I was raised within a village. Not a literal village, but the proverbial village that it takes to raise a child – I was surrounded by aunties, uncles, cousins, and cared for by my paternal grandmother while my parents worked.
When my parents moved to the UK for further study, however, I was no longer part of that village. I was two and too young to remember, but my dad still reminisces about that time. I had to be kept occupied when my mum slept (she was a nurse and worked night shifts) and dad worked on his Masters.
But we moved back to Malaysia, and I was welcomed back into the arms of my village. It was awesome, infuriating (the way families can be), and I never felt alone.
Without my village
When I moved to Australia to be with my now-husband, I had wondered how things would be like for our future children. I held on tight to the knowledge that if my parents could do it, raising a toddler in a foreign country without the support of a village, surely I could do it too.
In 2014, my son was born 11 days overdue. It was three days before my mother had to fly home to Malaysia – she had taken three weeks off work to be with me to assist with my ‘confinement’ period. When she left, it started to sink in that we were, effectively, alone.
My husband had time off work, fortunately, but we were living in regional Victoria. We were far from friends and family in Melbourne. His own family were hours away. There were friends we could call on for help, in a pinch, but it wasn’t the same.
When things were going all right, I felt fine. But if I started imagining worst-case scenarios, where either my husband or I were unable to look after our son, it would bring me to tears. I had never felt so alone or so uncertain.
What you make of it
I had to make my own village, albeit an electronic one. A friend from antenatal classes became my lifeline in the first year of my son’s life. We texted several times a day about our babies and our bodies. We made plans every few days to do something together.
In the absence of family close by, my friend became my family. She didn’t come from the same cultural background as me. She didn’t understand some things like the traditional confinement period. But she listened and respected those differences, as I did hers.
My mothers’ group – a council initiative to connect new mothers in the area to peers and local health services – was also crucial to my mental and emotional wellbeing. We all came from different backgrounds but bonded as our babies were, in many cases, born just days apart. While I’ve moved across the country, we still keep in touch to ask for advice – or have a rant – in our private Facebook group.
Not without challenges
Raising my child outside the village has been hard, but it’s also been a character-building experience. Without having to rely on the wisdom of my elders on hand, I’ve had to be resourceful. I had to push through the darkest moments of early parenthood, and there were many.
My husband has become an equal partner in raising our child, and I don’t feel the need to micro-manage everything. (I mean, sure, I would probably do things a little differently, but …)
At times, I do feel bad about raising my child away from his cousins and his grandparents. But he knows no different. And we’ve all consciously made an effort to see each other every few months, despite our geographical distances. When our son sees his extended family, it’s like they’ve never been apart. He is just as affectionate with them as he is with us.
As he grows older, there will no doubt be more challenges. We’re lucky we haven’t yet been in a situation where we both cannot care for him, due to illness or injury, but we know we have people we can call on.
A few months ago, we packed up the contents of our home to move halfway across Australia. We left behind our first home, jobs we loved, and the network of friends we came to regard as family for better prospects. It wasn’t the first time we’ve done it on our own, and it probably won’t be our last.
Thanks to technology and social media, for most of the part, our electronic village has come with us. We may not have a village around us as we raise our child, but it’s brought us closer as a family.
By Faye Song
Faye Song is a former journalist now working in marketing and communications. She lives in Darwin, where she enjoys the best of Southeast Asia (the food and night markets) and Australia (the workday that ends punctually at 4.21pm), with her husband, toddler and small dog.