By Leigh Bancroft
The notion that it takes a village to raise children has been thrown around now for a few decades without any real sustenance to support it. Sara Hrdy, in her book, Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, introduces the concept of allomothering, which is the community of females (found in some primate species) that surround the mother and help her raise her young. This could be sisters, young females, grandmothers, and even fathers.
A quick aside—it is ironic that fathers get placed in a category outside of primary parent. A father’s role is crucial to the rearing of a child and is often left out of the conversation when it comes to primary caretaking. Thus, placing the father in the category of community, instead of direct parent, is interesting to note.
Nevertheless, the allomothering community is vital to the survival of young. In female primates, females can alter their ovulation to support the success of the alpha female’s child, and infants often nurse on other nearby females to allow the primary mother to gather food and complete other domestic duties. This type of commitment to community sounds somewhat utopian for humans because most people are unwilling to sacrifice for the sake of other mothers or to see the role of motherhood as an essential job for the community. Women are creating and raising humans that will become citizens and do important things in the world, and yet, we still treat them, and other primarily female roles in the community (teachers, caregivers, nurses, cleaners) like lesser human beings, especially with resources.
Regardless of how many people have told me over the years that it takes a village to raise a child, I haven’t received much real help from friends or family (besides my mother and father) because most people are too busy with their own private lives and families. The privatization of family means that many women manage the job of motherhood alone and suffer in private.
Then there’s a woman’s pride built into the expectation that we can and should do it all—our own career or job, daily chores, the majority of childcare, schoolwork, staying involved with school activities, after school activities, care for other aging family members, and somehow squeezing in eating healthy, staying fit, caring about the environment, politics, and our community. Women take on so much in addition to mothering their children, not to mention the work we put into our personal relationships, which can entail bartering for help and peace in the house. How many women want to admit they are really struggling? How much do they disclose about their low energy levels, lack of focus or interest in sex, depression, and anxiety even to their women’s groups? Are we being honest even with ourselves? We do enormous, Oscar-award winning, Nobel Peace Prize Worthy, Olympic gold medal feats on a daily basis for zero recognition.
To illustrate this point, here’s a story I call, Momma, Did You Really Climb Mt Everest?
When I was going through my divorce with my children’s father, I had to fly from the United States (lower Alabama) to Germany on a plane to be where their father was stationed. At the time, my children were three and five years old, and I was convinced by their father that flying on this twelve-hour flight with two kids alone was no big deal. I look back at that young, vulnerable mother and want to gently and lovingly lay a hand on her shoulder and whisper in her ear, “don’t ignore your instincts, or your own needs, or try to do something a man would never even consider doing themselves in the first place.” My youngest was still in pull-ups and riding in a stroller, and the older one was begging to be in the stroller because we had to walk what seemed like five miles with all our baggage across the Atlanta airport to change flights and go through customs. It felt up hill.
Flying with two small children is no ordinary task for anyone. First, their attention span is short, and second, their demands are large. One has to be prepared for this sort of thing, like packing for a three-day climb up a steep mountain in severe weather conditions. I brought plenty of snacks and books and toys, and I wrapped presents to hand out every hour if they behaved by remaining quiet and sitting in their seats. I thought I had it together, and for the first few hours, and after all the boarding stress was over, we actually had fun. But, soon the restlessness, whining and crying set-in. With a three-year old needing all my attention, my five-year old had to go to the bathroom alone, which sent him into a few fits of severe anxiety while clinging to my leg. I did not sleep at all, and it showed in the last few hours of the flight.
The man that my youngest had befriended in the seat next to him fell asleep. Snacks ran out, and everyone else was trying to sleep on the plane, which despite my noisy aisle, they seemed to be doing peacefully. In fact, my children’s refusal to sleep at all during the entire plane ride lasted until exactly 30 minutes before we landed. Mind you, we were also flying late in the evening, and we landed during what would have been the middle of the night during their normal sleep. One can imagine the scene of two children disrupted from sleep; a sleepless mother with one crying child refusing to stand on his feet, and the other gone completely limp in her arms.
