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Alloparents, Where Did You Go?

Photograph by Twenty20

To say my husband and I were looking forward to our first weekend away since our son was born would be an understatement. I couldn’t wait to uncoil together. For the first time in nearly eight years, we would have the time and space to remind ourselves of why we chose each other in the first place.

But at the last minute, just as I was about to start packing, our childcare plans fell through due to an injury. We wracked our minds for another solution, brainstorming which family or friends might be able to help us patch together childcare for the weekend. We had a few willing people step up, but it wasn’t nearly enough to cover the whole weekend.

The weekend away that we’d been craving? Canceled.

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I was dripping with disappointment on so many levels. I was disappointed that our coveted weekend away would be tabled for the foreseeable future. To add insult to injury, it was too late to get refunds for either our lodging or the deposit for the couples retreat we’d planned to attend. But hovering just beyond those logistical disappointments was a deeper sense of unease. Why didn’t we have a stronger community of friends or family who could help us out?

Parenting works better when we’re more interconnected.

Growing up in the '70s and '80s, my brother and I had a handful of family and close friends who were willing and ready to care for us.

Sociologists call these helpers alloparents, adults other than the biological parents who provide care for the young. Alloparenting is common among primates and elephants, and many traditional societies alloparent, spreading out the work of childcare so that no one is overburdened. Alloparenting is, for me, the biggest case for polygamy. I’ve often fantasized about having a sister wife or two to share parenting duties and to enjoy the benefits of a larger family without having all the downsides.

Our lost weekend forced me to consider what might be keeping us from creating the village I’d been lucky enough to have as a child. It’s partly that I don’t want to impose on others, knowing how busy most people are. And it’s partly the intensive parenting style I’ve absorbed, as if parenting was a competition to see who can spend the most time with their kids, and asking for help means losing points. And it’s partly about feeling like my kids are somehow not resilient enough to be cared for—even on a very temporary basis—by anyone besides us or other close family members.

None of these are valid reasons.

Life is busy, but most of us feel good when we have a chance to help other people.

And parenting doesn't need to be so intensive. No one's giving out awards for martyrs, after all.

And of course my kids are resilient! Giving them the opportunity to be cared for by people besides my husband and I just might add to that resilience.

There’s immense value in being part of a tightly woven community. As a child, I had aunts and uncles, godparents and grandparents I was close with. I felt like I belonged—and not just to my parents. Having multiple adults looking out for me, valuing me and willing to take care of me was a gift. Having adults besides my parents who served as role models was a bonus.

So how do we deepen our connections so we can create alloparents for our children, and be alloparents to other kids?

I’m encouraging my friends to let us know when they need—or want—help with childcare. I’m letting my son have friends over for playdates more often, and allowing him go to his friends’ houses more as well. I’m admitting that I need breaks, that my husband and I need breaks, that parenting works better when we’re more interconnected. I want my children to have relationships with other adults who value them, who know them, who care about them, and who can be role models to them. And I want to be that person for my friends’ children, too.

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I want to strengthen my relationships with my community, not just so my husband and I can enjoy a weekend away (although that’s a huge fringe benefit) but also because life is much more fun and meaningful when we’re not all just tucked into our own pods and are instead interwoven, known and deeply connected.

Maybe there’s a silver lining in losing our weekend away.

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