Thursday, March 12, 2009

Parenting alone: We need more allomothers

I've been overwhelmed with posts that I've had the urge to write. I started one two days ago, and it was so long and still unfinished that I realized it needed to be about five. I've resolved to take it one step at a time, and try to break things up by theme. This, oddly enough, all has to do with our decision to enroll Mikko in a German-immersion preschool two half-days a week, but I'll have to get to that later. Don't bother trying to make this post fit that topic, because it's only incidental.

Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding — Sarah Blaffer HrdyToday's installment is based on a New York Times article that's making the rounds, previewing anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy's newest book, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding.

The article is In a Helpless Baby, the Roots of Our Social Glue, by Natalie Angier. I haven't read the Hrdy book, so don't take this as an endorsement. I was intrigued enough by the article, though, to continue researching the intriguing term "allomothering."

The article gives Hrdy's view on human babies' astonishing dependence, as distinct from certain other advanced primates. Because of this long period of utter dependence on adults, humans have necessarily developed a form of cooperative breeding, "a reproductive strategy in which mothers are assisted by as-if mothers, or 'allomothers,' individuals of either sex who help care for and feed the young."

Either because of this or in response to this, humans are relatively trusting and cooperative. We may deplore our warlike tendencies, but that started mostly to compete with other tribes, not among those we trust. In contrast to animals in the wild, we're pretty tolerant of each other, even in close quarters. Hrdy gives the example of a hypothetical cross-country flight:

"Chimpanzees are pretty smart, but were you to board an airplane filled with chimpanzees, you 'would be lucky to disembark with all 10 fingers and toes still attached,' Dr. Hrdy writes."

In the realm of baby care, mother chimpanzees and gorillas won't give up their newborns to others, fearing rightly for their baby's life. Human mothers, on the other hand, expect to hand the baby into other trusted arms. I found these statistics of traditional-society babywearing interesting:

"Among the !Kung foragers of the Kalahari, babies are held by a father, grandmother, older sibling or some other allomother maybe 25 percent of the time. Among the Efe foragers of Central Africa, babies spend 60 percent of their daylight hours being toted around by somebody other than their mother. In 87 percent of foraging societies, mothers sometimes suckle each other’s children, another remarkable display of social trust."

In the culture of those who adhere to attachment-parenting and continuum-parenting ideals, we're faced with a dilemma. We strive to emulate the traditional tribal ways of breastfeeding on cue, wearing our babies, sleeping close, and continuing our daily tasks — but without the tribe. Think about those Efe mothers who have responsibility for their babies only 40 percent of the daylight hours and the sort of rest and activity they could get done.

The long-term consequences of allomothering has been to encourage long childhood dependence but still allow the mother to regain her fertility quickly:

"With helpers in the nest, women could give birth to offspring with ever longer childhoods — the better to build big brains and stout immune systems — and, paradoxically, at ever shrinking intervals. The average time between births for a chimpanzee mother is about six years; for a human mother, it’s two or three years."

It's not just humans who use allomothering, though, and it was in her study of various monkeys and apes that Hrdy first started applying what she witnessed to human child rearing. For instance, allomothering in monkeys has such benefits as allowing the mother time to forage for more food and reproduce more quickly. For the allomothers themselves, it gives them practice in parenting (in monkeys, allomothers are often females who haven't yet reproduced) and cements bonds within the group — such as assuring males of their paternity and making it more likely that the baby will be cared for if the mother should die.

I really enjoyed a similar article, by Claudia Glenn Dowling, titled "The Hardy Sarah Blaffer Hrdy," that delves more deeply into Hrdy's experiences as a mother who maintained her professional life while raising three children, with the help of just such allomothers as she researched. I won't even go into the point here that no one would be speaking of such things as her family life if she were a male anthropologist, but consider it noted.

The article gives more examples of allomothers and the risks of not having such support:

"Historically, humans have made use of allomothers, [Hrdy] maintains. Allo means 'other than' in Greek, so allomothers are group members who help a mother rear her child. They may be female (older sisters, aunts, grandmothers) or male (brothers, lovers, and fathers). The absence of support networks for modern mothers may explain why so many newborns are dumped in bathrooms, Hrdy says."

Some parents are fortunate enough to live by extended family or within a network of friends who are eager to help. But many in Western culture, particularly in urban places, live independently, and any tribe we surround ourselves with we have to create. For most, the choice is limited to one of two options: Either one parent, usually the woman, stays home to be a full-time parent and has all the responsibility of caring 100 percent of the time for her young, or the family employs hired professionals for some of the care. For working parents, their allomothers of choice might be nannies or au pairs (as Hrdy was privileged enough to choose for her children), or daycare for the less affluent.

"Those experiences [as a working mother] have made Hrdy a fierce advocate for good day-care programs, which she considers the modern substitute for a tribal network of allomothers. She visits centers around the world to study their techniques and lobbies government childcare agencies for higher standards. 'Stability, stability, stability,' she reiterates. She finds it inconceivable that anyone doubts that quality day-care programs are worthy of public funding. She says the woman who drowned her five children in the bathtub in Texas is a tragic example of the need for a support system. 'She should not have been alone in that house with five young kids and a record of depression— it's a no-brainer. Not even a mentally healthy woman should have to be in that situation.'"

In fighting so hard for attachment parenting — carry your baby, breastfeed day and night — I feel like sometimes I miss the point that traditional mothers would do this with help. We weren't meant to parent alone, and our babies weren't meant to be so isolated and attached to only one caregiver.

