The nuclear family is ill suited to effective child-rearing. This should be news to no one. Yet when my mum said it, having taken the baby from me so that I could – finally – shower off myriad effluences, I felt it in my bones. Even though my husband has been at home on shared parental leave and has been doing all the cooking and laundry, and half the feeding (a luxury few can afford), I calculate that each newborn needs at least three, possibly four, adults to bring things up to a level beyond “just about coping”.
And yet the situation if you’re in a heterosexual pairing is that, after two weeks, most men go back to work and their partners are home alone with a baby in an endless cycle of feeding, sleeping and defecating, trying to time it so that they can actually exit the house and see another human being before the next circle of hell begins.
“What’s it like?” a friend asked me, of motherhood. “It’s like a tornado crashing through the middle of your life,” I said, “so you wake up in Oz and everything’s in Technicolour. But also, you’ve been crushed by a house.”
Thank heavens, then, for grandparents, and if you’re lucky enough to live close to them (and they are willing to help) you have won the childcare lottery. The love one has for one’s grandchildren is in some ways purer, less complicated, a grandmother recently told me, and certainly less guilt-ridden. At the root of it is the Darwinian knowledge that you would step in if anything happened to the parents, she said. Not so long ago, women regularly did not make it through childbirth alive, after all.
Likewise, anyone who brings you food in the early weeks takes on god-level status. Where hunter-gatherers used to be, instead there’s a website called Take Them a Meal, which allows friends to coordinate the logistics. Fidelity to humanity’s tribal, mutually supportive origins may have been all but obliterated by the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, but we do have online deliveries. Hence cheese platters sent by friends in Brooklyn and Somerset, and fruit and champagne courtesy of my sister-in-law in New Zealand. My aunt Teresa, meanwhile, has been trekking over once a week with a full meal that she has prepared. The first week that we came home from hospital with our preterm baby, she brought us a full roast chicken dinner with lemon pudding for after, complete with a little jam jars of gravy and cream respectively. I could have cried (I did cry).
So I understand why new parents – mothers especially – have confided in me that they have found themselves fantasising about communes (and not in a sexual way, that’s what got us all in this mess in the first place). Our fragmented society makes childcare a lonely and expensive business, especially when you’ve gravitated to a city. I was born into a shared co-operative house containing eight adults, two of whom were East German defectors sleeping on the living room floor. My mother said it was great to have other adults to talk to. For many, days on maternity leave seem to stretch out endlessly, and friends say it can feel like you’ve achieved little while your partner has been at work. (The book What Mothers Do: Especially When it Looks Like Nothing is brilliant at taking such beliefs to task.) So many women spending so much time alone with their babies without family support could exacerbate postnatal depression.
Though we live far from our extended families, I have been bowled over by the love and kindness we’ve received, such as my mother-in-law picking up last-minute sleepsuits that didn’t swamp our premature baby. My thoughts have turned to immigrant women, some of whom have emailed me about their experiences, trying to make it through without their family networks. In some cultures it is the norm, postpartum, for the woman to take to her bed to feed the baby while a deluge of relatives descend to care for her. I’ve also been thinking of the new parents who were robbed of contact with their families during the pandemic, but who say they at least found solace in the cocoon they were able to form at home thanks to fathers working from home.
The proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” is often cited to new parents, but in much of the west we seem to have turned our backs on childrearing as a collective endeavour. It is instead the business of individuals, who must shoulder the burden in their atomised units, subject to the twin forces of extortionate childcare and pathetic paid paternity-leave provision.
Yet the traditional heterosexual nuclear family is on its way out: among my friends are gay couples who have conceived thanks to surrogacy or IVF, blended families, co-parents, single parents and women in traditional marriages who are basically single parents and will continue to be so once they inevitably divorce their husbands. Perhaps it’s time to dismantle it even further or, rather, expand our understanding of it. I have never wanted my village more, and never have they felt so far away.
Seeing Caroline Walker’s Birth Reflections paintings at London’s Fitzrovia Chapel while pregnant felt like a religious experience, so I loved her new exhibition, Lisa, at the Stephen Friedman gallery, in Mayfair, which documents her sister-in-law’s early days as a new mother.
Sleepsuits with poppers that don’t match up, sleepsuits with poppers up the back, sleepsuits with no poppers, sleepsuits with weird tie things. They should make them with Velcro so you can simply whip them off, like those satin trousers worn by male strippers.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist