Before I had children, I read With A Daughter’s Eye, Mary Catherine Bateson’s memoir about growing up with famous anthropologist parents, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Mead, the “grandmother of anthropology,” was a pioneer in the study of family life in worldwide cultures, and she used her understanding of varied family patterns to shape her own.
“She set out to create a community for me to grow up in,” Bateson writes. “I did not grow up in a nuclear family or as an only child, but as a member of a flexible and welcoming extended family, full of children of all ages, in which five or six pairs of hands could be mobilized to shell peas or dry dishes.”
Mead thought it was preferable for children to be raised in a network of caring people, to be part of several households with several caretakers, as she had observed in her studies in Bali, New Guinea, and Samoa. She considered a nuclear family too tight a bond; instead, she advocated for “cluster” units comprised of older married couples, singles, and teenagers from other households. This also freed Mead to work and travel away from home more.
“Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation,” wrote Mead.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated just how hard it is for families to go it alone: A year into the pandemic, parents were two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder compared to non-parents. Having a supportive community around our children matters. Research across many fields finds that “alloparents”—non-parents who provide parental care to children—can enhance both children’s development and family well-being. They can provide concrete assistance, as well as add love, security, and even mentoring, playing a crucial role in family life.
My experience with alloparenting
Reading Bateson’s memoir planted a seed in me. When my husband and I decided to have children, we were thousands of miles away from our families. The thought that we could cultivate a viable family structure from other kinds of relationships was inspiring and liberating.
Around that time, a friend entered our lives. Like me, Elnora is a white American, but she had spent years in India as an exchange student, spoke Hindi, and had lived with my husband’s extended family. As a result, she understood both his culture and mine. She’d known my husband since he was 10, and I came to know her when she moved near us in the Bay Area.
I didn’t set out to make her a part of our family; instead, the relationship grew organically. I was attracted to her maturity, her centeredness, and her kindness. When the birth of our first baby approached, I asked her if she would accompany us to take photographs—I trusted her more than anyone for this vulnerable moment. Afterward, she and the baby bonded, and she began to visit us weekly to watch her grow. I noticed that we felt lighter when Elnora was around and were better versions of ourselves in her presence.
Later, she helped me birth our second baby. When it came time to push, I sat across Elnora’s and my husband’s thighs, my arms around their necks. She wiped my forehead and massaged my shoulders. She was the first person to hold the baby after my husband and myself.
Our closeness grew over the years. She babysat, brought us food when we were sick, and celebrated all the holidays with us. She was our person. In turn, she appreciated being part of a family and embraced the open, disarming love of children. The children had their first sleepovers at her house (she even kept children’s Tylenol in her cabinet for midnight leg pains), and she was the “homework fairy” who made studying fun without fomenting rebellion. We invited her to travel with us, and she did, frequently—eventually attending college graduations, weddings, and even my mother-in-law’s cremation in Bombay. To us, she was “Lala,” “godmother,” or “fairy godmother.”
Over the years, we continued to cultivate a relatively open household, and we were fortunate to engage with different kinds of alloparents. Many young people lived with us on their journey to adulthood, especially those from India, where joint families are typical. One young man, a physics major at the local university, performed science demonstrations for my children and their friends. A beloved babysitter was so integral to my ability to work, I told my mother-in-law that she had to obey the sitter in order to stay with us—certainly a violation of her expected social order. Other alloparents emerged, too—a tutor, a favorite teacher, even some of the college students I taught.
Other parents were also great allies. In the summertime, our children flowed through the homes of other families, and we parents shared everything from information on sleepaway camps to our positive observations of each other’s children. We were designated family guardians in case of death, and, later, I even officiated at the wedding of one of my daughter’s childhood friends.
The benefits of extra support
A network of caring people engenders security in children. For my own kids, there was no doubt about a sense of belonging when their entire “posse” (their word) showed up for school performances and graduations. Having multiple caring adults around also made it easier for me to have a bad day: I could withdraw, knowing that some other buoyant spirit would pick up the slack. It also brought more diverse perspectives and temperaments into the mix. My children got to witness as my niece started a business and became a persuasive public speaker, in the process offering a model of what an energetic extrovert could do in life. And when a young teen starts to individuate and a hovering parent might offend their sense of autonomy, it’s helpful to have another eye on things.
We are not meant to go it alone. In anthropology, humans are considered “cooperative breeders,” and researchers routinely document the contributions of alloparents. Learning this was a great relief to me, a refreshing departure from the conventional American view that mothers alone must bear the burden of care—an arrangement that the pandemic has proven particularly fragile and unsustainable.
