Research on Parenthood

Innovations in the ‘village it takes…’: Parenthood in intentional community

We know that ‘social network’ is important for parents, but how does that work? Usually we think in the most traditional sense: friends, family and neighbors. But far outside the mainstream, ‘intentional communities’ combine the practicalities of living together with a shared vision of life, often including an alternative parenting philosophy. This study explores parents’ experience of living in one such community and its profound impact on their parenthood. This provides a fresh perspective on what it is to be a parent, about what kind of support parents need, and how we may use these insights in professional practice.

Background of study

Whether by instinct or from reading the research, we all know the importance for parents of having a good social network to support them in their difficult task. But what do we really know about ‘social networks’, and how they function for parents? For example, what makes it possible for parents to avail themselves (or not) of a social network? And what do we mean by ‘social network’ anyway? All too often we do not think beyond the standard assumption that the term ‘social network’ refers to the extended family, friends and neighbors surrounding a traditional heterosexual, two-parent family. Parents who do not feel at home in these networks may feel outside of the mainstream, which can lead to a sense of stigmatization or not belonging, but equally may result in the active pursuit of ‘identity-networks’– that is, other similarly inclined parents with similar lifestyle or sexual orientations or belief systems, interests etc. There is little research on the ways that parents consciously create or join such ‘chosen’ forms of ‘family’ or the impact that such non-traditional extended ‘family’ networks may have on their parenthood.

‘Intentional communities’ are a diverse and burgeoning phenomenon worldwide. The term refers to communities that have been set up with the conscious intention to combine the practicalities of living together with a shared vision of life in one or more of its sociopolitical, ethical, ecological, spiritual, pragmatic, or other dimensions. In some of these communities, shared parenting philosophies or even a coordinated pedagogical approach that may include an on-site school, form an element of the shared vision. Parents may choose to live in intentional community for many reasons, some of them having to do with the practicalities of parenting and the desire for a satisfactory form of shared childcare and/or education, at the same time as there is a broader philosophical and identity-related component to the attraction.  The sense of being part of a ‘family of choice’ is strong.

Plan and preliminary findings

This exploratory research study interviews parents about their experience of living in intentional community and its impact on their parenthood. Initial findings suggest that while the identity of the community is generally much broader than its pedagogical philosophy, for these parents there is a synergy between the different elements of the vision as a whole and their views and questions about being parents, as well as their concept of their relationship with their children. In both practical and emotional senses, they report that being embedded as parents within a stable, caring and involved network of other adults and children enables them to engage more broadly in adult development while being a parent. Finally, group support also means group intervention or ‘meddling’, and these parents talk about what is like to parent in the context where the group has an active involvement in their parenthood.

These preliminary findings, coming from a place far outside of the mainstream, enable us to stop and look from a fresh perspective at what it is to be a parent, and to reconsider how we think about supporting parents. We gain new insights about what parents need to be able to accept and trust support from social networks and, by extension, from professionals. And for that matter, what is the difference between professional and peer support? How we may use these insights in professional practice?