How can we combine the economic necessities of work with caring for infants? This dilemma recurs across cultures, and western culture is no exception. In a series of interviews with professors who are mothers (which I hope to put on NewApps by the end of this month), one of my respondents, who has grown children remarked about their preschool years:
"I was completely stressed out. It wasn’t just that childcare was expensive—and even with two salaries it was a stretch: It was insecure. If a childcare provider decided to quit, I would be left in the lurch; if my kid wet his pants once too often he’d be kicked out of pre-school [which had strict rules about children being toilet-trained] and I’d have to make other arrangements."
This concern resonates with many parents. It is especially acute among low-income, single mothers who struggle to find last-minute childcare to fit their employers' unpredictable scheduling. Also symptomatic are heart-wrenching stories about a woman whose children were taken away because she failed to find childcare when she had to go on a job interview and left them in a car, or a woman who was arrested for allowing her nine-year-old daughter to play in a park while she worked in a nearby fast food restaurant.
Can we learn anything from how other cultures solve the working mother's dilemma?
Parenting policies and styles in the west are heavily influenced by Bowlby's attachment theory. According to Bowlby's theory, children are shaped by natural selection to have strong, secure attachments to a primary caregiver (in Bowlby's research, the focus was on the mother). It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that Bowlby's model of attachment parenting was heavily influenced by western parenting styles. Western parents are not representative for the world's population. They are, in Henrich et al.'s terminology WEIRD (from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich Democratic societies).
In the 1960s in America, women were entering the workforce in greater numbers but the stay-at-home mom with provider dad was still the ideal model of childrearing. However, this model is somewhat of an outlier as women in most traditional cultures are active providers (sometimes main economic providers) of their households. Alloparenting--care by people other than the mother and father--is the norm in many cultures, as Sarah Hrdy has observed. For instance, Efe (Central African) infants are cared for by 10 or more alloparents, including the father, uncles, aunts, grandparents and older siblings.
While this fact is now common knowledge for anthropologists, it has yet to sink in for policy makers in western culture, who are still influenced by the 1960s middle class Bowlby model of exclusive mother-child attachment. Such policies are reflected in longer periods of leave for mothers than for fathers, and very limited or no provisions for caregivers other than biological parents.
This forthcoming book entitled "Different faces of attachment. Cultural variations on a universal need" provides a more cross-culturally valid picture of alloparenting and attachment. As its title indicates, the need for loving attachments is universal need for infants, but the way this is filled in differs significantly across cultures.
For instance, for the Makassar in Sulawesi, a rice-cultivating community, mothers are actively involved in the heavy-duty work of planting, weeding and harvesting. She typically will mainly breastfeed, but leave lots of other childcare tasks to the child's grandparents or older siblings. According to Makassar beliefs "there is no mother love ideology" In contrast, Röttger-Rössler writes, they think that "A child should be reared primarily by those who best fit her "essential nature" (sifa) Children will often move to the home of their adoptive parents (such as grandparents), indicating that "children are perceived not as personal property of their biological or socially legal parents", but part of a large intergenerational group of relatives. Remarkably, from a young age, children can negotiate who their central attachment figures will be.
Interestingly, in cultures where alloparenting is more frequent, children are not socialized to fear strangers as they are in the west. Gottlieb writes
"I believe it is not coincidental that the generalized fear of the stranger-as-dangerous-other occurs in contemporary societies in which the bonds of family are themselves often strikingly attenuated. Although some endeavor to maintain active extended family ties, this effort becomes harder and harder to achieve as work demands (and ambitions) separate families across the country".
In the west, young children are taught to fear strangers (the other as a source of harm, internalizing fear with stranger-danger training), and they do form close attachment with just a few adults. By contrast, Beng infants from Côte d'Ivoire form attachments with many adults and older children in their community (including unrelated individuals), and strangers are given the benefit of the doubt. In just over 2 hours of observed time, they are found with an average of 2.2 people (see video). By being with many caregivers, the babies are incentivised against going back to the Beng prelife/afterlife (wrugbe). "Playing with others is a reminder of the love and joy this life has to offer" - see video below
As Gottlieb observes, the increasingly fragmented structure of families in the west and the small family size makes can explain why we don't have solutions like the Beng have in western culture. An interesting exception is the long-established practice in Germany of adoptive grandparents, whereby older people can adopt grandchildren, especially children whose biological grandparents live far away or are otherwise unable to care for them. This provides the adoptive grandparents with grandparental joys and responsibilities, children with loving grandparents who are there for them, and it relieves some of the care responsibilities from working parents.
Perhaps a shift in perception might be helpful too. Because of its outdated mother-child attachment model, western cultures regard a mother taking care of her young child as the golden standard, and alloparenting as a second-best or fallback option. Yet, in cultures like the Beng and the Makassar there is no mother-first ideology, and children and parents regard alloparenting as a source of joy and even empowerment for young children. Extended family leave policies (geared towards mothers) of six months or even longer are great, but, as it turns out, not without cost. They hamper women's ability to attain high positions. Increasing flexibility in how the parents divide leave, as in the UK and in some Scandinavian countries, is already a way toward the solution.
But we should also look more closely into providing high-quality, flexible and affordable childcare for everyone. Childcare is not a second-best option, but a cross-culturally recurring robust phenomenon to solve the dilemma of combining economic productivity with caring for infants, who need secure and stable attachments. The main thing to figure out is how we can, in the west with its attenuated family-ties, make this work as a commodity.