The Biggest Reason I Miss Our Close-Knit Neighborhoods

close-knit neighborhoods close-knit neighborhoods
close-knit neighborhoods

My husband and I were pulling into the cul-de-sac where we live when we saw two shadowy figures arguing on our lawn. It was late at night, but we were still a few minutes early to relieve our babysitter. By the time we got to the driveway, one of the figures had retreated into the Honda parked on the street and the other had run into the house. Assuming we’d find the sitter inside and the stranger in the car — which indeed was the case — my husband and I split up to interrogate.

It’s a parent’s nightmare: coming home after a rare night out to witness unknown shenanigans. We’re left to wonder: Can we ever leave our kids in the hands of sitters, or do we need to chain ourselves to the house?

Remember the days when it felt like we actually knew the people in our neighborhood, community and town? When I was growing up, my parents could easily book any number of babysitters because they knew the parents, knew the families, and many times had even watched the sitter grow up. There was an inherent comfort and familiarity. Today, I know exactly two of my neighbors well enough to even exchange pleasantries on the street; most of the time we all keep to ourselves. This is partially because of the age in which we live and partially because thanks to my job as a freelance writer, much of my life is lived online. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, except that my virtual life cannot offer me everything — quality babysitters being one of those things — and I’m feeling that loss. Sure, there are apps. But it’s not the same.

When we lose our communities, we lose our local relationships, and with them go comforts that previous generations took for granted: borrowing a cup of sugar or a hedge trimmer, having someone to hold a ladder for you or plan a potluck with… or being long-term chummy with a family whose teens would gladly watch your children for a few hours. As it is now, getting a sitter involves me inviting a stranger into my home and entrusting her with…. well… everything. It’s one of many symptoms of this virtual-based lifestyle.

The young woman I confronted in my kitchen that night had been a first-time sitter for us. She claimed that everything was fine, that she had called a friend to pick her up after the sit and they were just talking outside. That may be totally true. All I know is that I wasn’t expecting a lovers’ quarrel in my front yard at 10:45 p.m. on a Friday.

Still, she’d done her job. The girls were asleep, and everything went well, according to them the next morning. In fact, my twins loved this new sitter because she used swear words around them and let them make videos on her TikTok which she then shared with the world. That’s all it takes, apparently.

Of course, they’ll never see her again, much to their chagrin. I’ll go back to the drawing board and re-start my labor-intensive process. Step 1: I talk to the sitter on the phone, so I can judge her voice and the answers to my questions (like, have you ever sat for twins/babies/ADHD kids/picky eaters before?). Step 2: We meet at a coffee shop nearby. This proves she has transportation, but I don’t have to disclose where we live. In case she’s secretly a serial killer, obviously — which a 20-minute coffee shop meeting can’t disprove anyway. But ignoring that, if that step goes relatively well, I move on to Step 3: a visit at our house so I can watch her interact with the precious children I brought into this world who now hold me prisoner there.

That’s so much work just to get a night off! It’s an exhausting job interview process for both of us. Everyone hates it, but if I don’t do it, I end up with modern-day Romeo and Juliet in my front bushes. Or worse.

We can patch our lives together using technology and virtual communities, but what we really need is to know our neighborhoods again, to have friends in real space-time. This will make a lot of things better, including the possibility that we can feel more comfortable with the sitters we invite into our homes.

And it’s got to start with us. Just hoping for an invite to an old-school neighborhood barbecue won’t be enough. We have to be the ones to put ourselves out there and throw the party. Or say hi at the mailbox. Or offer a helping hand to the woman across the street struggling with yard work. It’s not hard to be friendly, we’re just perhaps out of practice.

Darlena Cunha is a mother of twins and has written for Time Magazine, The Washington Post, and the Atlantic, among other places.