MEMBERS ONLY: Building the Village to Raise My Family

Raising a family is not easy but raising one together with a friend can make all the difference in the world. The sense of community of not only having someone to rely on but being there for them as well is irreplaceable.

In 2013, my wife and I packed up kids, our cats, and our stuff, said goodbye to all of our friends and family and moved from New York City to Alexandria, Virginia. We moved to the west end of the city into an apartment complex with an overwhelmingly large percentage of immigrant families. We are surrounded by a mix of people from Central America, West/Northern Africa and the Middle East. Coming from New York, we’re used to diversity so this was not a big deal for us. But many of the families are new to the country and tend not to mingle outside of their own particular cohort.

As the eventual president of the PTA, this has made recruiting parents maddeningly difficult despite being in the second largest elementary school in the entire city. As just people, it’s meant a fair bit of isolation. It’s difficult to make friends with people when A. you don’t speak the same language, B. they’re not particularly interested in speaking to you in the first place because you’re not part of their cohort, or C. a combination of both.

The isolation part wasn’t exactly new to us either since we have an autistic son. If you’re not aware of this already, when people have a disabled child, other parents, other people, avoid you like the plague. Especially when the disability is something they don’t understand. It makes them profoundly uncomfortable. I used to resent the f*ck out of this but it’s just how people are.

Still, not fun.

Our daughter Anastasia, on the other hand, made friends wherever she went because, mostly, she didn’t give them a choice. Even as a 3-year-old on the playground, when there was no one her age to play with, Anastasia would walk up to older girls, 3, 4 years older, take their hand and tell them to play with her. She was so sincere about it that they always went with her, slightly bemused that they were being ordered around by a kid half their size. If she’d had the slightest whiff of arrogance about her, she’d be “bossy”; instead, we simply called it “executive authority” because she took charge without being obnoxious. It was something to watch.

And that’s how we met Lila and her mother Claudia.

Our apartment complex has a community pool which, coming from NYC, is a marvel in and of itself. We had moved in the beginning of August so we only had a few weeks that first summer to indulge. But you can bet we were regulars the following summer. One weekend we were alone at the pool and Claudia showed up with her daughter Lila. Anastasia did what Anastasia does and informed Lila that she would be playing with her. Lila, being only two years older said “Sure!” and off they went.

We struck up a bit of small talk with Claudia but she was distant and it petered out. We weren’t aware of it at the time but her marriage had soured years earlier and was entering its terminal phase.

We saw them at the pool a few more times but couldn’t get it together for a play date.

Time passed and out of the blue, Claudia walked into Coffee with the Principal in June of 2016, a monthly morning gathering the school has for parents to meet with the administration and chat about whatever is bothering them and to get some updates on the school. As the PTA president, I tend to go to every meeting to show my support for the school and to sneak in a few minutes of PTA boosting.

Since Claudia is a teacher in a different school division, she’s never been to one before and I was extremely surprised to see her. But the school she was working at at the time finishes almost a month earlier than mine so, on a whim, she decided to go for once. She was looking around, unsure and uncomfortable, at a group of unfamiliar faces (I found out later she never really socialized with any of the other families despite living there for years), so I called her over.

She sat and down and, unusually, opened up. She really needed someone to talk to and I was more than happy to listen as she explained that her marriage was over and that she and Lila were moving out. She was, naturally, worried about money but her biggest concern was how she was going to get Lila to school in the morning. As a teacher, she had to be at work earlier than she could drop Lila off and there was no way she would be able to afford before school care.

Being the extremely selfish person that I am, I offered to drop Lila off in the mornings. Claudia was looking for an apartment in the same complex so Lila could stay in the same school so all she had to do was drop her off at our apartment before going to work. Since I have two kids going to the same school, the chances of both of them being sick at the same time and me not dropping at least one of them off were pretty damn small (it’s happened once in 4 years so far).

How is this selfish, you ask? My main motivation was so Anastasia would have someone to play with in the morning. Anastasia, as you may have noticed, is an extremely social creature. She requires interaction with other kids the way a flower requires sunlight. Having a brother with autism has been extremely frustrating for her (although she’s amazing with him, she desperately wishes she could play with him more). And that very week, I kid you not, we found out that the two girls from two different families that she played with in our building were both moving at the end of July.

