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We asked, you answered: How have 'alloparents' come to your rescue?

Malaka Gharib/NPR

On December 1, we published a story about "alloparents."

The word refers to the many helpers that a mom or dad might have when caring for infants – and even toddlers and older kids.

Scientists call these helpers "alloparents." The prefix "allo" derives from the Greek word for "other." So these helpers are literally "other parents."

The story reported on alloparents in a hunter-gatherer community in Congo. Reporter Michaeleen Doucleff wrote: "On average, the children had eight people, other than their mothers, giving regular hands-on care, such as bathing, feeding and loving them with kisses, hugs and stroking. The youngsters had two to three other people responding to their crying."

In the Western world, there's sometimes a different narrative: That the mom should be able to do it all.

We asked our audience: Can you tell us of a time when an alloparent came to your aid? We heard from more than 100 respondents, sharing stories about family members, friends, neighbors, even kindly strangers.

Some of the respondents also noted that ... well, Duh, we already knew that,

Global perspectives

"I'm afraid I found this article to be an exercise in re-educating the WEIRD – Western educated industrialized rich and democratic. But it's important to learn and relearn from the diverse people of the world, so I am very happy to participate!" writes Shantha Krishnamurthy Smith from San Jose, Calif.

As she and many of you pointed out, for people in many countries, raising children usually happens in a community.

"I am a first generation American child of Indian immigrants," Smith continues. "No one in my family thinks that the nuclear family alone is a normal way to raise children. When I had my children, my parents moved to be near me. They helped with everything for years. An uncle and aunt also came to stay with my parents and all four of them plus my husband helped take care of me and my children. My husband's brother lived with us for a year and participated in childcare as well."

Anna Sahadeo from New York says, "I was born in Guyana and women always had a second, third and fourth person to help with their children. I have two children. My mother-in-law flew all the way from Turkey to stay with us for one month. We didn't ask her. She said we would need help and came two days before I delivered. I don't know what we would have done without her. I am forever grateful for her determination to travel and sleep on a sofa just so we have a third hand."

"This story really hit home," says Sarah Stewart from Annandale, Va. "I had my first child in the U.K. and as part of signing up for parenting classes, the U.K. National Health Service groups you with fellow parents with similar due dates in your zip code. That group was a lifesaver in terms of bonding, extra hands and emotional support in the middle of the night. Some lonely nights I could email the group and odds were someone else was up too."

Astrid Vella from Malta says, "Here in Malta, grandparents regularly help with childcare from birth. It's a huge help and an enriching, bonding experience for all generations. When my first child was born I had no idea of how to handle him. My mother lived next door and was in and out to help, so much so that I swear that during his early years, my son had little notion or concern about who was his real mother."

Ashley Meadow from Chico, Calif., writes that she crafted a support network in the United States based on her experiences abroad. "I worked in Uganda, Indonesia and Egypt years before my son was born and marveled at the way those cultures seemed to view babies as the responsibility of the whole community rather than the mother's responsibility," she writes. "When my son was born in 2012, I moved into my friends' converted garage, also near my mother's home, because I knew I didn't want to be isolated. It was a wonderful decision, as my son had severe colic and cried for seven to eight hours a day. He often slept no more than two hours at a time and I was severely sleep deprived. We worked out a system where my mom took my son one night a week, and my friend took him two afternoons a week. This allowed me to sleep during those times and allowed other people's soothing methods – constant rocking, white noise, back patting – to be practiced on this inconsolable baby. If I had to do that all on my own I think I would have been too depressed, exhausted and discouraged to figure out a plan. But as the head of a team, it was feasible.

They created a village

Steve Totzke from Columbus, Ohio, says reading the alloparenting article, "touched on a part of me that I cherish more than anything in the world." He is a part of a group of seven families that started supporting each other during the pandemic. "Over the past two months, off the top of my head, I can think of the following activities that have happened in my life that involved at least one of our seven neighbors, many times more: visiting a pumpkin patch, going apple picking, holding moon circles, guided meditating, going to yoga and F45 workout classes, trail running, paddle boarding, seeing movies, children's musicals and camping trips.

"We share meals together all the time, and watch each others' kids. Two of the older children are the village babysitters. Anytime any of us needs one, they are there. But those times are rare because most of the time, someone is able to just have our kids over while we run out."

