Mothers and Others: Alloparents and Commoning


For the Old Mole Variety Hour May 10, 2010.

The well-read red likes to consider histories and holidays: Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Easter , Queer Pride and International Women's Day.

So, we've noted before, on the Old Mole, that Mother's Day, which began in the 19th century as a grassroots call for peace and collective action, was quickly co-opted as a celebration of nationalism and militarism, and became a hook for capitalist marketing.

Things look particularly difficult for mothers this year.

And not just those mothers who fear that Arizona's new immigration law might separate them from their children.

In March, Amnesty International released its report Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA, urging action to change the fact that every day in this country, two or three women die because of pregnancy or childbirth—because of hemorrhaging, or infection, or other health conditions caused or made worse by pregnancy. Most at risk, of course, are poor women, and disproportionately, women of color.

Those are also the groups most likely to terminate a pregnancy, when they can gain access to the procedure. A report from the Guttmacher institute reveals that “The proportion of abortion patients who were poor increased by almost 60%—from 27% in 2000 to 42% in 2008.” The explanation for that is not , as some right wing pundits would have it, a genocidal conspiracy, but instead includes some of the same things that put poor women and women of color at disproportionate risk when they carry pregnancies to term— Things like "lack of access to high-quality, affordable health care; too few educational and [employment] opportunities; unequal access to safe, clean neighborhoods."

Physician Melissa Gilliam notes that "the abortion decisions of many women (of all races) are influenced… by their desire to be good parents. [Over 60% of women who have abortions have had at least one child already] Too many women … are stretched so thin that they feel unable to take care of their existing children, not to mention an additional child."

Dani McLain notes on feministing, in a critique of media panic about unmarried black women, and as mole listeners have heard on past shows, radical queer activists have "long been arguing that rather than making marriage the be all end all, we should be supporting each other in creating custom-made families that work for us. They've pointed out the folly of fighting to mimic and reproduce the patriarchal, nuclear families that continue to be held up as the only legitimate model in this country. … we should be de-linking human rights from marriage and creating space for a broader acceptance of the cobbled together, nontraditional families that many of us came up in." McLain writes, "I know I'm not the only one who was raised by a thoroughly capable single parent and the family members she kept close to make sure I was surrounded by love and good care at all times. My family has never been illegitimate."

Those Other-Mothers or Play-Relatives are what anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy calls alloparents, that is, anyone who contributes caregiving or sustenance to the upbringing of someone else’s biological offspring. In Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding , Hrdy argues that the development of cooperative childrearing among our hominid ancestors helps account for the evolution of human hypersociality --our capacity for empathy, cooperation, and sharing.

Those common human qualities emerge not just in caring for infants and children, but in times of fire, flood, and earthquake, as we've heard from Clayton that Rebecca Solnit argues in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

As Kevin Young notes in his review of Solnit's book , it's important to distinguish her critique of bureaucratic responses to disaster from the neoliberal arguments for "less government."

Similarly, it's important for a society to provide healthcare and education, paid leave and childcare, even as we acknowledge the autonomous caregiving of mothers and alloparents.

As historian Peter Linebaugh notes in his reflections on the commons or 'commoning,' "Commoning begins in the family. The kitchen where production and reproduction meet, and the energies of the day between genders and between generations are negotiated. The momentous decisions in the sharing of tasks, in the distribution of product, in the creation of desire, and in sustaining health are first made here…. "

The foundation of commoning is human solidarity as expressed in the slogan “all for one and one for all.”


nuclear=patriarchical? Hmmm....

Where did you get the idea that a nuclear family equates to a patriarchical family?  I believe that's a myth.  All children, unless they come from a test tube, come from a nuclear family.  Some nuclear family may not function like a families at all, but they're still nuclear families.

Most parents that I know of who don't have a beef with our natural production/reproduction either operate in matriarchy, or as a partnership.  I haven't done a formal study on it, but I believe that the only patriarchical families are the extreme radical right wingnut Christian types.  Where do you get your data that parents who don't take issue with natural human production/reproduction are automatically patriarchical? 