So, yeah, I needed to find her someone new to play with, even if it was only in the morning. Very selfish even if it was also helping out Claudia.

For her part, Claudia couldn’t believe I was offering but I was insistent that it was no big deal (because it wasn’t and I really wanted a playmate for Anastasia). She continued to talk about what was going on in her life and I could tell it had been a while since she’d had a chance to unload. That’s when she mentioned she was looking for a one bedroom apartment in the complex and I got all selfish again.

Our next door neighbor was an elderly German gentleman who hated us because we had two young children. They were too noisy, you see. And after three years, he decided to move. Lo and behold, it was a one bed apartment. I casually mentioned this to Claudia and, gee howdy!, you could just send Lila right over and leave for work in the morning! Wouldn’t that be super convenient?!

This time I mentioned I wouldn’t mind at all having someone for Anastasia to play with. She said she’d think about and in July, Claudia and Lila moved next door.

It turned out to be a match made in heaven. Anastasia and Lila spent a year attached at the hip, playing, squealing, and fighting like the sisters they never had. Deb and I had someone that could watch the kids every now and then if we wanted to go out on a date night or just run some errands in peace and quiet.

Once Jordan got used to both Claudia and Lila and once they learned Jordan’s behaviors, we could leave with zero worries. For autism parents, this is priceless beyond words, a king’s ransom in gold. We’re not even fully comfortable leaving Jordan with Debbie’s parents but we breeze out of the door when Claudia is watching the kids without a second’s hesitation.

For Claudia’s part, she got not one, but two babysitters, one of them a stay at home parent. There’s only been a few times where Lila had to stay home from school while Claudia had to go to work but I was there for her. I plopped Lila on the couch, covered her in blankets, and fed her soup and cookies while I worked. Claudia worries that she takes advantage of us because we pick up and drop off Lila for her far more than we need her to get our kids. We laugh this off because, as I explained above, having someone that is not only willing, but competent, to watch Jordan is a gift beyond comparison.

But I suppose the most important thing we’ve done for Claudia is to help her and Lila get through a nasty divorce, especially Lila. As children of nasty divorces ourselves, Debbie and I know how brutal it can be on a kid (and the adult). Knowing this, we resolved to be as supportive as possible. Whenever Lila is over, we treat her like she was one of own, giving her all the attention she wants (and needs) without shortchanging Anastasia or Jordan. According to Claudia, even her ex-husband, who resents the hell out of us, has said that we’ve been good for Lila, providing a stabilizing influence when she needed it the most. God knows Deb and I could have used that at her age.

Still, when Claudia told me off-handedly a few weeks ago that Lila thinks of me as a father figure, I could feel the blood drain from my face. That’s a heavy responsibility Deb and I had speculated about but it’s one thing to wonder, it’s another thing to hear it. I wasn’t trying to one up Lila’s father but he’s terrible at parenting (and that’s not just Claudia’s opinion, I’ve spent enough time around him to see it for myself). Lila is an awesome kid and deserves better so we do what we can. We joke with her about how we unofficially adopted her as a Rosario and if she needs us as a crutch to get through this period of her life, that’s a privilege we’ll accept without complaint.

We don’t always have the luxury of choosing our family and it’s even rarer that we stumble across someone that needs us as much as we need them. Aside from our mutual dependence, Claudia has become our best friend, the three of us spending hours just hanging out and talking. Sometimes we leave all three kids in one apartment and we sit next door yapping away all evening (we check on them every now and then to make sure they’re still alive). On those unbelievably rare occasions when all three of us are off while the kids are at school, we’re practically giddy to go out “adulting” to lunch or a movie.

Earlier this year, when the reality that Jordan would almost certainly need to be supervised for the rest of his life came crashing down on us, Debbie fell apart for a week. So did I but since we couldn’t both fall apart at the same time, I had to hold it together while Debbie worked her way through it. I slipped next door and broke down crying while talking to Claudia. Despite her general loathing of physical contact (she’s not a big hugger), she came over and held me while I sobbed. Even as I was having my meltdown, I understood how hard that was for her but she did it anyway.

Our village may be small but it’s strong, vibrant, and happy. Even after we “break up the band” someday (we’re going to have to move eventually), we’re going to be family for the rest of our lives.

Not bad for a random meeting at a pool.