Research on almost any topic in developmental science shows that social support to the family improves children’s development. For example, one of the strongest predictors of a child’s resilience in the face of trauma is the presence of any supportive adult—an aunt or uncle, teacher, coach, or friend. Postpartum depression occurs less often when women are surrounded by helpful people after birth. Children’s talents are more likely to develop when a non-parent adult takes a deep interest in them. And teens navigate the bridge to adulthood more successfully with the help of older mentors.
Grandmothers are a well-studied type of alloparent, and the “grandmother hypothesis” ascribes them a critical role in supporting human evolution. Across history, the presence of a grandmother is associated with improved child survival rates and greater numbers of children. For millennia, grandmothers have foraged; cared for the young while parents worked; passed on parenting, cultural, and economic information; or assumed complete care when a parent was not available. They have also provided emotional support when children struggled with a parent or the arrival of a new sibling. In one study, a grandmother’s presence was shown to reduce the child’s cortisol (a stress hormone) during stressful family dynamics.
The hard parts of alloparenting
However, things don’t always go swimmingly.
The support that is offered must meet the support that’s desired, writes noted developmental scientist Urie Bronfenbrenner in his book The Ecology of Human Development. Bronfenbrenner points out that not all support is intrinsically useful. What matters most is how the help is felt by the recipient. It’s not useful when someone offers solutions but what you really want is a moment to vent; or when someone texts “thinking of you” but what you really need is help with errands or watching your kids.
In my own experience, I found that thoughtful communication, clear boundaries, and a healthy dose of forgiveness are key. Periodic conversations about how things are going are useful, too. I sometimes served as an intermediary between the children and an alloparent, facilitating their alliance. I frequently explained the child’s developmental status, shared ideas for birthday gifts, or oriented our chosen family member about a child’s current struggles. In turn, I sometimes coached the children about how to interact with someone’s unfamiliar style of relating. And I taught them that acknowledgement and reciprocity toward their alloparent mattered; they offered thank-you notes, a bowl of soup in the midst of a flu, help with chores, a new music playlist, or help with technology in return.
Once in a while, I had to provide corrective guidance, or—more rarely—let an alloparent go if I thought they were not a positive influence on the kids or our family as a whole.
“I was mortified that I was sharp with the girls, once,” Elnora admitted. “You have to have an artful ability to take feedback if you’re going to be intimately involved with another family.” To her great credit, she was flexible with our last-minute schedule changes and requests and patient with our child-centered focus and family distractions. I’m sure she didn’t always get the attention she deserved. Family life can be messy.
“We are not meant to go it alone. In anthropology, humans are considered 'cooperative breeders.'”
Then, too, some parents might feel jealous of other people’s close relationships with their children, or they might wonder if another relationship will undermine their child’s formation of a secure attachment. (A secure attachment is the child’s foundational relationship that acts as a secure base from which to explore and that helps them regulate their emotions.) But to children, there’s no question about who their primary attachment figures are, as long as those caregivers are involved with, and attuned to, them. Children are biologically organized to form a “small hierarchy of attachments,” and under normal circumstances, parents are situated at the top. Other attachment figures can offer comfort and support development, but they are backups to the primary attachment. In my case, I believed my children were safer in a larger network, and I was grateful for others’ loving, constructive relationships with them.
The freedom to choose
Families in the U.S. are under a slow but steady process of remodeling. As of 2014, the heterosexual nuclear family in which parents stay married is no longer the dominant family form. Instead, over the last 60 years, there has been an increase in cohabitating caregivers, second marriages, blended families, and single caregiver households. Many children live with grandparents, either exclusively or along with a parent, and a small but increasing percentage live with same-sex parents. Queer families have long been on the vanguard of creating “chosen families,” often out of necessity. Research shows that it’s not the family form that matters to children’s development as much as how the relationships feel.
“We all must compose our lives without relying on single role models,” Bateson writes. One can look to other kinds of families for inspiration, she says, but above all, her mother’s work affirmed “the possibility of choosing.”
This Mother’s Day, one of my daughters wrote to Elnora, “I feel so lucky to have multiple adults in my life who looked out for me, guided me through the world, and continue to be here for me.” My other daughter, echoed the same sentiment: “I’m so lucky to have two amazing mother figures in my life to love and support us along the way. My own future family will be so lucky to have all these people who love them already!”
Elnora replied, “It’s been a special, extraordinary experience to be this close to you for all of your lives.”
And every year I write to her, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
This article is excerpted from a longer article on Diana Divecha’s blog, developmentalscience.com.