If you don't like the father-knows-best idea, why the not pass laws which don't allow non-caretaking parents to overshadow the caretakers?  Why shouldn't we be destroying bad ideas instead of destroying our own families?  Why throw out the baby with the bathwater?  Why kill the patient to treat the disease? Are our mind that stuck in a rut?

It's great to acknowledge the alloparents--they deserve every bit of credit that they get and more--but if one can say that an alloparent is good, then why doesn't one say that a missing parent is bad? 

A missing parent may be a mother who gives the child up for adoption because she doesn't have the means to care for the child---this is "bad," and why aren't we working on that, why aren't we changing laws so that women aren't always treated as society's doormats?  A missing parent may be a parent who has the means to care for the child, but who has had the child snatched from him/her by the state because the state has a steady supply of taxpayer dollars to pay for foster care, whereas the parents' income took a downturn.  Why aren't we assuring that parents have more income security, and, say, aren't penalized by losing their incomes just because they stay at home to care for a sick child?  In this context, a parent can literally have their child snatched from them just for being a good parent.  Why aren't we doing something about that?

A missing parent may be a dead-beat parent, who we all know are mostly men.  Someone who just decides that they're not obligated to family and that they would rather concern themselves with something else more important.  Sure, then, it seems rather irresponsible for the rest of society to try to instill a sense of responsibility in someone who "doesn't get it," but is it responsible, then, to just turn a blind eye to this core disconnect?  How can anyone say that alloparents are good, without at least treating as equal, the other side of the equation, the world--our world--of missing parents?

Children, no matter how surrounded by love they are, are deeply affected by their nuclear roots, they, and we, can never escape this or argue ourselves out of it.  Adopted children are often intimately aware that they are adopted, and often go on life-quests to find their missing parents.  This is not to say that they don't invalidate their allo-parents, but to acknowledge how connected we are to our nuclearness.  Children of deadbeats often hold a place in their hearts for their adventuring missing parents, and often pay the cost of remarkable forgiveness, just to have a thread of a bond.  The nuclear family is unshakably profound.

I suppose that if grizzly bear mommas decided that they wanted to quit hibernating, and use their winter stores of energy for gazing at the wonder of the moon in winter, instead of for their developing cubs....I suppose the siezmic echos in bear populations would be equally profound.  Bears may even go extinct in one generation at that rate.  We humans are so lucky that we can absorb children into the fold and not go extinct---but is it wise to constantly stay in that cycle, and not question why we're always rescuing children?  Are we just surviving, whereas we could be thriving?  Are 1-4 adults sharing primarly responsiblity for raising a child so that one missing parent can be the next Einstein?  Do we really have that many budding Einstein parents?  Maybe the alloparents want to be Einstein, too.  How about the budding Einstein child who lives in poverty, like the majority of this land's impoverished???....... 

Why are we giving unequal freedoms to by-choice-missing-parents, and turning our backs on the struggles of the rest?  Are we really that great and loving and responsible by doing this?  Are we just indulging in our nurturing instincts by raising children of missing parents while leaving the mess for someone else to clean up?  I think the dragon-slayers of society who are working on the missing parent issues spring from valuing caretaking, but I don't see a counterpart in their counterparts.  I don't see the alloparents acknowledging the issue of missing parents--why?

I would like the missing parents who chose something else over their families to come out and tell the world what in the world is more important than their children.

I often wonder...what are we really saying when we try to "throw off" our nuclear human nature?  Are some of us doing it because there's so little of what we can control in the actual patriarchy (the public sphere, NOT the private)....and consequently most of us are so chained to some form of pleasure seeking (in order to survive such a harsh environment).......that the only thing we think we can control and reshape to our more "freedom-loving" aesthetic is actually our "family structure?"