Sometimes I need to open up my heart and let Mikko bond with other allomothers, like the lovely nulliparous (my other new word from researching this post) women who hang out with Sam, Mikko, and me every week for a small group meeting. And I've so enjoyed seeing his face light up when his aunt comes over, or hear him yell out "Nana" when a picture of my mom comes up on my screensaver.

Sometimes I have to accept that I can't be all things to Mikko, and nor should I be. And I shouldn't have to feel guilt about that (though I do, as you'll see in upcoming posts...).

He needs his mother, but we need other caregivers around us, too, for all our sakes.


Arwyn said...

Oooo, I want that book. I loved her Mother Nature book.

This fits in well with what I was just saying about actually DOING something with community, rather than just judging. Synchronicity!

I also struggle with the dichotomy that I love the idea of allomothers, and of really sharing a child in a village, but am somewhat loathe to let it happen in actuality. My identified objections have to do with how different a daycare center is from a village -- in a village, a child may be cared for by grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings, all of whom will be around for the better part of the child's life, whereas I know of almost no one still in touch with their daycare providers even five or ten years later -- how much we don't actually live in a village, how far we are from the Boychick's grandparents, even how far we live from our "local" friends and family (20-45 minutes' drive, as opposed to a walk down the street).

Still, excellent food for thought. Thank you.

Susana la Banana said...

As an anthropologist myself, this has been my constant wish and my constant sadness. I am intimately aware of these facts you mentioned and it drives me CRAZY that I have to do it almost all alone. It is so hard, and it just shouldn't be. Here's hoping we can all find--and keep!--just one or two great allomoms to help us out in this parenting gig and thereby help our babies have calmer, saner, more well-rested mommies. =)

Susana la Banana said...

Oh, and also, I completely agree with Arwyn that daycares are no good substitute for tribal relationships. Have you read Daniel Quinn? He talks a bit about trying to make modern-day tribal systems, for example, a newspaper where everyone who works there owns part of it and their success or failure is all tied up together....and that can hopefully be applied to the rest of your life as well as that artificial concept, "work." Anyway.

Lauren Wayne said...

arwyn: The post I was actually working on before this was about the mommy wars and how the problem was with the system, and then I went to your blog to find something insightful to link to and saw you'd just written the same thing — crazy! I'll get mine up soon, but just wanted to share.

I have the same ambivalence about surrounding myself with a village. I think part of it is how deeply entrenched in the culture I am, how much I value independence and "you can't tell me what to do," which I think is not such a big part of traditional tribal life. Not to say that they'd all be bossed around, but that they know their place, and I rebel against that (maybe because I don't like "my place" in this society). So, yes, I've chosen to live 3,000 miles from my parents, and then I complain that we have no support network — I see the contradictions. I'm sort of holding out hope for the next generation.

susana: (and arwyn) I agree about the daycare thing, too. That was one part of the article that stuck out as strange to me, but maybe it's because of the type of daycare that's common here. Hrdy makes a point of referencing quality care and saying "stability" (three times!) — it seems like the hallmark of good alloparenting would be someone that the child can bond with and trust that the person would stay present. But almost all hired help is made up of a demographic with high turnover — often young women who look forward to marrying and having children of their own — and that's true with daycare staff as well as nannies. So how to make the stability part of hired alloparents come true? From the articles, I don't think even Hrdy managed it, because it sounds like they had a succession of au pairs, although each was valued at the time. Not that that's terrible — Sam and I both had experiences growing up where several years brought an uncle (for me)/aunt (for him) figure into our lives, but then they moved on into their own families. It might be the age range that determines whether the moving on is traumatic or not. Anyway, I do plan to talk more about daycare in a later post (or more), but I don't see a better option right now for un-tribed, unaffluent working mothers, so I guess that's why in some ways the best to do is improve the current system. (Or dream bigger and come up with something better!)

I haven't read Daniel Quinn — will have to check him out. It sounds like that's part of what would make the system better, a re-envisioning of how family and "work" life fit together, when for most people they don't.

Lisa C said...

From the time Michael was born I have been so sad that I don't live in a tribe-like community. When he was just a few weeks old, and I was tired, un-showered, and crying in my arms as I paced our apartment, I would just cry "I DON'T WANT TO BE ALONE!!!!" (I still cry that sometimes). Yeah, it isn't natural. How did we get this way?

Anonymous said...

Disagree! Nannies are NOT the same as a relative, an aunt or uncle, grandmother or grandfather, a blood relation, and no measure of political correctness is ever going to excuse whatever harm befalls those societies, my own country the U.S. undoubtedly chief among them, in which the people indiscriminately farm out so many of their children to near strangers. I will not have the depth of my love and devotion likened to a contractual agreement with a strange person, a mere business transaction. And as for your nulliparous, there's nothing wrong with that at all, unless it's a case of unwanted children being fobbed off onto well-meaning, or otherwise people. The point is, you can manufacture terms and rationalize all you want, but you're kidding yourself if you think children appreciate your sophisticated ideology, they don't! They want what works, so get busy before it's too late.

Anonymous said...

"I really enjoyed a similar article, by Claudia Glenn Dowling, titled "The Hardy Sarah Blaffer Hrdy," that delves more deeply into Hrdy's experiences as a mother who maintained her professional life while raising three children, with the help of just such allomothers as she researched. I won't even go into the point here that no one would be speaking of such things as her family life if she were a male anthropologist, but consider it noted."

Yes they would! If a male anthropologist was delegating care of his issuance to allomothers, people would take notice of it, and rightly so, just as they would if he was turning them over to nulliparous, or an airplane filled with chimpanzees.

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