By Vicki Larson
I arrived home from work, as I had done for months since I went back part-time, but the house was quiet. Too quiet.
“Hello?” I called out tentatively.
“We’re back here,” Wendy, our long-term babysitter, said in her charming British accent.
I walked into the toy-strewn family room and found all of them curled up on the love seat, watching “The Magic School Bus.” My two-year-old son was on Wendy’s left, rubbing her ear, and my five-year-old was on her right, legs draped over her lap as she massaged his feet.
While it was one of the sweetest things I’d seen, right then what I felt was what many working moms feel about their children’s caregivers: conflicted.
I wanted Wendy to love my boys, of course, just like I wanted my boys to love her back. But not too much. For that brief moment, I was jealous.
Sharing our children with others, especially with non-family members, isn’t always easy, according to Cameron Lynne Macdonald, whose book Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering, explores the often complicated relationship between mothers and caregivers.
“There’s a sense for most women that it hurts, that their first impulse was to always want to be the one their baby sought for comfort. That’s understandable,” Macdonald says.
But what matters, she goes on, is what mothers do with that feeling. There are different responses, she explains. The “it hurts but I’m glad my child has a nanny she loves” reaction; the moms who strategically hire au pairs only on one-year contracts which, by default, makes the mother the central attachment in the child’s life; and then there are the moms who fire the nanny when the child would reach for her first.
That’s a problem, argues University of Sheffield, England, philosophy professor Anca Gheaus, who has published numerous papers on the rights of parents and children. Children deserve to have continuity of care, she says, and shouldn’t be subjected to the whims—and jealousies—of their parents. Parents have no moral right to fire a beloved caretaker, she believes, especially if the child and the baby-sitter have become deeply attached and maintaining a connection would benefit both. Which is why she suggests that some non-parental childcare should be mandatory despite—and perhaps especially because of—parental jealousy.
“I know as a parent that it can be difficult to watch how others become close to your child, especially when their way of doing things is different from yours, and different from what you think is ideal,” Gheaus, the mother of a young son herself, told me in an interview. “This may be especially true for people who came to identify with their parental role above everything—which is still the case with many women.”
But, people can be trained to manage their jealousy, especially if social expectations around childrearing changed.
That would benefit children, who’d have more people to look after them and mentor them, as well as moms, who still typically do the bulk of childcare and pay the price for it, not only in their careers but also in a society that tends to blame mothers for any perceived failings.
Social expectations have already changed, just not for the better. Moms relied on others to help them raise their children for thousands of years. In fact, anthropologists have discovered that cooperative childrearing, or alloparenting—related and unrelated members of the same species that help care for and provide sustenance for the children of others—shaped human evolution. Women in hunting-and-gathering societies needed others to watch the kids while they farmed and hunted. Othermothers—women who care for children not biologically their own—have also been a tradition for black mothers dating back to the days of slavery in the United States, even longer in some African societies.
If we have been able to do it before, why not now, when we need it more than ever? Today 71 percent of moms with minor children work outside the home. Most harried parents rely on a patchwork of caregivers—family, babysitters and daycare programs, among others—to look after their children while they work. But what’s missing from this equation is consistent, ongoing and truly engaged caregiving, and the belief that caregiving is a community goal, and not just the responsibility of women and the nuclear family.
What if we used the concept of alloparenting to create policies that establish a community-based “village” of trained, high-quality and ongoing caregivers—men and women? Doing so would finally give caregiving, an essential part of society yet one that is typically undervalued and underpaid, the respect it deserves.
After Wendy left that night and I began the evening ritual of dinner, bath, book reading and snuggling, and then trying to connect with my husband—feeling pretty depleted—I had to ask myself what I wanted more, help raising my children or their complete and total adoration. Then I asked myself what I needed more and the answer was obvious.
My boys are well-adjusted young men now. It took relying on others to get us there.
Vicki Larson is an award-winning journalist and coauthor of The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels. She’s also the mother of two young men who are a lot taller than she is, so she’s a lot nicer to them now. She obsesses about parenting, marriage and divorce on her blog, OMG Chronicles, and spends too much time goofing off on Facebook and Twitter.