When my daughter was about to turn three, I asked her which friends she wanted to invite to her party. Without hesitating, she began listing them: "Kristy, Roxanne, Jason, Geoff…" Mark and I laughed out loud, then asked, "Do you want to invite any kids?" Her entire list was made up of our grad school friends. At the time I thought her impulse was cute and funny, but now I think better of it. These were her friends, after all: they'd been her constant companions since birth, volunteering care when Mark and I went out, accompanying us to the mall and grocery store, joining us for impromptu potlucks. Whoever had the most food in the fridge -- or the best idea for a main course -- would host. Why wouldn't she think these were her friends?
While grad school is a distant memory, and we're not in touch with everyone as often as we'd like, these are still among Mariah's friends. And I mean that in the contemporary FaceBook sense as well as the old-fashioned one: when some of my former grad school colleagues and I joined FaceBook, Mariah was one of the first to "friend" us.
A couple weekends ago we held a party to celebrate Mariah's high school graduation. Again I asked her for an invitation list, and again the list was almost entirely comprised of adults, most of them old enough to be her parents or even grandparents. Many of those on her guest list are members of the church choir in which we both sing; I joined when she was seven, and she started coming along and adding her voice when she was about twelve. These are the folks who have watched her grow up, monitored her hair color changes along with her vocal ones, taken her to lunch, and hired her to watch their dogs, their cats, their children.
When I joined the choir -- for that matter, when I had my first child in grad school -- I wasn't really thinking about what my children would get out of the experience. I was doing something for myself. But without really planning it, I've managed to give both my kids a community of extra adults, of folks who aren't their parents but who are invested in their lives -- and, in so doing, have eased my own burdens and enriched my kids' lives all at once.
I remember the first time my husband and I brought Mariah east to my parents' house for Christmas. We were in grad school on the west coast and it was a long and arduous journey, made more difficult by the typical holiday travel snafus. By the time we settled in at my folks', my three siblings were already there. For the rest of the week, I barely worried about Mariah once. Wherever she went, whatever she did, there was a willing adult nearby to watch, to monitor, to read to her or pick her up or put her down and play. I remember saying to my mother, "the next time I have kids, I'm going to make sure there are always more adults than children around." While I didn't quite manage that unusual household set-up, I've had versions of that in grad school and, later, in other communities as well. At Mariah's party, the adults who clustered around her, offering their congratulations, sharing our food, chatting about her plans -- and theirs -- for the summer and beyond, were and are part of her community, her life. They have made our task as parents immeasurably richer and, truly, easier. What a gift.