When I was nine months pregnant with my second daughter, the thing that scared me most was not my looming labor, or the specter of caring for a newborn and her 21-month-old sister without losing my mind. The scariest thing wasn’t even the thought of putting on my hideous orange linen maternity pants, the only ones left that fit, and suffering the humiliation of being totally unstylish for yet another workday.
What terrified me was that I had no idea who would take care of my precious toddler while I gave birth to this new baby. My worst fear of all was that I would go into labor in the evening, because although there were a few friends my husband and I could sort of trust, our families — the people you turn to in the most critical of times, when you would rely on no one else — were all thousands of miles away.
Who would protect our sweet daughter while we disappeared into the intensity and fog of childbirth? Where was our village?
We moved to Seattle 11 years ago, newlywed blush still warm on our cheeks. We were in our 20s; Seattle was our Shangri-la — hip, fun, urban, yet ringed with lakes so blue and forests so lush they boggled our youthful minds. It didn’t matter to us then that our families were flung far across the country. This was our time! We worked hard, ate out, watched bands in cool bars with workmates and acquaintances, and rolled into bed at whatever time we pleased.
And then we had our first child. Suddenly, the world seemed at once more magnificent and incredibly lonely. Sure, our parents and siblings and aunts and uncles came to visit, and we traveled — to Canada, Arizona, California — to show off our daughter and be reminded of our roots.
But it wasn’t the same. There was no one to rush over when the thermometer spiked to 103 degrees and we, as nervous new parents, needed as much calming as the baby. No one to step in when the day care was closed, but our jobs still expected us. No one but us to swoon and coo regularly, no one to bring over a new board book or puzzle “just because,” or to cook up a pot of soup or three for the freezer.
It wasn’t the way I had always assumed my family life would be. When I was a kid, I was raised in the same city where generations of my family had lived. Practically no one had ever moved away. At my ballet recitals, there were so many hands holding roses in the audience, waiting for me.
My grandparents took me regularly. I would spend the night in their cozy guest bed, wake up to be fawned over with pancakes and compliments, tour the museum or the fancy downtown department store on my own private, regularly scheduled grandparent date.
Growing up, we had communal dinners every Friday, vacations with extended family, holidays all together around a raucous table. My husband’s childhood experience was the same, with lots of love from a large family.
But our jobs, lives and sense of adventure had brought my husband and me to a city with no kin, no built-in village.
And so we had to make our own. Slowly, we formed closer friendships with people who became our de facto family. We threw holiday parties, welcoming lost souls and other families to our table. We traded favors and baby-sitting with other juggling parents.
Sometimes, we failed. We called in sick to work because our child needed us and we had no alternative. Our house got really messy — because there weren’t enough hours in the week to do it all ourselves. We spent holidays alone, at once soaking in the quiet peace of our small, self-contained family, yet longing, too, for the clans that carried on elsewhere, without us.
Though challenging at times, parenting far from family has done two things for us. It has helped my husband and I become a stronger team. We don’t have the luxury of taking life’s hardships out on each other, because we rely too heavily on the other’s goodwill and sanity. We love each other, and appreciate each other’s contributions, every day.
And I like to think it encourages us to be better parents. No grandparent, except during much-awaited trips, is going to take our children to the museum, or tutor them in math each week, or sit and listen to them — really listen in the way that grandparents, not distracted by screens and a million errands and stressors, are apt to do.
Parenting far from family support, we have to be the most well-rounded, present parents we can be.
But still, there are times when a little bit of family goes a long way. Ten days from my due date, still pregnant and panicked about who would watch our older daughter during the labor and birth of my second, we drove to the airport to pick up my mother. Because my first baby had come three weeks early, we had assumed the second one would arrive before my mom’s scheduled trip.
Instead, my body, showing its deep-rooted need for family, waited. Four hours after we returned from the airport with my jet-lagged mom and fell into our beds, my water broke. My first baby was cared for lovingly by my own mother as our second child entered the world.
Natalie Singer-Velush is ParentMap’s web editor.