There is something to be said about why is it that when we talk about community building---woah yeah, omni-important community building is the foundation of everything---and then, oh yeah, there are those classical "individual rights and freedoms" that we must fight for to the death----but between the individual and the community we leave a huge political blind spot............the family.  Is there some scary unfinished business there?  Is the family in the realm of women.....and therefore by leaving families out of politics.....we can leave women out of politics? 

I personally don't believe there are any individuals.  I don't see how the basic unit of society can be anything less than the family.  Beyond that, you're splitting the atom.  I believe that political discussions about community building will go on forever like a dog chasing its tail, as long as we run away from taking care of our families.  If our families were doing alright, "community" would be bursting forth at the seams. 

Remember, we really can't really judge, because we're in the fishbowl.  I think we should wait until all the children affected by this are in their 30's or so, and then ask them what they think.  Judith Wallerstein of the San Jose area did just that in her book:  "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," and by just asking the adult children affected...she was able to learn things which surprised her.  It's up to all of us to get past ourselves, and give our children the benefit of the doubt, so that they don't have sad awakenings and such when they're 30, and we no longer answer to them.... 

In a way, queer parents are out of this debate because they have the right to have/raise children as anyone else, and have no choice but to have a missing parent or two somewhere in the picture.  As much as I think missing parents are illegetimate (whether they chose it themselves, or society chosees it for them)....there's always gonna be children who need homes, and queerness is not the cause of missing parents.


A related issue is the William Lynch speech.  The speech's author is debated........but the points within the speech are powerful.  In the speech, William Lynch says that the best way to enslave people is not through the labor intensive method of external control and violence.  He says the best way to enslave people is from within themselves, especially through the father-mother-child relationships...

"Let us make a slave. What do we need? First of all we need a black n-word man, a pregnant n-word woman and her baby n-word boy...Whereas nature provides them with the natural capacity to take care of their offspring, we break that natural string of independence from them and thereby create a dependency status, so that we may be able to get from them useful production...

...special and particular attention must be paid to the FEMALE and the YOUNGEST offspring....Take the meanest and most restless n-word, strip him of his clothes in front of the remaining male n-words, the female, and the n-word infant, tar and feather him, tie each leg to a different horse faced in opposite directions, set him a fire and beat both horses to pull him apart in front of the remaining n-word. The next step is to take a bull whip and beat the remaining n-word male to the point of death, in front of the female and the infant...

..she is the most important factor for good economics...We have reversed the relationship in her natural uncivilized state she would have a strong dependency on the uncivilized n-word male, and she would have a limited protective tendency toward her independent male offspring and would raise male off springs to be dependent like her. Nature had provided for this type of balance. We reversed nature by burning and pulling a civilized n-word apart and bull whipping the other to the point of death, all in her presence...

By her being left alone, unprotected, with the MALE IMAGE DESTROYED, the ordeal caused her to move from her psychological dependent state to a frozen independent state. In this frozen psychological state of independence, she will raise her MALE and female offspring in reversed roles. For FEAR of the young males life she will psychologically train him to be MENTALLY WEAK and DEPENDENT, but PHYSICALLY STRONG. Because she has become psychologically independent, she will train her FEMALE off springs to be psychological independent. What have you got? You've got the N-WORD WOMAN OUT FRONT AND THE N-WORD MAN BEHIND AND SCARED. This is a perfect situation of sound sleep and economic..."

Any sign of this in our culture?  The "single mother" boom has got some strong parallels.  Further, the media is loaded with images of dumbed-down, dull, dufus men, complete with smart, savvy and sassy women.  Women are expected to be superwomen and "do it all," while the men are uninvolved and yet hold all the power.  Anyway, I wonder who's really being served by this strong woman and weak man cultural idea we're swimming through.  Perhaps if we can get an organic fair-trade coffee with free wi-fi at the Fresh Pot we may feel alright, but, I don't feel any benefit to this society.  I would rather drink coffee at home with the real people in my life--

"I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more if they had known they were slaves."
-- Harriet Tubman




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