“Could we try it with our kids, do you think?” Frannie wondered, rocking the baby carriage with her foot. She watched the other four young mothers to gauge their reactions. They’d just been discussing a Japanese custom called moai, a group of five friends who support each other throughout their lives. Traditionally, parents put their newborns into a moai and those friends stay with them for life. Himari explained that the custom originated in Okinawa and was a powerful tool for combating social isolation.
“Do you think it’s coincidence that Okinawan women have a life expectancy of ninety years, the oldest in the world?” Himari said. “They never feel alone. I talk to my moai friends a couple of times a week, although we’re scattered all over the world now. If I needed them, they’d come; I’d do the same for them.”
The moai seemed foreign and artificial to the other women. Friendships just evolved, didn’t they? Like with them – they’d become friends simply by seeing each other every day. They took their babies out for fresh air, ending up in the neighborhood park. It was pleasant for the mothers to rest their legs and chat for a while. They were the park moms; that’s what they had in common, what brought them together. A purposefully structured framework for friendship would feel unnatural. But still, it was an intriguing idea.
“So how does a moai work?”Jody asked.
“Just like any friendships, I guess,” Himari said. “The members of the moai enjoy life during good times and support each other during bad times.”
The women considered their babies, between two months and one year in age, who were variously cooing, sleeping, or kicking their legs. “But what if they don’t like each other,” Caroline said. “You know, sometimes mothers are good friends, but their kids don’t feel the same connection.”
“We can’t predict what will happen in their futures,” Himari said. “All we can do is give them a strong framework and see what develops.”
And so the Eighth Street Moai was formed as a sort of social experiment. The babies grew and climbed out of their strollers and carriages to play together in the sandbox and on the playground equipment. They received many little lectures on being a friend, helping each other, and playing nicely. Their mothers continued to chat with each other, but always with one eye peeled, ready to jump into action at the sound of a certain cry.
One day Caroline didn’t show up at the park. They figured she’d forgotten to mention a doctor appointment or out of town company. But she wasn’t there the next day, or the next, and the group grew concerned. Jody and Paula went to her house and found Caroline in a sodden heap on the couch, her home in chaos and little Jake needing a diaper change.
“He left me. He just walked out, said he’d met someone else. I can’t think what to do.”
The group rallied around Caroline. They tended Jake, made chicken soup, and cleaned the house. After a while – no one was watching the clock or the calendar – Caroline felt better and was strong enough to start her new life as a single mother.
Jody’s turn was next. She completed her college degree, a long-time effort stretching over about eight years. Despite her self-deprecating shrug – “Oh, no big deal, you all did it in four years, the way you’re supposed to” – the group had a hilarious, wine-drenched celebration that lasted a lot longer than a typical Mommy’s Night Out. They insisted Jody cast aside false modesty and claim her joy.
When Frannie got the scary mammogram report, they all went to the follow-up doctor’s appointment with her. They whooped in relief when further tests indicated the report was a false positive.
Himari’s aged father died in Japan at a time when her finances didn’t stretch to such an expensive plane ticket. The group pooled their Frequent Flyer points and their money and Himari buried her father properly, as a daughter should. Members of her Japanese moai were waiting for her in Japan; the park moms saw her off at the airport and picked her up when she came home.
Paula was the only one who never needed the group’s support. She seemed dauntingly self-sufficient until the day she told them she suffered from depression, an abyss so deep and so black sometimes she thought her family would be better off if she was dead. They took turns staying with Paula around the clock until she could get to a psychiatrist and the anti-depressants kicked in.
By now, the babies were sturdy six-year-olds, ready for first grade. They played together as naturally as a litter of puppies, but soon their worlds would open up to many other possibilities for friendships. Their mothers hoped the moai would hold.
“But you know what?” Frannie said, “I got to thinking, it’s kind of like we have one of our own. We never exactly set it up, though, so I don’t know if it counts.”
Himari smiled. “Oh, I think it does. I think it definitely counts.”