Needless to say, I could not easily carry my bag, push my carry-on, push a stroller, and carry my heavy, sleeping three-year old. We also did not land at the gate, but instead, had to leave the plane via stairs and get onto a bus to get to the airport gate. I honestly cannot remember how I managed to get myself and a stroller down those steep stairs, but I do remember being the last person to get onto the bus, and I do remember seeing all the faces of people without children, and without much to carry staring at me (with mild disdain for taking so long) while I struggled to get myself, my sleeping son, and my stroller onto the tram. They just stared at me.
I couldn’t believe that no one offered to help until a few pathetic tears leaked out of my eyes. Finally, a guy grabbed my stroller and pulled it onto the tram. Nothing was said. No one commended me for getting through the flight alive, and no one consoled me as I was clearly exhausted and trying to hold it together. I wasn’t spoken to or gestured to in any way. Thankfully, my ex arrived, refreshed from six months of sleep and no kids to manage. But I couldn’t even tell him what I had accomplished. He wouldn’t understand. I felt like I had climbed a mountain, perhaps even Mount Everest, but without any reward for my struggle. The view hadn’t changed either—it was a new country, but the same relationship issues were glaring right at me. Many times my parenting has felt like this moment--constant, impossible obstacles and momentous, unacknowledged triumphs.
And so, I did it again. The relationship did not work out and after the divorce, I had to fly back from Germany on a twelve-hour flight with my kids alone. This was again, late at night, my kids had not slept, and my youngest was still not walking long distances on his own. Because of a bad storm, the connecting flight was cancelled, and so after waiting for hours, with no comfort offered by the airline attendants or anyone on the plane, we were told to book a hotel for the night because the next flight would not be until 6AM. As tired as I was, I had to book my own hotel, call a taxi, hold onto my little one in my lap because I did not have a car seat, get food, get the boys to bed, and then wake up and do it all again at the crack of dawn.
This was another Mount Everest. I had managed the 24 hour layover, hotel, taxi, bags, sleepy and cranky children all by myself. Yet this time, no one was waiting to relieve me of my burden at the end of this journey, even if only for only a little while, so I could rest. And this time, I was coming back to the states to raise my kids alone as a single mother, which meant this was to be my future from here on out. You know that feeling when you have reached a point of no return in terms of mental and physical exhaustion, and all you can do is stare off into space, or clench your teeth, or hum quietly to yourself so you don’t break down and go crazy in public? Exhausted mothers know this feeling, especially if they are parenting alone. Not only was I alone, I was anxious about the divorce and starting a new life, and I was caring for everyone else’s emotional needs but my own. I was trying to do it all.
What makes this story so hard for me to process is that I saw clearly the problems within our culture. Although we talk about “villages” when it comes to raising children, the general public’s lack of interest or empathy to my situation told me what I had already been experiencing in many other situations. Their indifference reinforced what I was already feeling after the divorce--that I am alone. You may be thinking that I chose to have these kids, and so I bare the responsibility and must take on the tremendous work it takes to raise them, right? And, of course, I am not supposed to admit I need help or ask for it. I am not supposed to complain, seem needy, weak, or scream out loud at the top of my lungs in public, or go straight jacket crazy, which is what many mothers of young children want to do pretty often.
Another quick aside--when discussing what she calls Mother Rage, in her book, Rage Becomes Her, Soraya Chemaly says, “If we are mothers, we are allowed to be angry about what happens to our children and families, we are allowed to be angry at our families and children as mothers and partners, but we are not allowed to be angry about what happens to us in the experience and expectations of motherhood” (118). Anger is a justified response to carrying the heavy load of child rearing alone or even partially alone.
We may prove at moments to be worthy mountaineers, but we can’t manage to keep climbing Mount Everest alone. Because one day, we will be so tired, hungry, thirsty and sick, that we will take that step that will be our last. Then, who will pick up the pieces? As Kathryn Black says, “Social isolation is not what we were made for” (177). The village supports before the tragedy hits. Having been through many difficult experiences myself, I see that I need to commit to supporting others in the same way, and I probably need to do a better job of asking for help. My commitment to my community is to think and act more communally. Can I ask that you meet me here? It takes a village.
Black, Kathryn. Mothering Without a Map: The Search For The Good Mother Within.
New York, Penguin Group, 2014.
Chemaly, Soraya. Rage Becomes Her. New York, First Atria Books, 2018.
Hrdy, Sara B. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts And How They Shape The Human
Species. New York, Ballantine Books, 2000.