Circling the Wagons

Going through major life-disrupting events is, of course, an unavoidable part of the human condition. Illness, the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, a financial or emotional crisis—even a joyous occasion like the birth of a baby—can knock our worlds off-kilter and make it difficult to take care of ourselves and those who depend on us. And without the help of traditional safety nets in our increasingly fractured, isolated and nomadic society, fulfilling basic needs in times like these can be a real struggle. 

That’s why creating and contributing to self-made communities are more important than ever. “When there’s a crisis or upheaval in a family situation, you have to focus on the basics,” says Lanell Coultas, childbirth educator and doula. “The person going through it can’t because they’re scattered, but the community can. And every day you have to eat and you have to sleep. So if the community can come together and help with those things so the person doesn’t even have to think about it, it will give them the juice and energy to keep doing what needs to be done.”

Coultas has seen this in action over and over in her years of welcoming babies into the world. It’s part of her job description, and it’s also practically in her DNA. Growing up in a Mormon community, she witnessed what she refers to as “The Casserole Militia” benevolently descend upon families in times of emergency and in times of joy. “In Mormon culture, someone’s always having a baby,” she says with a laugh. “And for Mormons, food is a precious resource…and sharing it is our responsibility.” But it isn’t only food that supports those who could use a helping hand. When her sister and brother-in-law were in a terrible car accident, crates of food were delivered to the family, but folks also showed up at the end of each day with a broom and a mop to clean the highly trafficked kitchen floor.

Raini Gomez, birth and postpartum doula, adds that everyone can bring the skills they have to meet the needs of someone grieving or mending or recovering or depleted. “Everyone has their specialty and the thing they love, and to take that on in service to someone else is just the best-case scenario for everyone,” she says.

Amy Nylund also knows all too well the various ways community can offer support during a crisis. When her house flooded in October 2013, her husband, Rob, was in the hospital recovering from major surgery. Her friends, family and school community swooped in to help. Dozens of people helped clean and pack up Nylund’s house; others delivered meals or gave the family meal delivery certificates, and a friend even played project manager—creating spreadsheets to organize insurance claims. Still others stored the Nylund’s belongings in their garages, took care of their dog and helped them find temporary housing. “And that’s all just the tip of the iceberg,” Nylund recalls. “What all of it really meant, taken all together, was that in our most challenging time, we felt loved and lifted up. We felt hope. We didn’t feel isolated or adrift—we were grounded by our people.”

There are myriad ways to coordinate all of the manifestations of community assistance—care calendar websites, such as Lotsa Helping Hands, CareCalendar, Caring Bridge, Meal Train, Send Them a Meal and others, are in abundance these days. But before the proliferation of these high-tech, mobile-friendly scheduling tools, a group of Austin women was doing it the “old-fashioned” way—through a Yahoo listserv via the AustinMama website. The AustinMama Red Tent (ART) program (named after the novel, “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant, which is loosely based on the story of Dinah in the Book of Genesis) was started in 2004 as a way to extend a more involved hand in the AustinMama listserv community. “With over two thousand local mamas generating around two hundred messages a day, we heard about a lot of need on the list,” says website and listserv founder, Kim Lane. “Members weren’t necessarily asking for help directly, but through sharing, venting, seeking advice and commiseration, it became clear that there were things many of us could do to help.”

While most often we hear about help coming from friends, family, co-workers, members of school and faith-based communities, etc., AustinMama listserv members who sign up to help through ART may have never met the recipient face to face. “It’s been such an inspiration to see members—many who have never seen each other in person—eagerly extending a hand completely without judgment,” Lane says. “They show up with full hearts, knowing that we all need help at some point and it’s okay.” 

A “giver” in Red Tents countless times herself over the years, Lane has also been a receiver—and it had a lasting affect. “When I had my first Red Tent, my husband was in the hospital having lung surgery. AustinMama members quickly circled the wagons, fed me and my children for a month and had my house professionally cleaned because they knew I was logging many hours at the hospital. One member even made a mix-tape of songs about air, breath and breathing for good luck. The experience was emotionally overwhelming—in the very best way—and changed how I now approach anyone in need.”

For Gomez, discovering the existence of the community care concept of the Red Tent was something of a revelation. When she had her first baby, she had no idea she could ask for help, or that she was even worthy of it. “I didn’t have friends with children,” she says. “I didn’t have a connection to a tribe or network. All of my friends were partying and going to shows—that’s what we did! We were music people.” Since then, she has cultivated a large and active tribe and network, and as a doula, she helps create them for others. “Learning how to ask for what you need is self-care,” Gomez says. “That’s how you’re going to be the best parent, partner, friend, and get through difficulty.” Coultas agrees. “That’s something that I would love to see,” she says, “that everyone feels valued and worthy enough to be fed by their community.”

by Anne Marie Hampshire

Tips for Delivering Meals

  • Designate a gatekeeper to coordinate with those who sign up, and set parameters, such as food preferences and restrictions, preferred times to deliver, etc. 
  • Don’t expect to visit with a new parent or anyone else accepting food. Ask first. Maybe they’re up for company and maybe they’re not. In any case, if invited in, don’t linger. (And if visiting a new baby, remember to wash your hands before touching him or her.)
  • If there’s a new baby in the house and the family isn’t up for visitors, suggest placing a sign on the door announcing the baby and stats. In such cases, a cooler left on the porch to leave food in is helpful.
  • If you’re not into cooking or don’t have the time, you can still contribute. Favor and Instacart gift certificates are useful (and give recipients some choice in what they’re eating), as are deliveries of meals from favorite restaurants.
  • Think beyond dinner. A quick lunch delivery can help break up the day for a new parent who may be alone with the baby all day.
  • Offer up breakfast foods such as bars, muffins, granola or yogurt, or anything that can be eaten on the fly and/or one-handed.
  • Snacks, snacks, snacks. Fresh fruit (or fruit salad in a jar), nuts, hummus, crackers with cheese and cut veggies are all good choices.
  • Indulgences are usually welcomed. Think ice cream, baked goods and a favorite beer or bottle of wine (this might be especially appreciated by new moms who haven’t indulged in a while).