I've been working on an article about child abuse prevention efforts in Maryland over the past couple of weeks. The United States has the worst record on child abuse in the developed world; a congressional report cited 2,500 child abuse-related deaths in 2009 alone. It's hard to wrap one's head around a figure like that, and hard to understand what it is about the particularities of American life that leads to such a disheartening reality.
When I interviewed the director of a state-wide nonprofit dedicated to preventing abuse and neglect, she told me it wasn't just up to their programs. She said ensuring children grow up healthy is everybody's business: the mail carrier, the bus driver, the elderly neighbor, the checker at the grocery store. It made me think of Mr. Rogers and his unique emphasis on being a good neighbor. Everyone was part of Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, including the viewer, and everyone had an important role to play. The model of community Mr. Rogers shared was one of deep interpersonal connections and mutual responsibility and care.
The director of the nonprofit told me that reducing isolation and education were the central ways that her programs helped parents manage the stress of raising children. Because no matter where you live or who you are, being a parent is hard. I didn't know I could feel rage--coursing through my body, making my hands involuntarily curl into claws, I-could-strangle-someone style rage--until I became a mother. It is a job that tries you in every conceivable way. Like so many of you, I am blessed with a caring partner and supportive friends and family members. I've long recognized that without them, I'm not sure I could have always managed to protect my children's bodies from those moments of rage.
But talking with this director made me realize that it's not just about our intimates. It's about our neighbors! I think of the octogenarian great-grandmother who commiserated with me in line at the post office when my children were behaving badly, a woman who exuded warmth and humor and helped me put things back into perspective. The librarian who volunteered to help us find a special book when one of the kids was about to tantrum and I was about to cry, kindly steering us away from the edge of the cliff. Or the man who ran up to me with a peach-colored rose as I pushed a crying baby in the stroller past his garden, explaining that it was the last one on the bush and he wanted me to have it.
The whole 'it takes a village' thing is often seen as a warm and fuzzy idea, the kind of thing a person who likes potlucks and church bazaars and community theater (check, check, check) might pronounce. A fine bumper sticker indeed; an excellent guiding principle for organizing family life!
But there is so much more at stake. Maybe it takes a village to keep a child alive. Maybe every time you meet someone's eyes or offer a small gesture of support, every time you tell a new mother how beautiful her baby is, hold a door, or ask if you can help, you are doing something huge. Critical. You are being a good neighbor, and perhaps good neighbors reduce isolation and educate parents better than any formal program. And given our country's stats, we are all in need of a bit more neighborliness in our communities.
To the villagers in my life, many of whom I have met only once: thank you. I am so grateful. Thank you for my beautiful, healthy children.