A New Way to be Family
Upon relocating back to the United States, Matt and I made the very easy decision to move a few townhouses down from our good friends, the Dickerson family. If the Dickersons sound familiar, they should. They lived just a few houses down from us in Morocco and we became fast friends there, as expats tend to do. We even considered ourselves “family.”
Less than a year after they left Morocco, a townhouse opened up in the Dickerson’s neighborhood in Northern Virginia (ahem…it was just 4 units down). We jumped on it immediately. Matt signed the lease before I ever set eyes on the place, which just tells you how little the house mattered compared to the opportunity to get the gang back together again.
Although the choice to move so close was a no-brainer for us, I harbored a few silent fears about how this arrangement might work. What if there are conflicts? Will we be able to carve out lives separate from them? How are we going to navigate the different ways our families operate and communicate? Because while we are like-minded in many ways, we are also separate (and very different) entities.
Nearly a year has gone by and several friends have asked how it’s been. Perhaps I’ve detected a note of skepticism in their voices. My honest response has always been, “It’s incredible. We love it.” It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always been worth it.
First, let me describe how closely our lives are intertwined. For one, our doors are almost always open during the day (don’t read that part, mom) (also, don’t read that part, criminals). That’s so we can just walk in unannounced and borrow fish sticks, or retrieve the 10 items we left there from the night before, or rant about something that came across our facebook feeds. The kids just shuffle back and forth all day, depending on which house is more interesting. We shop for each other. We share childcare duties. We often put our kids to nap at each others’ house. I would estimate that we have dinner together at least 4-5 nights a week. We go to the same church, same doctor, same gym and we listen to the same podcasts. Because with whom else would we discuss them?
If you’re thinking, “whoa, that’s a lot,” you’d be right, but if you’ve ever been at the end of your rope and had an Ashleigh swoop in to remove an offending child, you’d understand the benefits. She didn’t even ask. She just knew.
When I look around at other moms in my similar situation or when I recall my time overseas, I am baffled by how isolated American mothering culture can be. In Tanzania and Morocco, it’s strange to raise your kids without help from others. Even the expat culture is sold on the idea of help in one form or another. So when we were preparing to move home, I couldn’t fathom what mothering in the US would look like all alone. It seemed not just difficult and lonely, but, well…unnatural.
But it’s not just moms who can feel isolated. With federal employees spread all over the giant DC metro area, it’s unlikely Matt will be forging deep relationships with his coworkers. And at our stage in life, it’s hard for him even to make friends at church. So little time is available. Yet, Joe is just a stone’s throw away. Even Carolyn and William, whose fledgling relationships I tend to discount, garner so much from their siblingship with the Dickerson kids. It helps us all feel connected at a time when leaving the house can feel like an insurmountable object.
Over the past year, we have struggled to make friends in our new area outside of our little bubble. And there have been a number of bumps. A few awkward (sometimes hurtful) moments. It’s a little scary to have the layers of your own on onion peeled back for all the Dickerson-world to see. They are more acquainted with our flaws than I imagined anyone would ever be. But we are learning to be quick to forgive. And quick to say “sorry.” And to be more humble. And to hold things we treasure more loosely. And to ask for help. The list goes on…and the work is never finished.
It’s true. We all need family. And, we don’t always have the option to be near the families that reared us. So this is the family we’ve made for ourselves. Our little family would probably be hanging in there just fine without the Dickersons. But we are so rich. Why would we ever want that?