An hour or so after arriving at my office this morning and with a full day of clients ahead of me, I got the dreaded phone call from the school nurse that my second oldest was sitting in her office with a 99.1 temperature complaining that his belly hurt. By school protocol, his symptoms didn’t require him to go home, she told me, but she figured she would call and let me decide.
I let out a deep sigh as I ran through the options in my mind, including hanging up and pretending the phone disconnected. For context, this particular one of my children had been bemoaning all week the fact that his siblings had missed various days of school over the past few weeks for illness and how he was being “punished for his healthy immune system” by being forced to attend school as scheduled. So I had my very reasonable doubts about the veracity of his supposed illness.
But knowing that even if I asked her to have him wait it out a bit, I’d be getting another call in an hour, and knowing that I had our nanny working today who could run up to the school, I let her know we’d have him picked up shortly.
I’ve talked before about how my own ability to function like I do is not a product of will but rather of access to resources, like said nanny. And if my nanny wasn’t able to do it, and if I had a day with critical engagements, I have in my back pocket the knowledge that I could call my mom or my kid’s other grandmother. Both of these women work, one for pay and the other watching other grandchildren, but there’s a chance that they would be able to help if needed.
So if I or their dad were not able to step in, I have access to at least three other trusted and supportive adults to help catch the overflow. With four kids – hell, even with one – there’s a hell of a lot of overflow, and so those other adults are invaluable.
It’s the core reason that we chose to move back to our hometown nine years ago, despite loving the city where we’d begun our married life and started raising our first child. With a second baby on the way, there was a realization, at least on my part, that we were about to need a lot more help. I remember my husband at the time trying to talk me out of it, feeling we were well equipped to keep raising kids far from family support. His perception that everything was fine as it was felt like it alone represented the chasm between us. His life had changed with Baby 1, sure, but not nearly to the degree mine had. I didn’t want to let bringing home Baby 2 totally drown me.
And so, with just about six weeks to spare until our second was born, we bought an adorable yellow house in our hometown located perfectly equidistant between his parents and mine. His mom started babysitting (for free!), which often included having dinner ready (hot!) when we’d get home from work. My mom was always ready to help transport to a gymnastics class or host a sleepover. If you want to crawl through the screen and shake me in envy, I totally get it. It was all a young mom – a family – could ask for.
I’ve never really tried to quantify the financial value of the domestic help – also known as work – that my kids’ grandmothers provided, but if I did, I know it would land over a hundred thousand dollars. Between the cost of daycare for multiple children over several years, meals, gas and transportation, emergency sick care for children, and a million other little tasks that helped our house and family operate, I know I never could have afforded the same support without the unpaid labor of these women.
Meanwhile, I of course have countless friends and colleagues who have not had access to any such labor or support. Some live far distances from their families of origin. Some live close, but for varieties of reasons don’t have a relationship with their families that would allow this kind of help. Others have parents who are physically unable to help, have jobs that prevent them, or are deceased. Some have parents that would just be so difficult to deal with in this way that it’s not worth their mental health.
And in between their experience and ones like my own is what we might call the Grandparent Gap, the too-little discussed discrepancy in the access to support we have as caregivers.
When I was born to my own single mom some decades ago, we lived with my grandmother, and later my great-grandmother too. At that time, my grandma worked her own 9-5, so while she wasn’t my daytime childcare, she was there to help with nighttime feedings, bathtime, and emotional support for my mom as she navigated first-time parenthood.
Without the emotional, financial, and practical support she had from her mother, my own mom would have struggled so much more than she did. As a result, I was able to grow up with much more security than could have been the case. While my mom’s strain of motherhood wasn’t absent, it was eased, and so I am realizing that I’ve now been the beneficiary of being on the privileged side of the Grandparent Gap.
My own generation is in general more likely to have been supported by grandparents as kids. The widening geography of families has meant that these days there are more of us who, now as parents, live far distances from our kids’ grandparents.
While some parents have established non-family communities where they now live, the vast majority of even those will say that they are willing to call on their close friend to go pick up their sick kid from school or transport to soccer practice when a conflict crops up. Even if we felt more comfortable asking, most of our closest contacts are often in the same boat and deep in the throes of their own domestic life. They don’t have the flexibility – even if they wanted to – to step in for us.
What this means, then, is that parents are faced with raising kids and managing complex family lives without the support of a village. The village model works because a village has members of multiple ages and life stages, and the ones on either side of the intensive parenting life stage can lend a hand. In a village, you don’t have to be terrified of coming down with your own illness. There are plenty of others ready to step in.
The village model is often referenced, as in “it takes a village to raise a child,” but it goes beyond anecdote. In fact, just this year a group of evolutionary anthropologists from Cambridge University published their findings from studying a hunter-gatherer community in the Northern Republic of Congo, where the village model is still alive and well.
It’s important to remember that while we might see our lives as far different than those of these communities, 95% of human history was spent in hunter-gatherer societies. What this means is that our biological wiring was shaped by our time in them, and studying them can help us understand the why and how of our own functioning.
What the researchers observed was that in this community, infants received what they called “attentive caregiving” and physical contact from up to 15 different caregivers each day. In fact, almost 50% of the babies’ cries were responded to not by mom, but by other community members.
Let’s pause there for a moment. Can you imagine if you, as a new, exhausted mother, had a dozen or more other loving, trusted adults at your disposal to meet half of the needs of your child? It might seem almost uncomfortable to imagine in our hyper-independent society, but as you can imagine, it allows for a mother to do things in these societies like, say, sleep, eat, and use the bathroom on her own. Mind-blowing, really.
What the study was actually demonstrating though, is that we as humans are “evolutionarily primed” to receive care from a community of people, not just one. One notable finding is that the children’s cries were always responded to with care, never with ignoring, criticism, or contempt. This was possible, in my view, because the burden of responding to those cries (i.e. needs) was shared among a group of people. If one person was stressed or tired or busy, there were plenty of others to assist who could show up with compassion. So while we are born wired to need the consolation of loving adults, those adults don’t have to always be the mother or parent. Thank heavens.
My friends who don’t have their children’s grandparents to lean on will tell me that they often feel like things are twice as hard. They may actually be underestimating the challenge they face when we look at how many caregivers we are evolutionarily adapted to need.
What do we do if we find ourselves among those without grandparent support? I’d love to tie this up in a nice little bow with four or five quick tips. But the reality is that the disintegration of our village model of raising families is not something we can hack.
What we can start with, however, is recognizing that the Grandparent Gap (or Village Gap, as it may be), is a big part of the problem. It’s not that we just aren’t good at this mothering thing or that a more flexible work schedule would solve the entire issue. We have been born into a time when we’re expected to do the work of an entire village and then berate ourselves when we burn out.
If we don’t have access to grandparents – or even if we do, honestly – we can do our best to forge communities to support us. The key, in my opinion, is that the communities we create are diverse and compassion-minded. They ideally include loving people of different life circumstances and generations, at least a few of whom would just absolutely adore sitting on the sidelines of your kid’s game while you take a much-needed rest at home.
Our society doesn’t make these communities particularly easy to build, but it’s possible for some of us. What often stands in the way, in addition to the structural issues, is our own hesitancy to ask. Our hyper-individualistic culture has convinced us that only we should be tending to the needs of our children – they are our responsibility alone. But when we let ourselves ask or at least accept assistance, we’re often surprised to learn that no one else wants it to be that way either.
And if we do have access to supportive grandparents, even ones that load the kids up with candy right before dinner or obnoxiously challenge our kids’ nap schedules, I hope we’ll take a moment to acknowledge our good fortune to land on the easier side of Grandparent Gap.