Allomothers: Our Evolved Support System for Mothers

We had a couple of mothers visit class the other day, a stay-at-home mom who has four children who brought her 7-month-old (the youngest child). The other mother, a graduate student, has two children, one 5 years old and the child she brought, who is about a year old. Our class had been studying the impacts of the evolved nest (and its lack) on child and adult wellbeing and morality .

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.

When asked about their perception of the evolved nest, both mothers said that what they frequently missed was allomothers—other motherers. They are right, it is a species need linked to the evolution of our big brain (Hrdy, 2009).

What do allomothers do? First they help before during and after birth. Then 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 waited 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, and healing. Here is a recent description of the lying-in experience.

Abide by the three rules of homework. Number one: "Eat the frog," says Ted Theodorou, a middle-school social studies teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia. That's shorthand for "Do the hardest thing first." Rule number two: Put away the phone. Homework time can't be totally tech-free (computers, alas, are often a necessary evil), but it can at least be free of text messages. Rule number three: As soon as assignments are finished, load up the backpack for tomorrow and place it by the door. This is a clear three-step process that kids can internalize, so there's less nagging from you. (Yes!)

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.

Children need responsive relationships with multiple people to build flexible social skills. Babies who spend their time only with mothers, tend to be less flexible (Hrdy, 2009). Indeed the second child visitor to our class spent her days only with mother, father or sister. She became quite distressed by strangers looking at her.

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).

Positive, or authoritative, parents value mutual respect and being a good listener.

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 US 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 a baby's needs (Belsky, 2001). See also 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 discouraged 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.

One of our visiting mothers said her in-laws came for only a week so as not to disturb the family but she wished they had stayed much longer. For the sake of the family (and society), we wish that too.

SERIES

1 Killing Motherhood, The Center of Society

2 The Science and Art of Mothering

3 Allomothers: Our Evolved Support System for Mothers