There’s a grandmother in the house (well, the really swanky condo) behind our purple bungalow. Two of her grandkids live on our block. Practically every day, I spy her power-walking around our corner lot and down the street. Or, I’ll catch her returning to her condo at a slightly slower pace with one or both of the young grandchildren in tow.
Trim, wiry, energetic, purposeful, she rarely stops to say hello if we happen to be out in the front yard.
She is an alloparent on a mission.
I’m not sure how much mainstream traction the term alloparent has gotten, so let’s pause here for a definition. Alloparent describes any individual who plays a caregiver role to their non-biological offspring; this could include grandparents, other relatives, community members, even members of a different species. Although the term was coined by sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, I first encountered it in anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s landmark book Mother Nature.
I remember reading Mother Nature while proctoring a final exam, maybe a couple of years before I got pregnant. I had picked up some science writing as a welcome change-of-brain from a semester immersed in teaching a college literature class and dissertation writing.
Mother Nature applies an evolutionary lens to parenting in order to move beyond the cultural norms and assumptions about human motherhood. The book has some controversial findings, including the practice of infanticide both in related species and throughout human cultures.
But alloparenting was the concept that really fascinated me, along with Hrdy’s portraits of how alloparental care enabled biological mothers to work and provide for themselves, their children, and their communities. I loved that her work expanded – and occasionally exploded – the often treacly images and associations around the word ‘maternal.'
At the time, though, the topic felt remote, a cool theory that had little to do with my life. This memory exists in stark contrast to the fierce immediacy and felt need for relief that I experienced while at home with a newborn. Or the pang of envy I experience, 2.5 years later, whenever my neighbor in back completes her caregiving circuit around the block, and I think wistfully about our own far-off families.
Given her lifelong study of reproduction and parenting, Hrdy’s personal experiences as a working parent (she has three children) often come up in interviews. Despite her groundbreaking research, her recollections of working motherhood – described in one interview as a "mix of ambivalence, devotion, and ambition" – have familiar beats.
Hrdy talks of compromises along the way. During a research trip to India with daughter Katrinka, she was overcome with guilt over the physical and emotional costs to her child, which included a nasty diaper rash and coming home one day to find a "troop of monkeys trying to snatch [her toddler's] cookie. She decided that field work was largely incompatible with providing her children the stability she wanted for them.
Or, take the intractable situation that arose when Hrdy was scheduled to present at an international conference immediately after giving birth to her second child:
...a strict no-babies rule was imposed by a male co-organizer. Daughter Sasha arrived just a week before the meeting, and her mother's plans to establish breast-feeding were thrown into disarray. Hrdy nursed in the evenings, while a friend who was also nursing fed Sasha her breast milk during the day so Hrdy could present her paper.
A tale of alloparenting, to be sure, but one born of institutional inflexibility and (desperate, exhausted) ingenuity.
Lying in bed at night, my husband and I sometimes fantasize about some sort of communal-living arrangement with 1-2 fellow parents. We would mostly live in our own nuclear units, with occasional meals as a group and babysitting breaks to go on dates, pursue writing/coding projects, make time for hobbies (?!), etc. We would casually pitch in to parent each others' kids, giving each other support and expanding the number of adult caregivers and role models in their lives. I’m sure the reality of this would be complicated and not always easier (would two introverts really enough to want to share our space 24/7? How would finances work?).
Instead, or in the meantime, we give thanks to our daycare providers and try to build community through weekly Sunday suppers. We’ve been hosting these dinners for over a year now, and while they have many motives, one is to create an alloparental network for our young child. Single friends, married friends without children, single parents, dual parents: our hope is that in breaking bread together we can strengthen communal bonds, and perhaps, down the road, cultivate some alloparental care, whatever that might look like.
The Alpha Alloparent, as it were, is my husband’s aunt, who makes a regular appearance at our dinners. When he was barely a toddler, our child christened her "Baba." It's a delight to witness their joy in each other's company, and we appreciate the sensible and wise sounding board she provides us. "Baba" is not a grandmother around the block, but she plays a lovely, unique role all its own.
I’m grateful to Hrdy’s pioneering research for a couple of reasons. First, for calling BS on the whole nuclear-family concept, the stranding of biological or adoptive parents on a suburban tract of absolute, exclusive responsibility. For realizing that what both parents and children need (have historically needed, have needed across species) is more freaking parents.
And also for recognizing that this urge to create, to work beyond the strict confines of caring for one’s own young, reaches back to the emergence of homo sapiens, and even back to our evolutionary ancestors. Its roots are both wide and deep. Far from being superfluous, working motherhood was – and is – crucial to our survival.