It Takes a Village: Celebrating Collective Mothering

Hello, I’m Parker, after school every day
Allie’s family takes care of us both while we play
My mommy works hard to provide for me
Her love is the source of our stability
Not toys or money, nor treasures untold
Community care is more precious than gold

There is a lovely Yoruba proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child.” In fact, communal parenting is a common and important practice across many communities of color and working-class families. Korean language speakers even use the phrase uri ŏmma—meaning “we mom,” or “our mom,” instead of “my mom”—reflecting a cultural norm where women parent beyond the bounds of a nuclear, biological family.

Feminists have long emphasized the benefits of collective mothering, also known as community mothering. Yet at every point in America’s patriarchal, capitalist, racialized history, women have been challenged by dominant cultural norms that emphasize individualized and biological mothering. Inflexible beliefs about appropriate parenting styles are limited, and can have devastating consequences.

For example, the United States government often criminalizes community mothering as a form of bad parenting. Feminist historian Laura Briggs’ book Somebody’s Children documents how, since the mid-twentieth century, thousands of Native American children have been torn away from their families by social workers who do not understand or value collective childcare structures. Most of these children were placed into white nuclear families, leaving some Native American communities nearly childless and impeding the intergenerational transfer of indigenous cultural knowledge.

Many feminist sociologists have pushed back against narrow understandings of parenting. Sharon Hays argues that pressures for mothers to “do it all” though intensive mothering styles alienates and emotionally depletes women. Patricia Hill Collins describes how blood mothers, “other mothers,” grandmothers and community mothers have collectively cared for Black children since slavery, playing integral roles in Black community survival. The mainstream media tends to associate these mothering practices with working-class and poor mothers of color, but Collins points out that Black middle-class mothers also rely on community mothering to protect their children from everyday forms of racism.

In addition, feminist immigration scholars Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, Leisy Abrego, Rhacel Parreñas, Joanna Dreby and Evelyn Nakano Glenn have all written about transnational mothers who leave children in their countries of origin when they immigrate to find employment in the United States and other host countries. Transnational migrant mothers often rely on family and close friends to care for their children so that they work abroad to provide a better life for their extended families. The reality of transnational mothering disrupts dominant perceptions of motherhood, which assert that appropriate mothering should come from biological mothers who raise their children exclusively and “up close.”

When the three of us got together to write a research-based feminist children’s book about intersectionality, we knew that it was important to celebrate the reality and beauty of diverse family forms. Our book demonstrates how race, class, gender, citizenship, ability and religion mutually influence children’s lives through the stories of nine diverse characters. Each vignette suggests ways that kids can empathize with one another across difference.

Parker, the character in glasses and orange below, relies on her friend Allie’s family to take care of her when her mother is at work. We include both girls’ mothers in the illustration to acknowledge that paid labor and domestic labor are each necessary forms of care-work. Sharing care-work can alleviate some demands of what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls the “second shift,” or the household labor usually left to women after the formal workday ends.

Illustration by Ashley Seil Smith

Parker’s reliance on her friend’s family is not new, nor is it unusual. Rather, collective mothering is a valuable part of the social fabric of many communities around the world. This practice expands possibilities for peer relationships between children, provides youth with stronger adult support networks and fosters a more equitable distribution of emotional, financial and cultural resources across communities. As intersectional feminists, we must celebrate and recognize collective mothering as a positive choice to ensure the wellbeing and safety of all children.

On this most important holiday, remember to include your chosen mothers, other mothers, adoptive mothers and community mothers in your thanks and celebrations!

Happy Mother’s Day!

Chelsea Johnson is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Southern California. Her research on race, gender and beauty politics has been featured in Teen Vogue, CRWN Magazine, and The Conversation. Chelsea’s mission is to transcend the bounds of academic feminism by having broadly accessible conversations about career advancement, wellness and politics.

Carolyn Choi is a feminist migration scholar currently getting her PhD in sociology at the University of Southern California. Her research looks at the intersection of gender, labor and youth in Asia, and her work has appeared in the Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theory and the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender. In her spare time, Carolyn teaches Pansori, a Korean cultural music form, at a local non-profit. 

LaToya Council is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Southern California, and a feminist activist. Her research is framed by social justice. Her current research project examines professional Black men’s perception of the male breadwinner ideology. Her broader research interests explore gender, work and family. Intersectionality frames the ways in which LaToya does allyship.

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Comments

  1. Great article! I heartily believe in the power of collective parenting. There are so many examples of ways this kind of parenting is done successfully – both out of need as well as by choice. When my (now-grown) daughter was an infant, four families came together to create a “child care coop”, in which the families took turns caring for the four kids in each of the four homes (moving from home to home every day). This model allowed all of the parents to hold down paid jobs AND take care of “all of their children”. Using all the homes may seem whacky, but it worked beautifully. It just felt “normal”, and the kids got used to different homes (e.g., sizes, parts of the neighborhood, available things to play with), and different personalities.

    When the kids were infants, we collectively hired someone who we worked with, so that the ratio was 2 adults to 2 babies. When they were toddlers, the kids continued to move from home to home, but the parents extracted themselves from daily care, although we were still very involved. We all decided to put our kids in the same pre-school program, so they continued in care with these non-bio siblings until they reached kindergarten, when parents made different choices about schools.

    I remain close with most of the moms to this day. I currently work with one of them regularly on community arts projects, and I used to work professionally with another. The “kids” feel like siblings to one another, even thought their lives have gone in very different directions.

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