A block full of alloparents

Some of you wrote about how fortunate you felt to have your family be your neighbors. Jared Gonales from Independence, Kentucky, says he was raised by a bevy of alloparents. "We all lived on the same block in Fairfax, Va.," he writes. "My grandfather, Esequiel, was the authority and male role model for me, my grandmother was my primary caregiver in the traditional sense. My mother worked as an accountant for my grandfather's business, which made frames for houses. She took care of me after work or would bring me on work-related trips in the region. My aunt Debra worked and would spend time with us when she was home. My uncle Matthew also worked for my grandfather and at the end of the day, he would come over and I would play with his son, my cousin Mark. Uncle Matthew's wife, Michelle, would also provide a caregiver role in my life — food, fun, attention. It worked out remarkably well, so much so I'm trying to provide the same experience to others with those I know now, especially since we don't have any children. My wife and I spend time with her brother, Joe. He has a two-year-old and another one on the way. For our local church we teach Sunday school and are working on spending additional time with students with single parent situations."

A vital source of support

Many of you wrote about facing postpartum depression – and finding the help needed to get through it with an array of alloparents. Tricia Gaillard says, "After my second child was born I had very profound postpartum depression. I was determined to do everything I could to prevent it with my third. So I spent time educating all my friends and family who lived near me about it and asked them to just keep an eye out and check in with me. What happened really surprised me.

"My friend Valerie would just show up at my house three or more times a week, scoop the cat box, make my bigger kids lunch, sweep the floor, fold the laundry. Then she would sit for an hour and hold my baby and rock her and talk to me about whatever came up. She never called ahead, never asked what needed to be done, she brought her little boy every time and sometimes her older children and they played with my kids. She acted like it was a privilege to come and play with my tiny baby.

"My mother-in-law would show up and say, "Hey I am headed to Walmart, can I take the girls?" And she would load up my older kids and leave. They always came home with toys from a kids meal and a meal for me. Then she would hold the baby and chat with me. I learned a lot about being a good mom in those chats.

"There were about 1,000 other instances with that pregnancy I could list, but I didn't go back to my depression. Communicating to others was difficult but really made a huge difference for me."

A 'Nanny Committee' lends many hands

Valeska Koch from Shoreview, Minn., writes, "When I read this story, it reminded me of the "Nanny Committee" that needed to form after my twins were born. My twins are almost two years old, but we had a scare when the girls were six weeks old. I had a seizure when I was asleep that broke my shoulder. I had to learn how to parent twins with one arm.

The wife of the former music director from my church organized a group to help while my husband was working. They would come from 9 to 5 each day, usually in shifts. This way, my husband could work and I could do my exercises. The girls would be tended to during the day by me or usually two other "nannies." As much as I wanted to have full use of my right arm, I think having the extra community members there was a good thing for my family."

A different reason for alloparenting

Finding a bond with others who care for children with special needs helped several of you who wrote in. Lyn Cromar from Loveland, Colo., writes, "We are building an ad-hoc alloparent community in Northern Colorado for older neurodiverse children. We started as an open and affirming homeschool group for LGBTQIA+ kids. It also attracted a lot of families who were also neurodiversity affirming.

Many of us started parenting in general isolation, spending years with children that need significant support and accommodations. It's incredible to share and experience the joys of parenthood, often for the first time a decade into the journey. Birthday parties designed to be a welcoming environment for all children. Group play where all the parents accept the alternate needs of our kids. Gatherings where our children are encouraged to be themselves, not hidden behind a painful mask of expected behavior. The loneliness and frequent rejection at the playground has finally ended for our family."

Jennifer Rothwell from Linwood, N.J., writes about her experience caring for parents as well as children. "My alloparenting story comes from the pandemic. I have two special needs children, though my youngest was a toddler and hadn't been diagnosed yet in 2020. My mother's cancer had been managed successfully for over a decade, but stopped responding to treatment early that year. We bubbled up together while my husband worked full-time remotely, and I tried to juggle caring for our kids AND my parents. We were so privileged that we could afford for me to stop working, but it was still beyond overwhelming.

"A good friend of mine was living in NYC at the time, but the situation wasn't the greatest. We invited her to come stay – she could save on rent, and we desperately needed an extra set of hands. Her help was a total game-changer. With the extra support I was able to provide end-of-life care to my mom at home, instead of having to choose between neglecting my children or letting her face the final months of her life alone in a facility. I will always be profoundly grateful.

Kindness of strangers

Sometimes an alloparent is a total stranger. Lauren Yeung from Seattle, Wash., shared a story from her travels: "I was in the restroom at an airport in Italy with my 5-month-old daughter. It was busy in the restroom and they had those very loud hand dryers that kept going off and absolutely terrifying my baby and she was screaming and squirming while I'm trying to change her diaper and get supplies from the diaper bag. All of a sudden, the housekeeper cleaning the bathroom appeared and started handing me all the things I needed and tried to calm and sooth my baby. We didn't speak the same language but I could see in her eyes she was a mother, and I felt a solidarity with her and her kind eyes told me I was doing great."

The theme in all the responses was how grateful parents are for the kindnesses, small and large, from close acquaintances and from strangers. "Alloparents don't just come from our families of origin," says Shantha Krishnamurthy Smith. "They come from building community and creating family."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.

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