Allomothers: We Were Never Meant To Mother Alone
Did you know?
The leading cause of death in new mothers in America is suicide.
Out of 193 countries, the U.S. is the only high-income country without a national paid leave policy for mothers or fathers.
Data from New America shows anything less than 25 weeks of leave doesn’t meet basic maternal or infant needs.
UNICEF recommends six months of leave for all parents to help with children’s development and to strengthen that parental bond.
Research by Steinhardt’s Natalie Brito suggests that infants whose mothers received paid family leave showed greater brain activity in their first three months.
Currently, only 23 percent of all employed workers in the US have access to paid parental leave through their employers.
Watch Darcia Narvaez and Mary Tarsha present the Allomothers Component in the Evolved Nest Explained Series
Download and Listen to the Allomothers Podcast
How Were We Intended To Nurture Babies?
One of the nine components of our Evolved Nest is Allomothers. Allomothers, alloparents or other nurturers support mother during pregnancy and throughout the life of the child, providing responsive care, positive touch and play.
MULTIPLE ALLOWMOTHERS, also called multiple responsive caregivers, refers to responsive caregivers other than mothers (e.g., fathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles).
Let’s remember our species’ history of allomothering
Nurturing babies and children is not just about mothers—it is a community responsibility our species evolved.
Our species’ evolved nest for young children includes soothing perinatal experience, extensive breastfeeding and touch, responsiveness from the primary caregiver and a small group of other caregivers (allomothers), social support for mother and child, positive social climate and self-directed free play in the natural world with multi-aged playmates.
What do allomothers do? They take the baby when mom needs a break. They carry, rock and play with the child. They also take care of mundane tasks like making supper, going shopping, doing the laundry. You name it. They are the buffer for the mother-child, father-child relationship.
It used to be the tradition in most every society to have a “lying in” period for mom and new baby where women of the community wait on the mother, giving her nutritious teas and foods that promote breastfeeding and healing. They took care of everything in the household so she could stay in her bed and give her full attention to bonding with and breastfeeding baby. Here is a recent description of the lying-in experience.
Why did our species evolve to expect allomothers? Our infants are born much more immature than any hominid, with only 25% of adult brain volume at full-term birth (40-42 weeks) (Trevathan, 2011). As a result, till about 18 months babies need exterogestation, an external womb experience (kept calm and optimally aroused during rapid brain growth; Montagu, 1968). That’s 24/7 and physical presence and responsive care. Whew. Hence, allomothers. In one observational study of the Efe people (Morelli et al., 2014), anthropologists noted that older toddlers spent less than 40% of their time with their mothers. Although mother was around, the rest of the time the child chose to be with allomothers—those who were sensitively responsive to the child.
Several studies and reviews have shown that allomothers benefit mother and child. Mothers with more support are more responsive to their children (Hrdy, 2009). They are not so stressed and so can meet the needs of their child in the moment. This leads to secure attachment in the child (Crockenberg, 1981). Children whose mothers have more social support display less externalizing behaviors and have greater social skills (Koverola et al. 2005; Pianta & Ball, 1993).
In societies like the USA, structural supports are minimal. Day-to-day, new parents typically are not supported by extended family members (who live far away), by community members (most of whom are working at places banning children), nor by policies or institutions (e.g., postnatal daily nurse or helper visits as in other countries). For example, in the Netherlands, their maternal leave policy has nurses coming by for hours daily in the first days after birth. They check on mom and baby and help them adjust.
Worse, most working mothers are not provided paid maternal leave at all and instead feel they have to go back to work within a few weeks after birth, requiring them to send their babies to day care, most of which are suboptimal, especially for baby needs (Belsky, 2001). Also, see hereand here.
Too many mothers are unable to mother because of the need to work to get food on the table. Allomothers too are busy with other things and discourage from helping mothers. Both mothers and allomothers are discouraged from mothering in societies where promoting “baby independence” and preventing “baby spoiling” are forceful myths, part of the “taboo on tenderness” that has been characteristic of US life for decades (Suttie, 1943). DIY parenting is the new normal.
DIY mothering is not working. Maternal suicide is on the rise and the leading cause of maternal death in the first year after a child’s birth. This is a clear sign that mothers are not receiving the support they need. We could take what is working around the world and provide it for every mother: nonmedicalized birthing practices, extensive breastfeeding support (which helps with mother’s mental health too), paid parental leave, nurse visits, laundry and meal services; paternal leave; babies to work. Ultimately, we need to return to what helped our species survive and thrive: cooperative child raising (rather than mother-child isolation). Let’s return to mothers, grandmothers and families living closely together to support mother and child and enjoy life together.
Kindred articles and videos on Worksite Breastfeeding-Friendly Law
2020 Mom Statistics on Maternal Mental Health and Suicide
Darcia’s blog posts on Allomothers
The “What Happened To Mothering” Series:
- Part 1: Mother Love Used to Matter
- Part 2: What Is “Good Enough Mothering” of a Baby?
- Part 3: Why Provide Empathic Care for Infants?
- Part 4: Disbelieving the Importance of Mothering
Learn more about Allomothers at the Evolved Nest’s Self-Directed Learning Center
About our Evolved Nest
Children are biosocial creatures such that their biology is constructed by their social experience. The evolved nest or evolved developmental niche (EDN) is the ecological system of care provided by families, teachers and communities that aligns with the maturational schedule of the child, satiating the evolved needs of infants and children, allowing them to flourish and develop compassionate spiritualities. The EDN consists of soothing gestation and birth, on-request extensive breastfeeding and positive moving touch (no negative touch), a welcoming social climate, self-directed play with multiple aged mates, warmly responsive nurturing from mother and others, nature immersion and connection, and healing practices to repair miscommunication or hurts. Well-nested children and adults demonstrate social and moral flexibility, adapting to situations and others with emotional and spiritual intelligence.