Allow-parenting /or/ How I Learned to Let Go and Let Grandma

 In the focus group on academic motherhood, the moderator asked us, "Tell me about the support network you have--who else besides you helps parent your children?" Everyone mentioned partners and a few mentioned parents, and while they were talking, I was counting on my fingers. "There are 16 people," I said, "I would be comfortable leaving my daughter with for a weekend." 

Sixteen people is a lot of people, although top of that list are Lucia's grandparents, Grandma and Abuela top, bolded, and underlined. It's not just about the weekend, though. For more than a year, I've been living with my in-laws and "commuting" to my retired parents' house for work hours, largely because of the support that Grandma and Abuela are able to provide. This may be an aberration for Mary's life, but having grandmothers around are part of our evolutionary heritage: families have long depended on the support grandmas and others give, especially for young children.

There's a word for this: alloparenting. It's a trendy idea that gets credence in the trendy books about pre-Industrial parenting. The reason why modern parents, and especially moms, are stressed out about having young kids is that they were never meant to care for these young kids themselves. Grandparents, aunties, cousins, older siblings, neighbors, friends, there was supposed to be a proverbial village helping out, but in our incessantly individualistic society, we've lost that village.

"But wait," the critics might reply, "we don't raise our kids alone--we have school teachers, nannies, coaches, and babysitters to take the burden off parents. We just happen to pay--directly or indirectly--for the village. What's the difference?"

That paying is a difference, and a big one, for two main reasons. 

(1) When you're paying for an hourly service, you expect to be getting your money's worth. I've had some wonderful babysitters and nannies. Certainly I am happy they weren't cruel or neglectful babysitters, but maybe they were a little...too wonderful. Having a one-to-one ratio with our daughter, these wonderful babysitters and nannies played attentively and watched incessantly, anticipating Lucia's every need and fulfilling it the moment they could. This sounds good, but maybe, in large doses, it's not so great. As many parenting wonks point out, it's possible that most rich parents are doing too much parenting, not too little, and this likely goes for nannies, especially nannies for just one or two children.

But what am I paying $15 an hour for anyway? I'd be upset if I learned that my babysitter spent the whole time on his phone playing video games or that the nanny spent the whole day running personal errands with the baby in tow. Some people make sure "light housekeeping" is in the contract, but am I really going to feel like a good parent if I hired a nanny that let the baby cry for a little bit while she finished up the dishes?

(2) A child may get the mistaken impression that the nanny works for them (and the nanny may get this impression, too.) In The Secret Garden, there's a linchpin scene where Mary, accustomed to having a private nanny in India, meets Martha the mostly-housemaid for the first time and is surprised that Martha won't dress her or do other things for her that she can do for herself. "Are you going to be my servant?" she asks, to which Martha replies, "I'm Mrs. Medlock's servant, an' she's Mr. Craven's" and later explains "It'll do thee good to wait on thysel' a bit. My mother always said she couldn't see why grand people's children didn't turn out fair fools--what with nurses an' bein' washed an' dressed an' took out to walk as if they was puppies!" Martha mostly has her own work to do, so she treats Mary like one of her own siblings (ah! here's another example of alloparenting!) and gives her a skipping rope and turns her out of doors to entertain herself.


Martha and Mary from The Secret Garden - I just now caught the allusion to  the Biblical Martha a… | Classic childrens books, War and peace characters, Secret  garden Martha has grate polishing to do!


Contrast this with the child who believes that the nanny works for them, that their needs and wishes should be attended to immediately. The nanny may think this themselves (because, after all, what are they getting paid $15 an hour for, anyway?) and attend to the child's needs immediately. And what would the parents think if they didn't? 

In one of my favorite parenting books, the author relates how when her mother went out and left them with a teenage babysitter, her mom was always clear to let the babysitter know that they didn't have to crawl around pretending to be horses if they didn't want to, even if the children insisted that's what they wanted to play. It's a remarkable thing, to empower a teen to say "no" to a kid, because there can be a lot of pressure when you know you're getting paid. But, it's not just nannies who can fall into "the child is customer trap"; even school teachers report that students are increasingly treating them like servants who should deliver entertainment and engagement all the time.

But with alloparenting, especially grandmas, I expect that my daughter will have to learn that sometimes her needs don't come first. Grandma has to prepare the neighborhood newsletter, Abuela is taking night classes, and both of them, like Mary, have gardening to do. Those pre-Industrial parenting gurus stress the importance of teaching children to work alongside us rather than competing with our work or comprising the work of others, and grandparents, especially retired grandparents like my mom, are ideally situated to do so. Lucia learns that she is not necessarily the center of everything all the time, and she also gets a chance to learn some of those charming Montessori life skills alongside her grandparents. 

