In March 2020, when COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, parents were left without their customary allies, almost overnight. To differing degrees (because we all know that the virus and its ramifications did not impact all communities equally), it didn’t take long before parents were feeling the repercussions of that loss.
In the wake of the pandemic shutdown, school hours were shortened or cancelled. For fear of making grandparents ill, we couldn’t have them come over. The playgrounds we let our kids run around in while we connected to friends were off-limits. Sending a child into someone else’s house (or having them inside of ours) became unthinkable. Families of children with special needs lost access to therapeutic schools, in-person therapists, special education services, and so much more. Regardless of the unique needs, the unprecedented nature of the pandemic meant the numerous and varied supports parents rely on were no longer available.
The loss of these allies revealed just how much we rely on them and how difficult parenting can be when they are not a part of our daily lives. And it’s important to recognize that the need for parenting allies isn’t unique to our time and place in history—it’s wired into our human biology.
“Alloparenting” is a scientific term best encapsulated by the famous African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” According to David Lancy, anthropologist and author of The Anthropology of Childhood, this term conveys “the notion that all sorts of folks can step up and play what we think of as the normal parenting role—holding and comforting a child, feeding the child, cleaning the child, making sure the child is safe, protecting the child. All the various parenting roles can be distributed, and collectively those folks are called alloparents.”
The loss of these allies revealed just how much we rely on them and how difficult parenting can be when they are not a part of our daily lives.
Alloparenting is more common in humans than other primate species and is thought to have been critically important for our evolution. And Lancy explained, “The payoff of alloparenting is that our species grew very rapidly over time compared, say, to our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees.” Evolutionary psychologist and author of The Ape that Understood the Universe Steve Stewart-Williams said, “For most primates, the mother alone can care for the kids. For us, that’s just not possible. In fact, it’s barely possible when mum and dad combine forces to raise their offspring. It takes a small army to do it comfortably.”
In premodern times, alloparents included grandparents and other kin, all living close together in the same village. From the baby who wouldn’t sleep at night to the teenager who refused to ask parents for advice about a dangerous adventure, no situation was too much for these parenting allies. In modern times, however, with families separated by huge geographical divides, we’ve had to learn to be resourceful in securing alloparents.
And we have been resourceful. We now include social workers and therapists who watch out for our kids’ safety and emotional well-being, teachers who attend to their cognitive development, and the day cares and babysitters that allow us to do our work or take a break. These allies might be paid or unpaid, intensely loving or simply willing to share available attention. That small army of alloparents means breaks from the never-ending demands of caring for tiny humans. It meant early humans (and modern ones, too) could invest in other kinds of activities—from sleeping to foraging. And it meant they could increase their reproductive capacities (which as parents know well, are hardly unrelated!).
Having access to alloparents is not a nice-to-have, it’s a have-to-have.
The evolutionary importance of parenting allies offers an understanding of which can—we hope—alleviate some of our individual parental guilt of the painful past year and pave the way toward a healthier future. Because it turns out that having access to alloparents is not a nice-to-have, it’s a have-to-have. Scientific inquiry backs this up. Take a study published in 2020 that assessed over eighteen thousand infants in the United Kingdom. Care by alloparents was associated with a 15 percent reduction in hospitalizations during the first nine months of life, suggesting that care by nonparent allies provides support to modern parents and children in critical, and potentially literally life-altering ways.
Now, thankfully, we find ourselves inching toward re-engagement with the world outside of our homes. We’re beginning to feel the possibilities of reunions with grandparents, longer school days, even—dare we dream?—carpools and playdates. But we should pause in our eagerness to return to our pre-pandemic connections and reflect on the role of the alloparents we went without for a year. We have a responsibility, as a society, to learn from this experience, to build more structures that adequately support the needs of parents and our children.
So how do we begin to build stronger alloparental connection and support? How do we create greater access to alloparents?
Let’s start with the realization that parents are not weak for needing alloparents by our side. We are, to put it simply, human. Steve Stewart-Williams suggests that this realization can “encourage parents to give themselves a break by recognizing that if they have limited access to alloparents, it’s perfectly natural for them to find parenting something of a challenge. They shouldn’t beat themselves up too much about that.” By accepting alloparents as something natural and helpful—biologically and evolutionarily driven—we ease the guilt and self-recrimination.
Recognizing that parental supports are not only healthy but necessary can guide us toward a more alloparent-connected future.
Next, we can adjust our expectations for and approaches to creating connections with alloparents. Since we no longer live in villages and many of us live far away from family and cannot afford paid alloparental care, we can, instead, get creative. For example, we can foster connections with neighbors at a distance and while wearing masks. We can zoom with grandparents and siblings. We can even appreciate (and forgive ourselves for adopting) screens as a useful alloparental support. In the absence of any other parenting allies, it is perfectly sensible to use what resources we have. And we can savor the connections—even the imperfect ones—when we do access them.
We can also unearth a silver lining by learning lessons from this painful past year. Recognizing that parental supports are not only healthy but necessary can guide us toward a more alloparent-connected future. For parents, that may mean cultivating more numerous and stronger supports. For schools, treatment centers, and health systems, it might mean building systems with greater flexibility and more forms of affordable childcare. Perhaps this realization will influence policymakers to consider creating tax deductions for nonparental caregivers, further incentivizing alloparental connections.
So now when your school gets shut down because of a COVID case, a babysitter quits unexpectedly leaving you high and dry, or a grandparent hedges on the upcoming visit you had long been hungering for, allow yourself to shed the tears of frustration, overwhelm, and bone-wearied depletion. These responses are entirely natural. Then take a breath and consider the possibility of creating a future with more alloparents in it. As anthropologist David Lancy told us, we need allies in the enterprise of raising children because “alloparenting is ‘normal’ not exceptional.”