It’s an often used phrase and something of a cliché that it “takes a village to raise a child”.
Alloparenting is, if I recall correctly, a term first coined by anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (yes, her of “there is no maternal instinct, except, well, maybe it’s prolactin/oxytocin, but even then, who knows”.)
Hobo Mama wrote an amazing article about alloparenting here.
But I want to extend it a little. To me, alloparenting, in this day and age, is simply realising how tough it is to be a parent (usually mother); how badly the world as a whole treats children and why this is unfair and dangerous, and wishing to do something about it, for everyone’s sakes, by small individual acts.
I want to tell you about what it’s like trying to do a few normal, everyday tasks as an able-bodied single mother in the UK. And then I’m going to try and convince you why it’s everybody’s job to make these tasks easier for me, for my child, and for every other parent (single, partnered or whatever) and child out there. Finally I’m going to suggest a few ways in which to do this.
So bear with me please while I start part one. There may be some ranting.
[Full disclosure - although I'm technically not "single" in that I do have a girlfriend, she lives in the USA and currently can only visit rarely.]
Supermarket shopping and other delights
I’m a babywearer, so I don’t have the full joy of pushing a buggy with one hand and a trolly with the other. I don’t have to choose between leaving my buggy parked outside where someone can grab it and putting my baby in the shopping trolly. He comes with me, usually on my back, but sometimes he prefers to sit in the trolly.
I know I have a finite amount that I can carry in my hands and also carry a baby home too. Taxis are expensive (and also unlikely to have an appropriate child safety seat) and the bus doesn’t run from the cheapest supermarket back to my house. I have to buy only what I know I can carry.
This means sometimes spending more on smaller, lighter items when buying in bulk would be so much cheaper. Shopping online is not really an option because of the delivery charge and other reasons. I automatically spend more because of this.
I carry my child around on my back or in the trolly and he becomes bored. If, in the rush to get him and me out of the house, I’ve remembered (and how many of us forget to take shopping bags!) a toy, I try to placate him with this. Otherwise I’ll let him eat a punnet of grapes or blueberries in the supermarket, preferably one with a fixed price rather than by weight, so I’m not stealing. Although I have still received glares for this.
Thankfully the majority of supermarkets have toilets with babychanging facilities. I don’t like the word “babychange”. I prefer “age appropriate toilet facilities”. Because when an organisation or company doesn’t have these, they’re effectively denying a person a place to go to the toilet based on their age.
If my child cries, I have to stop the shopping. If I choose to take him outside, I have to leave my trolley behind. There’s no one to stand with it, there’s no one to offer to comfort or soothe him; there’s just me. If he wants to be carried but won’t go in the sling, I have to carry him and push a trolly, or push him around while he’s crying, ignoring his cries.
Have you ever seen the looks you get when your child is crying in a supermarket? People blame you, and only you, for not shutting that child up. The glares, the tuts, the out and out anger?
No wonder the supermarket is the place where you see people hit, shout at and generally behave horribly to their children. I would bet that most of these parents aren’t at all like that at home but the constant looks, the feeling that the need to appear disciplinarian, that people are expecting them to do something to shut the child up – that’s what tips people over the edge.
I know I respond very differently to my crying child at home to how I do in a public place like that. I try not to, and I would never ever hit him, but I must confess I have shouted once or twice in a supermarket, despite knowing it absolutely isn’t his fault and it’s the most boring place in the world for him.
Then there’s the queue for the till; a hellish nightmare if you have just one screaming meltdown child. The sweets are all displayed temptingly just to force you to either buy them or say “no”. Even on the way out of the suepermarket, when you finally think you migh be able to get home, the foyer is often full of “ride on” toys, which are a minimum of 50p for one ride.
The walk home with heavy bags takes it out of you, but there’s no one in the house to put the kettle on for you, to help unpack, to let you take the weight off your feet while they get on with the tidying that needs doing. It’s just you. On your own. And you’ve a child to feed first, too.
Then, other public establishments like banks where it’s considered polite to be quiet – difficult if you’re a child – cafés (yes, mums do like to have a nice cuppa tea and a sit down) where again, unless it really is super child friendly, you’ve a fight on your hands if your child so much as makes a peep; public transport where your child not only has to sit down and be relatively quiet but also has to sit still; where age-appropriate toilet facilities are non-existent (okay, in fairness, there are no toilet facilities at all on buses for any age) and where, if you want to go to the toilet, you have to take your child with you in addition to all of your bags and shopping.
And there’s more, much, much more; this is only the tip of the iceburg. It’s exhausting. And then you have to go home and do it alone too. And possibly go to a paid job, too, and then you have to be up in the night, often, and… well, it’s a wonder we don’t just drop down into a heap from tiredness. If I could, I would. But I can’t. And let’s not pretend my child doesn’t suffer, at least a little, as a result.
Unless someone helps. Unless the kind server in the bank has a toy behind her desk to keep my child entertained while I check my direct debits. Unless someone offers to keep an eye on my belongings while I go to the toilet on the train. Unless someone smiles and gives me a sympathetic look when my child is crying in a café and says, you’re doing a cracking job love, it’s hard sometimes.
And more. These are the tiny things, the small acts of kindness that make a difference. And this is alloparenting, in my opinion.
In part two, I’ll explore what happens to parents and their children when they are left to go it alone, and why “but you chose to have a child!” is a ridiculous and disingenuous thing to say to a parent who is struggling.