Parenting is overwhelming – here's how to find your village

"Parenthood can be an extremely isolating time when you need support the most," says Jennifer Folsom, whose book, "The Ringmaster," will be out this fall.
From left to right: Ceri Richards, Jenn Folsom, Jessica Higdon, Sarah Drake, Sara Mulhern , Ofa McGinley and Carrie van Brocklin.
From left to right: Ceri Richards, Jenn Folsom, Jessica Higdon, Sarah Drake, Sara Mulhern , Ofa McGinley and Carrie van Brocklin.Courtesy of Jennifer Folsom.

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By Jennifer Folsom

If I’ve learned anything during the working motherhood circus over the past 17 years, it’s this: you shouldn’t have to do it alone.

All of the highs, lows, pain and joy are meant to be shared. You have to find your people and commit to building those relationships. Your village, after all, is your support system. You need to be able to call on its members (at home and at work) when one of those plates you’re spinning inevitably crashes.

We moved to our home just outside of Washington D.C. when our twins were 6 months old. The first few months were miserable. It was a lonely, dark winter full of ear and respiratory infections as I navigated a new job and motherhood. Between work, commuting and mothering newborns, I was having a hard time finding time to meet up with my friends, many who were scattered far away. I needed the support.

Today, I live and breathe by my “Neighborhood Moms” group text. It’s how I hear first-hand about the latest lockdown at the elementary school, that the bus is running 10 minutes late, and of course the occasional bus stop happy hour.

Jennifer Folsom, author of "The Ringmaster," which will be out this fall.Mary Gardella Photography

All my years of village building really came to fruition when I had a major abdominal surgery two years ago. I had put off the operation (a repair from my 5’1” frame carrying twins) for a long time, because the recovery would take me out of the game for two months. But thanks to my village, I had near round-the-clock home care from two nurses, a month of dinner deliveries, and rides and walks to school for my youngest son while I recovered. I could not have done this without my village and will be forever grateful.

But how do you even begin to create a village?

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Parenthood can be an extremely isolating time when you need support the most. Enter: neighbors as friends. You don’t need to be best friends, but you should know who they are. Whether it’s someone to make a bus stop pick up when you’re running late, or someone with whom you can share a chat over the fence when you’re doing yard work after the kids go to bed, here are some ideas to get you started:

Build up your roster.

It may seem awkward if you’ve passed the same guy for years while walking your dogs, but just stop him and say, “you know it’s weird, I’ve known your face for years but never asked you your name. Hi, I’m Jenn.” And as soon as he walks away, whip out your smart phone and enter his name in contacts. The next time you see “John with the grey Schnoodle” greet him by name. I guarantee the conversation and relationship will grow from there.

Host a block party.

Pick a block, or just a few houses, and host a front-yard or porch party. Do it outside when the weather is nice to minimize your prep and clean up work, and make it a potluck. One of my neighbors hosts a last-day-of-school popsicle party, another hosts a pre-trick-or-treating front yard picnic. Make, text or email invitations, or even better, ask in person! If a neighbor arrives and you don’t have their contact information, get it then. “Karen, I don’t think I have your phone number, do you mind if I get it and add it to my ‘bus stop group text’ list? Then it will be easy to text a quick “hey, I’m having a post-bedtime glass of wine on the front stoop, care to join me?”

Or keep it simple.

If a block party is out of your comfort zone or feels like too much of a lift on your busy to-do list, take inspiration from this successful village-building movement. Kristin Schell of TheTurquoiseTable.com is on a mission to love her neighbors and make communities of “front yard people.” Let the dishes sit for a few minutes, and ignore the work emails until after bedtime. Take your kids to the front yard or sidewalk and pass the soccer ball. Greet commuters coming home. Wave to the folks on an evening run or dog walk. Put yourself out there. Start a conversation. Ask their names. Build your village.

Much like you don’t want to keep score with your partner on whose turn it is to make the bed, you don’t want to keep score in the village. Rather, you want to proactively help others to build up your social capital for when you inevitably need it. I know your to-do list is full and your day is packed, but here are some ideas of how you can lighten the load for your village, buying you some social capital you will need to cash in at some point:

Pitch in on snow days.

If you (or your spouse) are planning to stay home for a school delay or cancellation, why not invite the neighbor kids over? They can entertain themselves so you can dial into work for a bit, and the next time school is cancelled because it might snow and you need to head out of town on business travel, you won’t feel even a little bit bad about saying, “hey can anyone take Elsie today?”

Double your meals.

Has your neighbor’s husband been traveling all week? Why don’t you double one of your meals and drop it off? It takes you about two minutes longer to make a second meatloaf, and saving meal prep for your pal at the end of a long solo-parenting week will pay dividends.

Help during non-contagious sick days.

Notice your neighbor’s sweet daughter wasn’t at the bus stop again due to a recurring ear infection? It’s not contagious and you’re working from home today anyway, why not invite her to hang out with her iPad on your couch so mom can go into work.

Sign up and pick up.

Unless specified, you don’t all have to stand in line for school sign-ups or camp registration. Give your pal an hour back in her jam-packed day by standing in line for pre-ordered school supply pick-ups.

Jennifer Folsom is the chief of corporate development at Washington, D.C.-based data analytics consulting firm Summit LLC. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and three sons, 17-year-old twins Josh and Will, and 12-year-old Anderson. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood,"The Ringmaster," will be out this fall.