I miss my first best friend, Shannon G. I had others after her, but she was the standard-setter for all girls who came after. She lived three doors up and across the street, and we were together most of the day, nearly every day, from ages four to six or seven. My mom called us her little space cadets because we roamed imaginary worlds as we roamed the real one. Shannon G liked our huge dress-up box of old prom dresses. I liked the patch of woods behind her place where we could build forts. There is nothing so fun as sneaking around the woods in a pinned up pink prom dress, searching for aliens. We never wore sunscreen and it was my job to peel the lacy strips of skin off her back whenever she burned and peeled. It was her job to get me access to the junk food at her house when snack time rolled around, since there wasn’t a speck of it in my house. She had actual princess hair: thick black waves cascading down her back. My hazel eyes seemed to change color in sun or shade. We were so magical we couldn’t get over ourselves.
I remember how my heart broke when Shannon G. switched schools and found somebody she liked better. She tried so hard to be nice about it. “She’s my best friend,” she told me sadly, “but you are still my OLDEST friend.” I miss her even more now that I realize that Abi will not have the chance for a first best friend like that. The houses on our street are full of children, but I only know one other family with a stay-at-home parent, and she is only in Phoenix half of the year. Abi goes to kindergarten at a charter school several miles away rather than the neighborhood school. She lives in a large, desert city while I grew up in a small mountain town. It has dawned on me that I will not be able to give my children many of the experiences I most cherished as a child, in part because of my and Dr. G’s adult choices and in part because even the rudimentary neighborhood village I recall from my childhood has vanished.
My mom didn’t have a Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or anything similar in our neighborhood from the early 80’s. But I remember that houses in which all the adults worked were so rare that we called the children who lived in them latchkey kids. They would have keys on lanyards tucked inside their shirts to let themselves in after school. So my mom did see and speak to other adults often. And she did get long, long, long breaks from us when we were at other kids’ houses. And she did get help from the neighbors in handling problems with her own kids. When Shannon G. and I were chronically late to kindergarten (we had to walk through a stand of pine and manzanita to get there; it’s no wonder we never made it, given the butterflies and fall leaves and long clumps of moss), both mothers got together and devised a plan to get us there on time. It included Shannon G.’s third grade brother not letting go of our hands until we were on school grounds and prizes when got home. When my brother and his friend Nathan got too full of mischief, my parents and Nathan’s sometimes meted out a shared punishment, and sometimes my mom just decreed bans on their playing together. She would insist that I occasionally play with neighbors I didn’t really like as a form of character building; at the time I believed that was her sole reason, but now that I am a mom, I know better. Children playing with other children are not continually begging the adults for food and attention.
And now all that is gone, and many of us who have had the gift to make a choice to be stay at home parents have found it much harder than we expected compared to our memories of our own mothers, and tragically isolating. Before they are school aged, the kids have no one to play with but their mother; the mother has no one to speak with easily, regularly, face-to-face, other than her kids and spouse. So we mothers join playgroups and clubs and enroll our children in whatever activities we can afford so they can see other actual living children and try to sweet talk other overtired parents into hauling their kids across town for a playdate (I’ll set up a baking soda and vinegar experiment in the water table! I’ll bake oatmeal-flax-chocolate chip cookies!) and text our far-off friends and sisters and sometimes manage to swing a real conversation with the supermarket checker or another parent at the park. But all this organizing and packing and planning and driving and scheduling just to see other human beings is about as hard as just staying home alone, and more expensive. At least it is for little ol introvert me.
Some of the moms I know double down, homeschooling and gardening extensively and starting little family businesses. These moms seem happy to be well out of the flow of the larger society, busy with the enormous pile of work that is family life and stressed with trying to provide everything for their children themselves, but not busy with crazy chauffeuring schedules or PTA meetings or stressed with bills for gymnastics or preschool tuition. Others mothers I know go back to work after all, acknowledging that the lonely life of the modern stay at home parent is not for them. And they are often happy too, though some wonder if they are doing enough for their kids and enough at their jobs. But many moms who tried staying home full time and then went back to work have told me that their relationships with their kids improved with a little separation included. They are able to enjoy their children more when they share responsibility for their care. And of course I am seeing these other mothers from far off, just glimpses, since mostly I am in my own house with my own kids, and not sure that my descriptions or assessments them are correct. It’s just that I watch other mothers and question other mothers and think about other mothers as I look for solutions to the dissolution of the village.
My daughter loves her new school and has been trying out a different kid each day as a possible best friend. While I find this behavior a little too queen bee for my tastes, I’ll take it, considering my concerns that she would not have a best friend at all. And her brothers and I are really enjoying having more time to pay attention to each other while she is out of the house. Abi and Ronan and Callum do not live in a village, or even a mountain town, and neither do I. We are city girls and boys. We are more alone than the families who came before us but we make our way. I don’t want to homeschool or return to work. I wish I had people to talk to and wander over to visit. When the weather cools off I’ll restart my little kid neighborhood holiday parties, which helped me find one stay at home mom (who moved away), and maybe someone else will turn up this year. Maybe.