It was a birthday party that once would have been almost unimaginable.
A reserved room at a restaurant. Tables pushed together, decorated with helium balloons and lined with presents. Pizzas baking in the kitchen, kids playing games in an adjoining room, grownups catching up since the previous get-together a year earlier.
The guest of honor took it all in stride. This was his third birthday party, and for him pretty much the normal order of things.
For some of the older members of the family, however, it was a case study in how much the normal order of things has changed.
The guest list was long and diverse – little kids, big kids, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great grandparents. Conversation topics ranged from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to sports to politics. A striking contrast to what family birthday parties once were, and to what families once were.
Grayson, the birthday boy, is the son of single parents. They share the responsibilities of caring for him; they just didn’t get married to do it. That’s not uncommon now.
When I was their age, it was anything but common. Women who were pregnant were expected to be married or to get married as quickly as possible. Most of those who had babies without getting married gave them up for adoption. You didn’t hear much about single mothers then.
That’s changed, as have expectations of what constitutes a family. A typical family in those days was a mother, a father and one or more kids. Fathers were the breadwinners, mothers the “homemakers.” With the exception of a childless couple who lived across the street, I can’t think of a single family in my childhood neighborhood who didn’t fit that mold. It was what families were expected to be, the ideal family model.
But was it? Fathers spent most of their time working. When they were home, they tended to be the family disciplinarians. All of my childhood friends were, to one extent or another, afraid of their fathers. I was, to some extent, afraid of mine. This is not to say that they were cruel men. My father was a good man, and in his later years a gentle soul loved by all who knew him. But, like all the fathers in the old neighborhood, he was a strict disciplinarian in his younger years.
My mother, like the other mothers in the neighborhood, was in charge of running the household. She kept the house immaculate. She cooked most of the meals. She did the heavy cleaning, the laundry and changed the sheets on the beds every Saturday. She did all the decorating, from choosing the furniture and carpets to stripping the walls and hanging wallpaper.
My sister and I helped with the housework and yard work, but the lion’s share of the responsibilities fell to our parents. I’ll never forget coming home from school and finding my mother in tears because a cake she baked had fallen. Or my father walking the floor at night, worried about paying the bills. Both had separate burdens, which they shouldered pretty much on their own.
Birthdays were minor events – dinner with the immediate family, a small cake, a modest number of presents.
Fast forward to today, and a different world.
Both of Grayson’s parents are single, but they are far from raising him on their own. The kid is being raised by a village.
Both of his parents are in college; both have part-time jobs. On the days when his dad has him, his family helps out while Dad is working or in school. They take him bowling. They’ve taken him to high school games, and his grandfather on that side of the family is teaching him the finer points of hitting a baseball. They look forward to spending time with him.
On our side of the family, no less than ten family members help share the load while Mom is working or in school. My wife and I have Grayson one morning a week and occasionally overnight. We’ve taken him to basketball games and are regulars at the neighborhood playground. My former office is now a toy repository.
It’s not all fun and games, of course. We’ve all shared in the illnesses, the tears, the frustrations of potty training and trying to keep up with a kid who makes the Energizer Bunny look like a slug. Anyone who thinks raising kids is easy never had any.
But I think we’d all agree that for the most part it’s been a joy. I’ve laughed more in the three years since Grayson was born than I did in the previous ten. True, he wears us out. But it’s a weariness that gladdens the heart.
His grandfather on his dad’s side may have put it best:
“He has his life with his mom, he has his life with you and he has his life with us. And everywhere he goes, he’s marinated in love.”
The results speak for themselves. He’s a happy, well-adjusted kid. He smiles a lot, laughs a lot. He makes the people around him happy.
I’ve always thought I had a happy childhood. I grew up in Boise when it was an idyllic place to grow up. I had good parents, good friends, good teachers. But with all the societal changes since then, good and bad, I think Grayson may be a happier kid than my friends and I were in our early years.
There are things to be said for being raised by a village.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.