How Catholics can create more supportive communities

Some of us Catholic women are very fortunate in where we live. We are those who live, by happenstance or by design, in a community of Catholic Christians who are trying hard to live holy lives.

You know the kind of places I mean. Often, they are located near a Catholic college or university, or near a large Christian-oriented business. Sometimes they are enclaves in large cities that boast a significant orthodox Catholic subculture.

In these places, is it not unusual to have several children. When you’re dating, it’s not shocking to limit physical affection. It’s not weird to make any number of countercultural choices. In fact, in these communities, you can raise your children surrounded by models of faithful Christian life.

Then why is it so hard in these places to make friends?

I hear it all the time. Just the other day, I asked a woman new to my town, “How are you liking it here?”

“Ummm …” she responded.

It’s a hard place to crack into, I know.

Don’t get me wrong. Wild horses couldn’t drag me away from these lovely hills, this holy parish and these loving people; my town is truly a wonderful place. But suffering comes to people in good, intentional communities just as it does in all places. And in our Catholic communities, feeling lonely and desperate for help can be a common kind of suffering. Sadly, this seems to affect young mothers most of all. Why do young Catholic mothers too often feel, in the words of an acquaintance, “so, so sad” in places where they are in fact surrounded by good people?

The generational breakdown

There are many factors at play, but one in particular deserves greater consideration than it usually receives.

In our society at large, we are faced with a generational breakdown in family life and rootedness in place that plays out by creating two separate spheres in our community lives: the “haves,” those with (especially local) extended family support, and the “have nots,” those without it. And even in Christian communities, we have not yet learned how to bridge the gap.

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I have noted that, when it comes down to it, those of us with local extended family treat this family as our social foundation. These people generally rely on family when they are in need and give help to family in return. Although they have friends, those aren’t the people they ask for help when the kids are barfing. They rely on family.

That does not mean that those with extended family support have it easy, nor does it mean that it is always an unalloyed blessing to have mom or mom-in-law there when the new baby comes. It also does not mean that they do not need or value friends.

But what does this mean for those without this support, whose wider families are broken or are not within spitting distance?

To some degree it means that these people struggle to create effective friendship- or fee-based (think babysitters and private school tuitions) replacements for family, replacements that are necessary to keep parents from repeatedly drowning when faced with the ordinary challenges of life (like the above mentioned barfing). Sometimes they even struggle to make friends at all.

We simply cannot access adequate personal support.

Mourning what we do not have

Now, this is no one’s fault, not really. Yes, families like mine could have chosen to stay near one of our extended families, although important factors can make this difficult. But we could not have brought my mother back from the dead to help me with new babies, nor could we have cured the limiting health problems of our other beloved parents. There are countless reasons that families cannot help one another in the ways that we would all prefer.

So I can’t help but feel a tremendous sense of loss when my family struggles so much in circumstances in which others have family that can step in. I rejoice that I am blessed with a wonderful (though primarily not local) extended family in many ways. I am also blessed with amazing friends. Whenever I have had a baby, for example, my community of friends and acquaintances has provided many generous home-cooked meals for my family — an incredible gift that is surely connected to the strength and Catholicity of our community. But I still came down with postpartum depression all four times, in large part because that little bit of help just simply was not enough.

Even when friends become close enough over time to mimic family, we sometimes have to put limits on friendship because we must prioritize our own families.

Big changes and big commitments are just not within our power in the short term. So what can we do better?

Creating stronger communities

First, we can prioritize creating strong extended families for ourselves and our children. We can reach out to mend estrangements, and we can build toward active grandparenthood for ourselves by being good stewards of our health.

Second, we can strengthen support within friendships. I have friends now, after 10 years here, who would drop everything to help me in a crisis, or even just to drop Pedialyte off on my porch. Some of these friends are also my children’s godparents, and can mimic family.

We also can find little things to do to challenge xenophobia and perfectionism in our culture. When we meet a newcomer, we can ask them how they are liking the place. We can say “hi” to new people at Mass, even if it feels awkward. Imagine how much more awkward it feels to them to just stand there while the rest of us obliviously chatter away with our already-family or already-friends.

We can lower our expectations and help a newcomer out once or twice, even if we don’t anticipate becoming good friends. Maybe we can just be the bridge to get them through until they find their “people.”

We can be honest with ourselves about our limits, too, and not sign up for that meal train if we’re just too overwhelmed right now — but still give the friendly smile across the pew.

And perhaps, most of all, we can be the first to accept help. Sometimes we think we need to appear invincible so that others don’t look at us and say, “Gosh, I’m glad I’m not Catholic.” But accepting help models courage and humility. It is often the first step in building strong relationships.

Finally, we can be willing to speak up when things seem to be going awry in our community. Others are thinking the same things you are, too. Say, “I wish we could talk about Jesus more together, and not just about laundry.” Say, “I don’t know what to say, but my heart is with you.” Say, “I don’t think the same way as you about Biblical headship [or whatever] but I think there’s room for both interpretations.”

Let’s not let perfectionism and loneliness keep us from helping each other. Instead, let’s actively build the connections we need so that the next generation will experience community lives that are not just orthodox, but include consistent interpersonal support.

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