America’s villages are collapsing—so who’s raising the children?

The psychology of scarcity.
The psychology of scarcity.
Image: Reuters/Jim Young
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Almost four years ago, I sat in my daughter’s nursery, stressed and anxious. I felt the walls of parenthood pressing in. Our nanny had just quit with no notice, our second daughter was due in six weeks, I had preschool applications to write for our 2-year-old, and the constant work pressures that were no problem before kids now made me feel like a hamster on a never-ending wheel.

None of this would qualify as objectively stressful, and yet here I was feeling overwhelmed and alone in my struggle. I felt like I was competing with other parents for their sitters, their private-school spots, their camp registrations, their everything. I was in a race that I was completely unprepared and unqualified to be running, let alone winning.

When did parenting become a solo sport, every person for themselves? The weight of a child’s future resting solely on the shoulders of one or (if you’re lucky) two people? When did it start feeling like a job unto itself—one that few of us are trained to do adequately, but where our performance is judged by the world incessantly, mercilessly. What used to be a rite of passage is now a destination full of landmines: breastmilk or formula, CIO or co-sleep, time-outs or calm conversations, each decision somehow defining and determining what kind of human you are.

It wasn’t always like this. So, what happened?

It takes a village

We lost our villages. We lost the physical and metaphorical support networks that enabled young people to experience parenthood and children as a natural progression. The structures that supported new mothers through childbirth and recovery have eroded, as have the ones that embraced parents by seamlessly being there to care for kids when they had to work or be away.

These communities used to be filled with family and neighbors and friends who we trusted to be there when we needed them to be. But they don’t exist like this anymore. This is because of a couple key reasons:

1) Mobility is no longer always an advantage. I, like many of my peers, have been brought up on the belief that we can be anything we want to be—that we should unabashedly pursue our passions and ambitions, no matter where they may take us. Well, for us, they took us from Canada to all over to the US, then China, and back to the US, until we landed in Seattle with an infant, another on the way, and no support network. It wasn’t that I just felt alone—it was that we were alone, insomuch as we knew no one, much less anyone that we’d be relying on to help out.

2) Communities have become more connected and yet more isolated. Today most community-building happens online, such as in Facebook groups and over Instagram photos. Even the park has moved away from being a place where you might think parents can connect and chat while kids play together, instead becoming a time when parents can catch up on the world on their phone, thanks to a couple of precious moments of downtime. The more we connect online, the less it seems we’re connecting offline. It’s IRL that we need the village to exist if those villagers are going to help in moments of need.

3) The rules of parenting have changed. Forget about supportive groups: Parenting now equals competition. If our job as parents is measured by how well we produce well-functioning, contributing members of the next generation, then we had best make sure our kids have access to whatever hypothetical door they want to walk through—even if it means shutting it in another family’s face.

This means that parents are set up from the start to compete for what few resources there are, from the best OB/GYN to the coveted nanny to the right afterschool program. We stress and obsess about which preschool to get our newborn into, whether to choose private or public school, and which careful balance of extracurricular activities will stimulate mind, body, and spirit while demonstrating adequate amounts of compassion, intelligence and collaboration.

Oh, and grit. You always want to be able to demonstrate that in a 3-year-old.

To be an adequate parent, hours each week are spent researching, filling out applications, queuing up to register, then figuring out the whole dance on how to get the kids there and then to the next thing—all while trying to work and pull in a paycheck that can cover the exorbitant costs of these schools, activities, and programs.

If only a few can get ahead, then it best be my kid. Building a village just means building competition. So is it any wonder parenting is feeling lonely?

From abundance to scarcity

We’ve turned into feral, individualistic animals that are trying to fight it out for themselves. We’re brittle, on the edge, stressed, and anxious to the detriment of our work, our marriages, and, most ironically, our kids.

We humans behave like this when we exist in scarcity. Today’s world of overstimulation, overscheduling, and oversharing might not feel like a scarce world, but we’re lacking additional shoulders to rest the mighty burden of raising the next generation. We may have all the Netflix shows and yoghurt options we could ever dream of—but we don’t have the time or support networks that allow us the opportunity to consume them.

In their book Scarcity, professors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir studied scarcity of food, money, and time on people’s behavior. Their research shows that when we operate under these conditions, we lose the mental capacity to fully and thoughtfully consider the rest of life.

“When we function under scarcity, we represent, manage and deal with problems differently. Because we are preoccupied by scarcity, because our minds constantly return to it, we have less mind to give to the rest of life. We find that scarcity reduces all these components of bandwidth, it makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled. And the effects are large.”

When seen through this lens, it’s easy to see how most parents are operating under scarcity’s thumb. Society has burdened them with extreme increases in expectations and needs with even fewer resources and support networks to fulfill them. Instead of villages, we’re living in individual barracks, isolated and void of the connection that might offer relief.

The effects are wide-reaching and stark. Women are leaving the workforce in droves (though, to note, only those that are privileged enough to even have that option); people are choosing not to have kids because of massive choices it forces; and marriages are being tested under these intense pressures.

Thankfully there’s a solution—and it lies right in front of us. The village that has slowly retreated to the corners of our lives needs to come back to the center in a sustainable and real way. We need to bring back the feeling of abundance as it relates to our communities, our time, and our bandwidth. Only then will we parents feel like we’re existing not to just survive a week, but that we’re in a place from which we can thrive.

Here’s what we can do to start:

  1. Identify places where you could use a villager. Create a map of your family’s weekly needs. The point is not to see if you can make it all work—it’s to learn how to see the places where you can be open to seeking out and asking for help. It could be swim-lesson registrations, coordinating playdates, driving to soccer, or just finding guilt-free time for a workout. Map out all the places that you’re currently on tap but could easily have someone else trusted step in.
  2. Build your village. Support networks used to be built into your life by way of cousins and siblings, grandparents and neighbors. Today, help may not be related to you by blood or proximity, but that shouldn’t stop you from building your family’s team with the mix of people that work for you. It could be the retiree down the block, a couple of sitters, the moms from your book club, and that high-schooler next door. Whoever they are, build them into a roster that’s flexible and evolving and covers all the times you need someone to be available.
  3. Commit to abundance. To truly escape the scarcity trap, we need to replenish ourselves. This means committing to even just two or three hours a week for yourself (and your spouse, if you have one), no matter how decadent it feels. Find a way to feel rested and complete. It’s only when we feel abundance that we can also reach out and help others. This is the ultimate goal.

We feel like we’re operating in a time of scarcity: of time, of support, and of opportunity. But when we’re able to get parents feeling like they’re operating from a place of abundance, we return to the essence of raising strong, resilient children within thriving, connected communities.