“A partner is not a village,” my friend reminded me the morning after yet another of my white picket fences fell. I was suffering from the vestiges of my date-to-mate days, when a person’s wink would send my imagination to a fenced-in back yard where a tall man tossed a ball to my children, his wedding band glistening in the sun (he was left-handed). I wanted the type of family that fits neatly on one piece of construction paper. See two parents. See two children. See one dog. See green sun; another kid took the yellow crayon. 

My friends sometimes have to nudge me toward my higher picture—the one that doesn’t rely on the classist trope of the contained family, protected and disconnected from others. Moon-round with my daughter, I’d imagined a community like the one I’d only read about in Shay Youngblood’s Big Mama Stories—lots of mamas all around, each with a different lesson to prepare a young girl for the world. But the unfulfilled promise of integration means that my daughter’s aunties, uncles, and “other mothers” are not three doors down; there is no genuine neighborhood watch made of friends who call to tell you what your children are doing. In fact, there are few streets where our children are both welcome and safe. It seems that community is more imaginary than tangible, developed and maintained in virtual space.

When I run out of diapers ten minutes before bed time, it doesn’t matter how many Facebook friends I have. When rush hour traffic stands between me and my child’s daycare, the long-distance aunties can’t pick the baby up by Skype. Nor can they assist when the biscuits are burning while the baby’s in the bath tub. Or when I don’t feel like making biscuits at all and I’ve already maxed out my fast food cheat days. Or when I’m three days from a paycheck and the gas light is on in my car. Or when I need help with potty training because my toddler is bored by my praise. Or when I just need three hours without a demand. A parent needs a lot of favors; the marriage script suggests that it is easier to roll over to ask for them than to reach out. 

Reaching out takes practice, patience and awkwardness. I’ve stood in front of churches with a baby on my hip, wondering what kind of small talk would lead to a dinner invitation. “Wasn’t that sermon good? I’m a long way from home and hungry.” Or “Sister so-and-so sang her face off! I’m a long way from home and can’t cook.”

We usually ended up at the soul food restaurant around the corner, a table for one and a half.

I also tried to find community in my daughter’s school by employing a stay-at-home mom invention—the play date. The ask is something like this: “I know our kids play together for at least six hours five days a week, but I think they might also like to play together on Saturdays so I can mostly talk to you while we make sure they don’t burn the place down.”

Community means practical, difficult questions. Can you be at this place at this time? Can we share space? Can we share food? Can I help you clean/ fold/ wash? Can you help me wash/ fold/ clean? Can we be each other’s emergency contact? Can I loan you money? Can I borrow money? Can we physically show up for each other?

The practical questions are the bones of community; the philosophical ones are the spirit that animates them: Can we love each other as if they are not shooting us down in the streets with impunity? When we hug, can I hold onto your body as if no one has ever knocked it down, held it down, dragged it, beat it, ignored it, not seen it, mocked it, or otherwise disrespected its divinity? May I? Will you? Can we share our triggers and respect them? Can you tell me when my unattended hurts begin to do harm of their own? Will I hear you? Can we show love and be love and live love? Can we listen as if no one has ever silenced us? Can we cry as if no one has ever told us that tears were for the weak? Can we laugh as if no one has ever said laughter was counter-revolutionary? Can we build the world we want to see with the bricks and mortar of theory and praxis? Can we live in intention?

The affirmative answers to these questions are the basis of my ideal community, the relationships I’d like my daughter to map onto her construction paper.  See Mommy. See family. See us. See me.

Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta.