13.7: Cosmos And Culture
10:06 am
Mon May 12, 2014

Calling All Allomothers: You Deserve A Day Of Thanks

A few weeks ago I flew to Los Angeles to participate in a conference related to my work. As a mother with two young children, I was only able to do so thanks to a special team of helpers.

My parents picked us up at the LA airport with an extra car seat. A local aunt and uncle scoped out fun activities in Santa Monica to entertain my three-year-old. My mother chased said three-year-old through said activities. My husband strolled the nursing baby around the conference center while I delivered a talk. And even before the conference, there were the preschool teachers and babysitters who made it possible for me to prepare a talk, let alone conduct the research it included.

This all sounds terribly modern, what with one child in preschool, a baby-strolling dad and a working mom.

But it's not.

Replace the conference with some foraging, drop the air travel and this tableau wouldn't be so foreign to our Pleistocene ancestors. Despite the pervasive idea that the most "natural" care for baby comes from mom and only mom, a look at other cultures and other species tells a different story.

In an article for Natural History Magazine, for example, anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy argues that humans are "cooperative breeders," animals with a social system in which offspring receive care from a host of helpers, not just mom:

New evidence from surviving traditional cultures suggests that mothers in the Pleistocene may have had a significant degree of help—from men who thought they just might have been the fathers, from grandmothers and great-aunts, from older children.

These helpers other than the mother, called allomothers by sociobiologists, do not just protect and provision youngsters. In groups such as the Efe and Aka Pygmies of central Africa, allomothers actually hold children and carry them about... When University of New Mexico anthropologist Paula Ivey asked an Efe woman, "Who cares for babies?" the immediate answer was, "We all do!" By three weeks of age, the babies are in contact with allomothers 40 percent of the time. By eighteen weeks, infants actually spend more time with allomothers than with their gestational mothers. On average, Efe babies have fourteen different caretakers, most of whom are close kin. According to Washington State University anthropologist Barry Hewlett, Aka babies are within arm's reach of their fathers for more than half of every day.

Hrdy wrote those passages over a decade ago. In a recent conversation with me by e-mail, she reflected on the original article:

When I wrote the article for Natural History Magazine in 2001, the full significance of alloparental care and provisioning, and the possibility of multiple attachment figures, were only then beginning to dawn on me.

Hrdy went on to publish Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding in 2009, a book that makes the case for the critical role of allomothers in human evolution. It's thanks to allomothers that our species can afford to produce such smart but slow-maturing offspring. In fact, according to one proposal developed by anthropologist Kristen Hawkes and others, women owe their longevity to their roles as allomothers: through foraging and childcare, they help their grandkids get the calories they need and free up their daughters to work and have more children.

Taking this research to heart suggests there's nothing natural about some of the ideals associated with "intensive mothering," an ideology explored by sociologist Sharon Hays and described by Yale University Press as holding "the individual mother primarily responsible for child rearing."

There's no denying that mothers can and often do play a unique role for their children (and I don't just mean gestation). But if children thrive with multiple, committed carers, it's worth revising some common cultural tropes about motherhood and childrearing. For one thing, moms might feel less guilty taking time away from kids if they know that time is spent developing other nurturing and "natural" relationships.

That's good news for working mothers. It's also good news for others who want to play an active role in raising children — whether it's family, friends or childcare professionals.

But changing our focus from "mothers (and only mothers)" to "mothers and others" brings some challenges into relief. Most research on childcare contrasts "maternal care" to all sorts of "non-maternal care," rarely considering the special roles of fathers, grandparents or others, and rarely looking at a child's entire child-caring team. So there's a lot we don't know about what's best for kids, but plenty of reason to think that a warm, responsive and continuous set of carers is key.

Another challenge is creating childcare that's affordable, widely-available and meets those specs, with well-trained childcare workers who have the support they need to provide the best, continuous care.

So it's with gratitude to all the allomothers in my life and in my daughters' lives, but mindful of the challenges we must surmount for all mothers, others, and their children to thrive, that I call for an "Allomother's Day." On Sunday we celebrated mothers; let's make the third Sunday in May a special celebration for all the others who play a special role in children's lives.

At the end of our discussion, I asked Hrdy whether she thought we should celebrate Allomother's Day. Her response?

Of course we should. Without allomaternal assistance, our species never would have evolved in the first place. There's nothing new about ambitious or working primate mothers. But as the slow-maturing children in the genus Homo became costlier to rear, its allomothers who made our species feasible. It's not just mothers or their charges who should thank them. We all should.


You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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