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Context and Variation


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Happy Mother’s Day: To All the Allomothers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The kiddo at about five months with my sister.

The kiddo at about five months with my sister.

Once a week I get four allergy shots and then sit in a small waiting room for thirty minutes to make sure I don’t have any adverse reactions. Today, my husband came along to spend some time with me and make use of the free wi-fi. We chatted quietly while he did some service work and I finished up my grading.

I noticed an older white woman, fifty or sixtysomething, balancing her checkbook while sitting at the kids table a few feet from us. She couldn’t seem to resist commenting on each patient as they came in to sit down (To one man: “Are you Egyptian? You’re dark!” To a probably male newborn: “What a strong boy you’ll be!” To my husband: “You must be smart, I don’t know all the words you are saying!”).

Eventually, a young woman enters with a little boy in tow. She starts to read to her child in a singsong voice. “Now can you find the TREE?!?!?” she almost screams. “How about the bird? DO YOU SEE THE BIRD?!?!?”

The older woman interrupts the book. “That’s so good that you read to him. How old is your boy?”

“Two.”

“And he already likes to read! That’s amazing. You must stay at home with him.”

“I sure do. I have three boys.”

“Oh, wonderful!”

“Yes, I quit medical school to be with them.”

“Oh well, yes, that is good. You know, God blesses mothers who stay at home.”

My jaw tenses, but I continue to grade.

“Yes, it’s where I should be. My husband is studying to get his MD/PhD, so it makes more sense for me to stay at home with the boys.”

My teeth begin to grind, but I continue to grade.

“That’s good, dear. School can always wait but your children cannot. I wish more mothers knew that. The children always turn out better when the mother stays at home. I used to be a teacher so I know.”

The mother nods and goes back to reading to her child. “Is that Oscar the Grouch? What COLOR is OSCAR?!?”

I try not to fantasize roller derby hip checks, and continue to grade.

The older woman’s time is up before mine and she leaves, which I regret. Because when it’s my turn to have my injections checked, I turn to my husband, calling him loudly. “Come on, FELLOW WORKING PARENT, it’s time to go!”

And I storm out.

* * *

Drawing by the kiddo that features her parents and her aunt.

Last week, the kiddo decided to draw a picture of her family. From top, clockwise: my sister, the kiddo, my husband, me.

In the car on the way to work, my husband and I talked about how often I come across this perspective, that there is a higher value in mothers who stay at home, and how he never hears from colleagues or friends that he would have higher value if he were to stay at home. But rather than enter into some debate that tries to place a working or non-working mother on the higher pedestal, I think it’s worth noticing that all mothers have help. All of them. Childcare and babysitting, school, camp, government support, a partner with a paycheck, family members’ time or money, all of these things support a mother as she raises a child. No mother does it alone, which means a mother who stays at home is not automatically more blessed or noble than one who does not.

Perhaps more importantly, our ancestral mothers did not stay at home and watch their children alone, the TV or radio the closest thing to adult company. My last post discussed the concept of pooled energy budgets, which requires cooperative breeding and transfers of labor and energy to maximize reproductive success. Our ancestral mothers likely got help from fathers (Marlowe, 2004), other mothers , lovers, friends, community members (Hill and Hurtado, 2009), grandmothers (Hawkes et al., 1997), even younger siblings (Kramer et al., 2009). Entire books have been written on this topic (Hrdy, 2009; Kramer, 2005), and conversations have bridged across genetics, anthropology, psychology and biology (Burkart and Van Schaik, 2010; Fox et al., 2010; Kramer, 2010; van Schaik and Burkart, 2010).

There is substantial evidence to support the idea that in our evolutionary history, mothers who had helpers did far better than those who did not, and that the social and cognitive skills needed to give and receive help are part of what make us uniquely human and intelligent (Burkart and Van Schaik, 2010; Kramer, 2010; van Schaik and Burkart, 2010). When children receive allocare it helps their development of social coordination and tolerance as well as positive social behaviors, and when those allomothers (which I’m trying to use in a gender neutral way) learn to care for children it helps them build attentional biases and responsiveness to others. Allomothering, to some researchers, is the foundational mechanism for what has made us a socially intelligent species.

So today, soon after Mother’s Day, I want to celebrate Allomother’s Day and thank all of my allomothers.

