When my oldest son was born, I had this mistaken belief that I needed to be a 24/7 mom. I needed to do everything for him. I should be the one holding him, feeding him, playing with him, comforting him when he cried, all of it. On the rare occasion that someone else cared for my baby, I felt guilty. Like I wasn’t a good enough or strong enough or devoted enough mom. This idea, of course, was ridiculous and I quickly learned that I couldn’t do it all alone. No one can.
Yet, for some reason, this mentality of “martyr parents” persists. We feel like we need to do it all and be everything for our kids. Not necessarily because we want to, but for fear that if we don’t, we’ll somehow be lacking as a parent. Modern parenting, for all its strengths, still holds tight to this notion of competitive parenting and 24/7-independent-go-it-alone notion of what it means to be a devoted parent.
It’s bullshit. It’s harmful. And it needs to go.
To take its place – alloparenting.
What is alloparenting?
Simply put, it’s that age-old philosophy that “it takes a village.” The phrase was first coined by socio-biologist Edward Wilson in 1975 as a way to describe a person who cares for someone who isn’t their own child. It is a more inclusive approach that looks at parenting as something that extends beyond the mother or father caring for their children. Alloparenting might look like a multi-generational household. Or a nanny or au pair who cares for the children. It could be an after-school program or a neighbor who plays catch with our kids on the weekend. It might be a close aunt or uncle, the one teens go to when they don’t want to talk about a problem with their parents. Whoever the person is, whatever the relationship looks like, alloparenting sees these individuals not as “extra help,” but as valuable relationships that are critical for childrearing.
Alloparenting was critical to our survival as a species.
This “it takes a village” approach to parenting has been studied by researchers and many believe that it was critical for the evolutionary success of humans.
“I am absolutely convinced that we wouldn’t have [survived],” Robin Nelson, associate professor of anthropology at Santa Clara University told CNN. “It is a fundamental part of our humanity, as fundamental as walking on two feet. It is what makes us human.”
Alloparenting benefits kids – and parents.
Simply put, we need each other — as cliché as that sounds. But alloparenting doesn’t just help parents by giving us much needed breaks and the ability to tend to our careers and other relationships; our kids benefit from multiple caregivers as well.
“Kids have lots of buckets that need to be filled, just like we all do,” Amanda Zelechoski, associate professor of psychology at Valparaiso University, told CNN. “The more people they meet, the more experiences they have, the more likely they are to have a chance to fill all these buckets.”
The lack of alloparenting can be downright harmful.
Not only is an all-hands-on-deck style of parenting – one that relies on a number of other caregivers, whether it’s grandparents, neighbors, friends, nannies, daycare providers, teachers, or friends – beneficial to parents and children, but ultra-independent parenting can be downright harmful. And we’ve seen this play out over the course of the pandemic.
“We are a social species living in an isolated, distanced society, which has been compounded by the pandemic,” Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology and director of the Center for the Changing Family at the University of Southern California, told CNN. “This leads to heightened rates of maternal depression and anxiety, postpartum depression, and anxiety and depression among children.”
Sometimes alloparenting requires intentional and creative networks.
Of course, not every family has access to a wide network of caregivers. Parents might not live near their kids’ grandparents or they may not have a relationship that makes that kind of involvement possible. Sometimes it takes intentional effort to create your own alloparenting situation, through day care or after-school programs or a nanny.
Whatever form it takes, however it looks to you, let’s get on the alloparenting train. Let’s ask for help and then accept it when it’s offered. Let’s seek out ways to bring other positive adults into our kids’ lives. Let’s unclench our grip on this toxic idea that we should be martyr parents that are everything to our kids. Let’s be “alloparents” to other families. Let’s create and nurture that proverbial “village” people keep talking about – not just for our kids, but for ourselves too.
After all, as Darby Saxbe said, “No one person should ever do it all when it comes to parenting.”
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