Author: Karen Copeland
It’s true. I remember growing up with close proximity to both sets of grandparents, as well as many opportunities to connect with uncles, aunts and cousins during holidays. I grew up just outside a small farming community in Alberta – and with that came connections with many other adults and children. While some might complain about rural communities, where “everyone knows everyone else’s business”, I look at it differently.
These connections provided me with opportunities to learn core values such as honesty, accountability, reliability, respect, love and motivation. I probably didn’t appreciate it as much back then when I was growing up, but I did have the chance to experience the love of my community in 2008, when my dad passed away.
Our “village” came together in a way I never could have imagined. Supporting us, encouraging us, and letting us know they cared. This was when I really discovered how important my community was to our family. I wish I had understood this sooner. Even today, though I live in another province, my home community supports our family – through social media and also when we return to my mom’s for a visit. They accept us for who we are, with no judgement. I can’t put into words how much that support means to all of us.
Our family lives in an area where we do not have any extended family local to us. I miss the guidance of the “village” that I had growing up. I struggled in the early years with my children, because I had limited support available to assist me. It wasn’t like Grandma could just stop by for an afternoon to give me a break. And when family did come to visit, I didn’t want to go away, I wanted to embrace and enjoy our time together.
When we first started our journey, it was a very isolating time. I struggled with feeling embarrassed and inadequate as a parent, because I did not yet understand what was happening. It was incredibly easy to step away from the play dates and develop a pattern of avoidance. Doing so allowed my negative thoughts about myself to thrive. I lacked confidence in myself, therefore became more sensitive to glances, comments and judgements. This also affected my ability to trust in others, that their intentions toward my child and our family were good.
At some point, I figured out I couldn’t continue to go on the way I was. I knew I needed to start building our own village. This was no easy task, considering how I had withdrawn myself and my increased sensitivities to others. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to ask for help, to put yourself out there as “inadequate”.
I was fortunate because I began working as a peer supporter for a provincial organization, and this provided me with the opportunity to start meeting other parents who were experiencing similar challenges to what our family was going through. I simply cannot overstate the importance of connecting with those who live a similar journey. Knowing we are not alone in this creates strength – I learned from other families – I discovered new ways of doing things, new resources. It bolstered my resiliency and I began to realize that I wasn’t such a “bad” parent after all. As my parenting village began to grow, so did my confidence.
My village wasn’t just other parents though. I started to identify who our champions were within the service systems we were accessing. These were the people who provided me the opportunity to confide and vent when things were not going well, and did not penalize me for it. The people who re-assured me and encouraged me to be gentle with myself.
Sometimes these champions came into our lives in unexpected ways. Like our first mentor, Chris. He was a practicum student working for a local agency we had been referred to. Even though we learned we didn’t necessarily need the service, Chris came on board as a mentor for the remainder of his practicum. When this finished, we asked him to continue on privately. Our new mentor Alan, approached us with the idea of supporting our son in the community. Our son is now becoming connected to other members of Alan’s family, and enjoying outings and opportunities with them. Our son’s village is growing. And as with me, as his village grows, so does his confidence.
People move into our village, but they don’t always stay, and that’s okay. Sometimes people come into our lives at a critical moment, they have something to teach and/or share with us. Just because they leave doesn’t mean we don’t honour the valuable wisdom they shared with us in that time.
Through Champions for Community Mental Wellness, I continue to expand our village. I continue to connect with amazing families and champions in my community, province and country. I am thankful to live in an age where social media also allows the opportunities for people to come together and learn from and with each other – particularly in areas where you might be feeling isolated.
While it is true that I would much prefer my village to “look” like what I lived with when I was growing up, I recognized that I needed to become creative for my current village. That life in a city, far from extended family is much different. I look forward to continuing to grow my village and joining other circles of support.
If you would like to connect with other parents who have children with mental health challenges, Champions hosts a private discussion group on Facebook. You can request to join by clicking the following link: Champions for Mental Health Discussion Group.
How have you created your village? What (or who) have you found to be most helpful on your journey?