What Happens When You Let Other People In

Being with a baby all day is a unique kind of emotional labor. It’s lonely, but in a very particular way. I didn’t really understand this part of caregiving until I spent time as a nanny. I think it’s one of the biggest challenges facing parents and caregivers.  In the middle of downtown Manhattan it was easy to feel like she and I were the only people for miles. Your brain changes when you’re with a child all the time.  My focus became so granular it was  hard to relate to people who aren’t around kids a lot. It was an enormous triumph if I got her to eat avocado. It was an anecdote if I got her to leave the house without her bunny. It was groundbreaking when she learned to blow her nose. This ends up reinforcing a sense of isolation. The world seems more empty if you can’t share your experiences. I also had this misguided sense of pride that I could do  it alone, that I didn’t need support or help. Friend’s of mine who are mothers have described this same feeling; asking for help meant you were inadequate. It turns out though that going at it alone is not only an unrealistic standard, it’s potentially very problematic.


For most of human history and across cultures, we have raised children in environments saturated with other people.  Yet one of the most common feelings new mothers report is isolation.  How did this happen? Grandmothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, neighbors were all involved in raising and caring for a baby. Now it’s mostly left to mom but, “our approach of designating the mother as the primary is not sole caretaker of the very young is atypical” – David F. Lancy. Mothers raising children in a relational vacuum don’t just feel bad, they feel more overwhelmed physically and emotionally.   Social isolation is one of the strongest predictors of child maltreatment and maternal depression. Think about the lengths you go to to guard your child against germs that might get them sick.  What if we started to treat loneliness as if it were as toxic as a cold?  


With the average household decreasing from 6 people to 3 in less than 200 years, it’s less and less common to see extended family even peripherally involved in raising a child.  For the past 150,000 years humans have lived and evolved in multigenerational multifamily groups with the average ratio of adults to children around 4 to 1. That means for every one baby or child there were four adults who were able and willing to regularly assist with the caregiving of a baby. Today at least 25% of our population lives alone and we would now consider it incredibly developmentally enriched environment if there were 1 caregiver to four children. Despite advances in technology and science to make caregiving easier, we’ve undermined the process by reducing the number of people involved.

The phenomena of enlisting non parental help with childcare occurs across so many cultures it’s considered one of the few child rearing behaviors that is biologically hardwired in the humans.

One of the most uniquely human things new mothers do is let other people care for their infant. In her fantastic book, Mother and Others,  anthropologist Sarah Blaffer-Hrdy makes the case that the emotionally modern human evolved in part because we relied on others to help us raise our children. Or to just simply be with us while we raise them.

“Anthropologists and politicians remind us that it ‘takes a village’ to rear children today. What they often leave out is that is always has. Without alloparents [nonparental caregivers], there never would have been a human species”.

Cross cultural longitudinal research is conclusive – the healthier the relational network, the healthier the child. In fact, children of single parents who have strong extended family supports do better in some domains than children from two-parent households.  Children born with developmentally disadvantageous situations such as premature birth, low birth weight, poverty, or being born to a teenage mother, perform cognitively, emotionally, and physically better when raised in the context of a big family.  A mother’s perception of social support and the infant’s sense of security matter more than any actual improvement in material resources. What this means is giving the mother  the support of other people makes a bigger difference than if her housing or salary were to improve.  


In addition, research has also reported that the benefits of quality early support for parents and babies last up to 15 years later. Children acquired language earlier, were less likely to exhibit emotionally vulnerable traits, and were significantly less likely to be abused. To be clear, support doesn’t have to mean daycare or a particular program or a nanny - it’s whatever the mother perceives as support. Maybe it’s a new mothers group, a great sister-in-law, a few great friends, or a smattering of extended family members. The bottom line is summed up eloquently by Dr. Blaffer-Hrdy, “nurturing needs to be nurtured”.


The reality is other people play an enormously valuable role in helping us raise our children either by directly helping a caregiver with tasks or just making them feel more connected. Other people expand your child’s worldview and encourage empathy and curiosity about differences. One historian even posits that Michelangelo was introduced to sculpture because his nanny was married to a stone cutter.


Any skill worth learning is acquired in the context of a relationship. The more practice a child has developing and participating in a relationship the more successful they’ll be in nearly every domain. A supporting cast of caregivers not only enriches your child’s life but can also give you a break. You’re actually doing something wonderful for your children when you ask for help. The child, the family, the neighborhood and the community all benefit when more people invest time and energy in caring for a child either directly or indirectly. Historian of families Stephanie Coontz points out “children do best in societies where the task of raising a child is considered too important to be left entirely to the parents,”. The best thing for your child isn’t the right book or toy or class. It’s other people.

Who helps you with raising your child and do you feel that it makes a significant difference in your "loneliness" factor as Katie says in the article? Let us know in the comments below!