  • Thank you to my husband, who brings home a salary, shares equally in housework and childcare, loves our child tenderly and fiercely, and is my staunchest supporter.
  • Thank you to my salary as well, for helping us to afford food, shelter, care, and fun stuff for our daughter.
  • Thank you to my sister, who lived in Illinois with us for a year and a half when our daughter was younger, and watched the kiddo many an afternoon or evening.
  • Thank you to my parents, who shower the kiddo with gifts, hugs and kisses and who help with pick ups and drop offs when they visit.
  • Thank you to my husband’s parents, who introduced the kiddo to Fancy Nancy and Angry Birds, and who cook up many inventive games when they visit.
  • Thank you to my roller derby leaguemates, who keep my kid out of danger, out of seeing when I get hurt on the rink, who take her to the potty, and who help to tire her out so she sleeps well. They have done this without being asked, out of sheer kindness and love, over and over again.
  • Thank you to our many babysitters who have loved our kiddo, taken her to the park, fed her dinner and tucked her into bed.
  • Thank you to the kiddo’s amazing, progressive, loving preschool teachers, who have taught her more social and emotional skills in two semesters than I ever thought possible, all while keeping her safe, building her motivation, and getting her to stick up for herself.
  • Thank you to our daycare provider, who loves the kiddo like her own and teachers all the children she watches to love and nurture one another.
  • Thank you to my friends and neighbors, who have taken the kiddo on play dates to their house when they see the haunted look in my eyes that I am behind at work, and who have said they will be my family and my backup because I live so far from my parents and in laws.
  • And finally, thank you to my internet posse, who provides emotional support even though I’ve met so few of you in person.

These kindnesses bring me to tears whenever I stop and think about it. It’s hard for someone like me who, though a potent swirl of genes and environment, has become a very, very independent person who does not like to rely on anyone. I have learned a lot about building a network and trusting others because of the cooperative breeding in my life.

References

Burkart JM, Van Schaik CP. 2010. Cognitive consequences of cooperative breeding in primates? Animal cognition 13(1):1-19.

Fox M, Sear R, Beise J, Ragsdale G, Voland E, Knapp LA. 2010. Grandma plays favourites: X-chromosome relatedness and sex-specific childhood mortality. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 277(1681):567-573.

Hawkes K, O’Connell JF, Blurton Jones NG. 1997. Hadza women’s time allocation, offspring provisioning, and the evolution of long postmenopausal life spans. Current Anthropology 38(4):551-577.

Hill K, Hurtado AM. 2009. Cooperative breeding in South American hunter–gatherers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 276(1674):3863-3870.

Hrdy SB. 2009. Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding: Belknap Press.

Kramer K. 2005. Maya children: helpers at the farm: Harvard Univ Pr.

Kramer KL. 2010. Cooperative breeding and its significance to the demographic success of humans. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:417-436.

Kramer KL, Greaves RD, Ellison PT. 2009. Early reproductive maturity among Pumé foragers: implications of a pooled energy model to fast life histories. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF HUMAN BIOLOGY 21(4):430-437.

Marlowe FW. 2004. What explains Hadza food sharing. Research in economic Anthropology 23:69-88.

van Schaik CP, Burkart JM. 2010. Mind the gap: cooperative breeding and the evolution of our unique features. Mind the gap: tracing the origins of human universals:477-497.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Patrick Clarkin 2:58 pm 05/16/2012

    Hi Kate,

    Thanks for this very important reminder. Humans are an obligatorily social species and really need each other, for parenting and everything else. I’m reminded of this whenever anyone claims that they are completely self-made individuals. We’ve all gotten help from somewhere at one time or another.

    Link to this
  2. 2. kristilewton 3:05 pm 05/16/2012

    I love this post, bigtime. I’d like to join in and thank all of those that allomothered me.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 3:13 pm 05/16/2012

    What a good point, Kristi! I could generate a whole separate list for the allomothering I have received, not just the allomothering of my kid. And you know, I may even want to add things like PBS and Nick Jr to the list of allomothers of the kiddo ;) .

    And Patrick, thanks for the kind words. I think you make a really interesting point to how this contrasts to the self-made idea, which is a very (though not exclusively) American construct. Maybe that idea is part of what makes us think parenting is supposed to be so lonely, or that we’re doing it wrong if we need help?

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  4. 4. gerty-z 3:15 pm 05/16/2012

    LOVE THIS POST. Everything that you said is true. I have had many an excellent allomother in my life, both when I was a kid and now with Mini-G. Also, I am impressed that you managed not to explode after the SAHM exchange.

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  5. 5. anonpostdoc 3:18 pm 05/16/2012

    I’ve been a lurker here for a long time, but wanted to delurk to let you know that you’re an inspiration (and I’ll be a more vocal member of your posse in the future!). I’m currently in the middle of finding two academic jobs for me and my future spouse, and while I know he’ll be a terrific and hard working co-parent should offspring ever happen, I’m still completely overwhelmed by the prospect of being a PI and a parent simultaneously. Your list of non-spousal allomothers gives me some hope that it could be possible for us, too.

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  6. 6. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 3:22 pm 05/16/2012

    Thanks gerty-z and anonpostdoc! I hadn’t even thought of that, but you make a great point anon: this list makes parenting more transparent, particularly to those readers looking to see how it’s all done when there are two working academics. It links in to Patrick’s point too: I think we think we have failed if we don’t do everything ourselves — parenting, labwork, fieldwork, writing, teaching, etc — and the reality is that is a completely silly pedestal to aspire to. Not to mention, the evidence is totally against the idea that going it alone is good for parents, kids, working people, not working people, whatever.

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  7. 7. Timmy 3:19 am 05/17/2012

    Interesting idea, but some allocarers require payment (sitter, nurse) that means if you cannot pay them you deprive your kid of his intelligence, tolerance and automatically contribute antisocial person development.