Baking with Grandma

 "Sounds great, in theory," my critics reply, "but my parents* are the worst."

First, are they the worst? A recent article by an expert on familiar estrangement points out that often estrangement of children and parents is initiated by grown children, and that those grown children see themselves as brave for cutting out their parents, while parents often feel saddened, betrayed and confused as to what they did to deserve this. I'm not saying that there aren't any parents who are, in fact, abusive and absolutely bad influences on you and your young children, but the bar might not be as strict as you think. Are your parents evangelical and you want to raise your kids secular? Consider yourself a liberal while your parents are conservative? Or opposite?  

Have an honest conversation, away from the kids, about what you have in common, as one parenting book recommend in their grandparenting section; this may turn into ground rules and compromises for while the kids are being alloparented or you may have to "translate" for your alloparents: "I think what Pop-pop is trying to say is that playing with toy guns makes him uncomfortable. We will only do that at our home."

But one of the great advantages of alloparenting is that your kid gets to learn that there are other ways of thinking and other ways of doing things that the people they love engage in. They live in someone else's home and learn about someone else's life in a very intimate way. Again, a paid employee doesn't have the latitude to do things their way, since they can be sacked for doing things in a way other than as a direct proxy for the parent.

Look, I get how hard it can be to give up some of that control in parenting. Since coming to live with family, my daughter has drunk a lot more orange juice, been gifted a lot more plastic toys, and has watched a lot more TV** than I would have let her if I was living in the parenting bubble I used to live in. But she's fine. Partially this is because we tend to overstate our role as parents in "forming" our children: both conservative and liberal parenting experts agree. Partially because I think both set of grandparents did a pretty great job with me, my siblings, my husband, and my sisters-in-law. If you can say likewise, then don't worry too much about the small details.

"Fine then," the critics say, "why not just all go in with alloparenting, since it's so great?"

Well, first because it's hard to be able to do. We tend to live where our jobs take us, rather than being close to family. My job at a university is extremely rare and usually you go whereever you can find an academic job. Krystian's job in chemical engineering is usually geographically limited to Texas and Louisiana, far from our parents.  Covid-19 and remote working gave us, and many other young professionals like us,  the chance to de-couple where we work and where we live. It's not clear how long that will last, or what the costs of it will be. Probably, we will move back to Houston before the end of the summer break and that will be the end of that.

Also, alloparenting does impose a cost on those alloparents. Even though my mom insists she is loving the chance to be more involved in Lucia's life, we have to be careful to make sure that she still gets to exercise, to get her own work done, and to see her friends, now that their all vaccinated up and everything. You have to "pay" for alloparenting in social exchange of favors and consideration. Sometimes this is direct, (we try to tidy up, cook for our parents 3 days a week, and recently bought Abuela a rose bush to show our appreciation) and sometimes this indirect--as a flexible-hour worker, I've done a lot of alloparenting for my brother, who is another Covid-19 migrant, especially when his kids were in remote schooling. Alloparenting means sometimes you give and sometimes you get.

Speaking of which, alloparenting, like parenting, does seem to have a gendered aspect to it, sometimes becoming a big burden on women. While Abuelo and Grandpa do care for Lucia, they don't really care for her--mostly they will let her watch TV with them or they will admire her or steer her away from danger, but they aren't really going to change a poopy diaper or handle a meltdown. There are probably some cultural/generational traditions at play in this disparity, but even my brothers and brothers-in-law have hesitations in caring for Lucia in a way that my husband does not. I don't think this is because they can't parent--half of them are dads and excellent dads at that--but because they are less comfortable as alloparents. 

Look what good dad Krystian is!


But I think this little experiment in alloparenting has done a lot to open our eyes as parents--to be more confident that we aren't screwing our kid up if we don't do things exactly the way parents of our generation do, and to give us the flexibility to pursue our own needs and wants (we can go out after Lucia goes to bed!). We're more interested in living close to family than we were before the pandemic and to see the benefits tangibly and realistically.

* I say "parents" a lot in this essay, but sometimes alloparenting isn't about parents at all. In my and my huband's family history, aunts, older siblings, step-grandparents and lots of other extended family members have played key roles in alloparenting. Grandparents, though, are probably the most frequent and consistent alloparents.

**Including *shudder* Paw Patrol. My husband and I were planning on discussing the existence of Paw Patrol with our daughter at around the same age, and with the same solemnity, that we would discuss atomic weapons and pornography. Now she can identify the characters by sight.


Rachel Helps said…
I loved reading your thoughts on this topic!
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