies with us (not governments or professionals) and the only way to do it, is simply to do it.

Go back to basics. Join a local club, community garden or network (and if there are none in your area, start one up). More and more primary schools are opening up their doors with opportunities to get involved long before your child even starts their first day. Make eye contact with people. Smile at someone as you pass them on your daily walk. For that matter, walk somewhere instead of driving. Introduce yourself to your neighbours. Make the effort to talk with a new mum who seems shy or on the outer edge of things. Ask someone something about their life. Everybody has something to say.

The gift of motherhood is that it brings us ample opportunities to connect with our community – be it through an organized group or simply by getting out and talking to someone else. However, I do believe we can only create a supportive approach to parenting by being honest about what it is really like, sharing our stories, and helping each other out. Stop to offer help to a frail man as he struggles with his shopping bags. Instead of judging her, take a meal to the mother next door who is so frazzled she yells at her kids all day. Offer the local teenager in your street a bit of pocket money to take on the job of helping and guiding your eight-year old to weed the garden. Not only will you help another person, but your children will benefit far more from watching you build (and themselves being a part of) relationships with real people than they ever will from being rushed off to the next “necessary” activity.

For many new mums (especially if we have built strong neighbourhoods before parenthood) the thought of this can be overwhelming. But, I’m not convinced that it is necessary to present the picture-perfect image of ourselves to our neighbours (or to hide ourselves away from the world “just until I can get on top of things”). Is it possible that it is the other way around? That it’s our communities that are what helps us get on top of things? One thing I do know for sure though is that a vibrant neighbourhood – one where relationships are built up over time and one in which everyone has the chance to help and to be helped – is something that benefits everyone, particularly our kids. Perhaps there is hope that one day we’ll be singing “Who are the people in your neighbourhood?” and our children will actually know the answer.

*This article first appeared in the IAIM (International Institute of Infant Massage) Newsletter “A Parent’s Perspective” column.  We strongly advocate the amazing work of the IAIM and encourage you to find out more about them,and subscribe to the newsletter here.*

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