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  8. 8. Timmy 3:21 am 05/17/2012

    it looks like vicious circle

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  9. 9. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 7:03 am 05/17/2012

    It would be a massive overstatement to say that contributes to antisocial development. Plus, plenty of allomothers cost nothing, like playdates, friends, family, public school.

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  10. 10. Cotesia1 7:45 am 05/17/2012

    My kids are definitely better off because of the allomoms they have been exposed to. Their world is now more culturally and racially diverse. I would definitely not have had the patience to stay home with them for long stretches of time. We all get cabin-fever – that does not mean that we love each other any less. And it does not make me jealous that, for them, the best time of the day is the After School program. I totally understand, those (male) leaders are fantastic role models for my sons.

    I am not sure about what point Timmy is trying to make. But the comment did make me realize that now that my kids are a little bit older, and my husband and I are pretty settled in our careers, it would be nice to step up our alloparenting-game some more (even though I think we already do a fair bit). Spending time with us would not make these kids antisocial – even though that odd tour of cemeteries (2011) to experience the cicada outbreak up close is still talked about by many of my sons’ friends

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  11. 11. kaberi 1:04 pm 05/17/2012

    Hi Kate, I just did a post on alloparenting in my blog: http://lorises.blogspot.com/2012/05/alloparenting-or-nuclear-family-from.html. It is so true that we could not survive without alloparents. In my case the list is global. It did take a global village and global alloparents to complete my Ph.D. I think I am better mother when I have a job. As a working mother with two girls I definitely play a positive roll model image to my daughters than being a stay home mother. But it may varies between people and their personalities and their jobs. I know a mother who was a genreal surgeon gave up her job because she found it too much to do mothering and a surgeon. I also know a friend (Harvard law school graduate) went into part time job because the stress became too much. Her sister a Ph.D. from MIT is a stay home mom currently because the spouse has a highly demanding job. All of them do have a pretty active social lives with other alloparents in their community too.

    As for Non Human Primate alloparenting, I have data a small dataset from slender loris. Infant survival was better when more than just mother present along with the infant (it could be either another female or a male) in a small sleeping group. They are generally solitary forager.

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  12. 12. Sunflowerspud 2:20 am 05/18/2012

    Life is a matter of making the choices that are right for you. As a 60 year old woman general surgeon, married to another general surgeon, and having raised three terrific kids I have no regrets. I still love my job and get along just fine with my kids. Never perfect, and lots of hard work with lots of help, and no apologies for not staying home with my kids. For those stay at home moms who put us working moms down, I think thou doth protest too much. Stay true to yourself and you will be all right and so will your kids. Hang in there!

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  13. 13. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 10:26 am 05/18/2012

    Sunflowerspud, thanks for your comment. I really don’t think that many stay at home moms put working moms down, and I hope few working moms put down stay at home moms. It isn’t an unknown sentiment, but I don’t think, as judge-y as we can be, that that many moms are beating up on each other that much. And my hope is that this post works to do the opposite, to see what we have in common instead.

    kaberi, what cool data on the slender loris! And thanks for mentioning your alloparenting post, I’m sorry I missed it the first time around.

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  14. 14. Superbug 2:57 am 05/21/2012

    I also wonder if alloparenting directly helps ease the difficulties of separation as kids get older and leave the nest. Have there been studies on that? It makes sense:

    Say the stay-at-home mom revolves her life around her kid to the point where she and her child are isolated if the responsibilities of childbearing aren’t shared with others (not all stay at home moms do this, I know, but I think plenty do). After her child leaves I would anticipate a set of problems made worse by isolation:

    1. With her child is no longer around to provide the social stimulation she needs, the loneliness can be consuming, especially if there is no spouse or he is gone for most of the day.

    2. She has never built lasting relationships with friends via shared parenting to help cope with the loneliness after the child is gone.

    3. The career she sacrificed also means she no longer has that to keep her stimulated after her child leaves the nest.

    It makes sense that loneliness/depression can lead to that excessive codependence. With those things in mind why would anyone criticize those who rely on others for help parenting or think that stay-at-home parenting is superior? There’s no evidence that children are healthier or have better coping skills with stay-at-home moms than with career moms, right? Ugh I know it’s because in society we’ve been taught gender roles, it’s just that they’ve stopped making sense.

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  15. 15. streepie 8:56 am 05/23/2012

    Hi Kate,

    Great post!

    I live in France, where it is considered “normal” for a (highly) educated woman to go back to work 3 months after birth, and to send the child to creche (day care) or a day mom. Or granny looks after the kids (if she is retired, that is).

    Both my husband and I work, and I am surrounded by woman who juggle kids and work and have lots of support. For me, it was never a question that I would go back to work after the birth of my daughter – and neither was it for anyone around me.

    On the other hand – if someone wants to be a stay-at-home mum, so be it. I’ve had a colleague (an excellent scientist) who decided NOT to have kids, because she could not see herself having a kid and working as a scientist. She thought once she had a kid, she would need to be there for it 100%.

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